Monday, November 24, 2014

"Mockingjay," Despite Being the First Part of a Cash Grab, Is Pretty Good and Might Even Make You Think

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
The Hunger Games series has become popular enough (among diverse groups, not just teenagers) that comparisons to other young adult series make less and less sense.  The first (The Hunger Games) and second film (Catching Fire) were still similar to other properties because of the love triangle and youth contest aspect, but things change with Mockingjay – Part 1.  To be fair, it is similar to other properties in that they decided on a cash grab by dividing the last film into two parts (more on that later), but the subject matter of the film has certainly changed.  First, no more Games.  This is refreshing since the only real problem I had with Catching Fire was that it was a little too similar to the first film.  Now, they took that fire of rebellion from the first film and dove right in.  This is no longer a young adult series about figuring out your place in the world and picking the right boyfriend; this is a full blown war film with brutal elements of physical and mental warfare.  And the series is better for that brutality because it gives the audience, young and old, something to think about in regards to the real world.

Mockingjay picks up where Catching Fire left off.  By bringing an end to the Hunger Games, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) unwittingly started a revolution between the Capitol and the rest of the Districts (with District 13 taking charge).  Now Katniss is left to dwell on the last Games, shouldering the blame for Peeta being left behind.  But the leader of District 13, President Coin (Julianne Moore), and past-Gameskeeper/current-revolutionary Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) want Katniss to be the face of the revolution.  They want her to be the Mockingjay that rallies the rest of the Districts to fight the Capitol.  What follows is a mix of war and propaganda that reminded me of the “Join up!” scenes from Starship Troopers.

The use of propaganda in the film is interesting because it takes what could have been a cookie-cutter revolution film and turns it into something a bit more thought-provoking.  It’s not that revolutions aren’t interesting, but how many films do we really need that simply state, “Autocratic rulers bad, common people good”?  I think everyone, even the youth of the world, understand that.  The use of propaganda shows that war isn’t just about the physical battlefield.  On top of that, it brings up questions about the ethics of propaganda.  Katniss is first tasked with filming a revolution commercial in front of a green screen.  This goes as badly as you can imagine.  Unfortunately, the film plays it for laughs rather than commentary.  No one thought it unethical to fake a triumphant war moment for Katniss.  (Slight SPOILER with the rest of this paragraph and the caption of the picture below.)  And when they do decide she should actually be involved with the war, it’s not because they want it to be real, it’s because Katniss isn’t a good actress and needs a real moment to respond to.  This is where the film is at its darkest without even acknowledging it.  Katniss goes into the field and her presence leads to an attack in which many people are killed.  This spurs the propaganda video the revolutionaries need.  The problem here is that no one points out that the attack would not have happened if Katniss hadn’t been there.  Hundreds of people are killed for the sake of a viral video for their revolution, and no one bats an eye. 

"Now Katniss, you're absolutely sure that nothing bad will happen to us because of your visit, right?"
That is not to say that Katniss doesn’t accept blame in the film.  She blames herself for Peeta’s capture.  What is upsetting is that she could not have possibly saved him, but she could have decided not to go into the field and be bomb-bait for hundreds of people.  She has no issues with that and simply chalks the attack up to Capitol evilness.  Katniss should be a little more skeptical at this point since she’s been used as a pawn by others for two films now.  This is possibly overthinking it all, and hopefully more issues like this are focused on (and if they stick to the book, they will be) in the second part.  Still, it seems like someone should have at least been angry about what caused the attack instead of sitting around patting each other on the back for creating such stirring propaganda.

The propaganda obviously brings up plenty of issues in the film, but it is also a bit of a weakness, as well.  It isn’t just Katniss making videos.  President Snow (Donald Sutherland, looking as crazy-eyed evil as ever) gives speeches throughout, and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) gives a series of interviews trying to dissuade everyone from fighting.  What this means is that a large portion of the film is presented on screens.  So the audience is basically watching videos along with the characters of the film.  There really isn’t a way around this, but it’s easy to see why some might label this film “slow” or even “boring.”  This might be where younger audiences split with the older.  I’m not sure the propaganda issues that came to my mind will be what younger viewers focus on.  Regardless, watching characters watch screens is not visually compelling cinema. 

This brings me to my only true issue with this film: it should not be a two part event.  It’s not that this film drags on, it just repeats itself at times.  For instance, Katniss visits the bombed out District 12 near the beginning of the film to see the true extent of the Capitol’s atrocity, and later in the film she is sent back to District 12 to…see the true extent of the Capitol’s atrocity, but this time on camera!  It seemed like they could have killed two birds (mockingjays?) with one stone with that scene.  Once the second film comes out, I imagine the total running time of Mockingjay will reach around four hours.  That would be far too long for a single movie in this series, of course, but I think the story of this final book could easily be pared down to a three hour movie.  This just felt too much like a cash grab from the studio.  It doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of Mockingjay – Part 1 or anything.  It’s just that we’re going to end up with two “pretty good” movies when there might have been a great one. 

Speaking of great, everything that has made this series beloved is back for this third installment.  All of the performances are fine once again.  The new additions are welcome; Julianne Moore is a perfect choice for Coin, and it was nice to see Marhashala Ali (House of Cards) as Boggs.  There is a bit less action this time around, but the war scenes are handled quite well.  Director Francis Lawrence has truly given this series a signature look and that continues with this film.

Most importantly, Mockingjay shows how this series has grown up.  It’s a movie aimed at the young, but it is filled with adult issues and ideas.  In fact, there is an argument to be made that this could be rated R.  There are quite a few scenes of brutal violence, and the body count is extremely high.  And Finnick’s speech late in the film, though it is ignored by the characters (and most likely, the audience) reveals some very disturbing things that he was subjected to in the Capitol.  I honestly think if the film had focused on what he was saying a bit more, the rating may have changed.  This is all a positive, by the way.  Even though the propaganda scenes left me wanting more conflict, and the film repeats itself, it’s still a very enjoyable and rewarding experience.  The fact that a movie meant for people half my age made me think this much is a testament to how good this series is.  It’s just too bad we have to wait an entire year to see it end.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 receives a:

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