The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Having survived back-to-back trips to the arena in “The Hunger Games” and “Catching Fire,” fearless Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) graduates to real-life struggles in “Mockingjay,” applying what she has learned about war, propaganda, and public relations to the growing rebellion against Panem’s oppressive government.

Yes, the last installment in Suzanne Collins’ book trilogy (split into two movies for maximum financial impact) brings the tale to its socio-political conclusion, defying readers who assumed the whole enterprise was nothing more than an excuse to have teenagers kill each other (not that this would be a bad thing for it to have been).

The film versions have further defied expectations by being serious-minded and intense, aimed at young people but made as if for adults. “Mockingjay — Part 1” (again directed by “Catching Fire’s” Francis Lawrence) is the best yet, a heady action drama that minimizes the dull romantic triangle and forsakes the titular Games altogether without seeming like it has wandered from its original purpose. Indeed, as becomes clear in this movie and will presumably be driven home in the final one, this — the fight for liberty and justice — has been the point all along.

Katniss is now in District 13 — or more precisely beneath it, in a vast underground bunker to which residents fled when the Capitol bombed them some years ago. A people’s government has sprung up here, with noble President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) leading the 13’ers as they strategize, gather resources, and plan the overthrow of President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) illegitimate regime.

On the advice of Capitol traitor Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Pres. Coin asks Katniss to be the face of the rebellion by appearing in recruitment videos that 13’s tech wizards (like Beetee, played by Jeffrey Wright) will send to all of Panem via pirated TV signals. But Katniss, furious that she was saved while Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) remains in the Capitol’s clutches, refuses to participate unless a rescue mission is planned. This becomes politically unpopular in District 13 when Peeta appears on Capitol TV urging the rebels to put down their arms and join Pres. Snow, but Katniss and Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) are sure Peeta didn’t mean it. If the Capitol is going to use Peeta as a propaganda tool, well, you better believe the rebellion will use Katniss.

As any Hunger Games winner knows, it’s not your talents that earn you the hearts and minds of the people, it’s your image. One of the most fascinating aspects of this series is the way it frankly acknowledges the primacy of style over substance when it comes to winning P.R. battles, its savviness about the importance of an indelible image. (It’s also rather disquieting to think that even in a future dystopia, everything will still be decided by who looks better on TV.) With a subdued but still game Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) on hand to coach her, Katniss tries to inspire patriotism in a commercial shot on the District 13 sound stages, but finds she can’t do it. She’s too authentic, man. She can’t fake it. The only solution: send her to an actual battleground and film her being awesome in her natural environment.

“And if you’re killed?” asks Pres. Coin.

“Make sure you get it on camera,” Katniss replies.

Since the Games themselves have never felt like the focus of the story, it’s no loss that they don’t have an equivalent in this chapter. There’s plenty of other life-or-death action, from thrilling uprisings in the districts to a tense extraction operation that recalls, of all things, “Zero Dark Thirty.” And despite only being “Part 1,” the film has enough satisfying story movement to stand as a complete chapter. There’s obviously more to come, but we don’t feel like we’ve been short-changed.

The character work is good, too. Lawrence continues to prove invaluable as Katniss, delivering stirring emotion every time it’s called for (which is often); Woody Harrelson shines in his few scenes as a newly sober Haymitch, giving useful counsel to his protege; Elizabeth Banks and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman both shine whenever they are onscreen; and Julianne Moore gets to say things like “When you fired your arrow at the forcefield, you electrified the nation!” without rolling her eyes.

Many books meant for teenagers get turned into movies that don’t appeal to anyone else. And that’s fine; there’s nothing wrong with having a limited audience. But the “Hunger Games” series has been an invigorating surprise, offering something for every quadrant without pandering (too much) to any of them. As we approach the finale to this gut-wrenching dystopian saga, it’s worth noting how rare it is to see such an engaging story told so well for such a sustained length of time. The only downside is that we’re due for an epidemic of people naming their daughters Katniss, which I’m not sure a decent society should permit.

B+ (2 hrs., 3 min.; PG-13, several point-blank executions, people being mowed down by gunfire, etc., but very little blood is shown.)

Originally published at GeekNation.