The latest installment of The Hunger Games franchise is not about a single contest, with clear winners and clear losers, each with their own just rewards or just desserts. With higher stakes, a higher body count, less humor, and more politics, Part 1 of “Mockingjay” is planting the seeds of a true revolution. A typically commanding performance from Jennifer Lawrence and boffo supporting work from Phillip Seymour Hoffman and series newcomer Julianne Moore ground this science-fiction yarn in a stark reality that matches the grim beauty of the original film.
Picking up where “Catching Fire” left off, Katniss is now under the safety of District 13, the rebel faction of Panem that was thought to have been destroyed long ago. Led by President Coin (Moore), they’re priming themselves for a paramount strike against the oppressive Capitol, and Katniss is the key to rallying fellow districts behind their cause. A majority of the plot is spent examining the mechanics of a revolution, how propaganda is coordinated, and how war is sold to a skeptical public. Naturally, there’s a lot that depends on their ability to capture the lightning in a bottle that is Katniss’ warrior spirit, something which is becoming increasingly frail amid her current post-traumatic stresses. The best scenes in the movie feature a camera crew following Katniss as she traverses bombed-out regions of Panem, herself hoping to rescue someone or battle something while her every move is recorded for future propaganda ads. And anytime Ms. Lawrence raises a bow-and-arrow is one to swell the heart in loyal satisfaction of her badassery.
Just like its predecessors, the entire cast brings their A-game, especially the late Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, adviser to President Coin and the one and only who knows the ins and outs of selling this grand plan the rebels have embarked upon. Moore brings a steeliness that bounces nicely off Hoffman’s warmth, and Liam Hemsworth finally has his brief moment to shine, even if his work can’t compare to the aforementioned award winners. Josh Hutcherson surprises with the amount of range he brings to Peeta this time around, now a young man at the behest of brutal captors who will do anything to use him against the enemy. Sam Claflin does what he can with a slightly diminished role, one whose could-have-been-great monologue is glossed over in a harrowing cross-cutting sequence that leaves a particular confession adrift in the midst of shooting and rescuing and the like. Some might bark at the overall lack of action while politicians and soldiers scheme against one another, but the grim tranquility on display in this chapter is a breathe of fresh air following the all-go, no-quit peril of the previous film.
But of course, the success of these movies lean on Jennifer Lawrence, who can play brave, beautiful, and distraught all in the same scene, and she does so again to maximum effect, even getting the chance to sing in one of the more memorable scenes. Unlike so many YA adaptations, The Hunger Games has been a thorough triumph of science-fiction storytelling. From its impeccable craft to the powerful political themes on display for the world to gnash its teeth on, not to mention its willingness to treat the material seriously. The world of Panem is no lark of fun and games. “Mockingjay” continues that trajectory in a slower but no less thrilling fashion.