“If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree”

Welcome to the bait and switch. If you’ve read Suzanne Collins‘ Hunger Games Trilogy you know that Mockingjay is by far the meatiest and most resonate installment of the series despite diverting from the blueprint that brought people in. So rich in the politics, revolution, and sci-fi lying underneath the action of the previous entries, splitting it into two films was actually a good idea. They should have placed the release dates months apart a la The Matrix sequels rather than a full year in the hope we buy this one on DVD to recall what happens, but that’s capitalism. Either way, while The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1possesses all the problems inherent in creating something that’s not self-contained, it is very successful at propelling its story forward into what should make for an epic finale.

Director Francis Lawrence returns after Catching Fire took The Hunger Games formula and, like its literary counterpart, made it more resonate. Collins was very calculating in how she unfolded her Panem saga. She drew in her “young adult” demographic with action, romance, and heartfelt humanity; rehashed those story beats with a newfound infusion of drama and purpose for the dystopian message at its core; and then threw the kitchen sink at her unsuspecting tween audience by depicting the darkness of a totalitarian regime for all involved. Had Mockingjay been her starting point, no one would have cared. By first investing us in the characters and their world, she ensures we’re able to embrace the harsh reality of the war they willingly and selflessly walk into. She duped us with entertainment so we would remain for the substance.

Mockingjay takes place in the aftermath of the Capitol’s parlor trick’s demise. The games are over and the rebellion has begun. That doesn’t mean Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is less important, however. Rather than unwittingly sparking revolt through a headstrong attitude and inability to toe the party line while also trying to survive an impossible fight to the death against her peers, she’s now asked to voluntarily ignite the masses with full transparency. Defecting gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and President Coin (Julianne Moore)—leader of the in-hiding for seventy-five years, militarized District 13—need her to be a symbol of hope and courage at a time when she’d love nothing more than to wallow in depression at her failure to save Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). The moment to become the leader everyone believes she is has come.

Due to splitting the book in half, screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong had no choice but to rely heavy on exposition here. Everything inferred now needs to be explained. We must get introduced to a brand new contingent of oppressed citizens, understand the dire circumstances open defiance against President Snow (Donald Sutherland) entails, and watch as beloved characters are tested and broken. There’s no more “heroes are guaranteed to live” clichés. Collins developed everyone to live, breath, and sacrifice themselves for the greater good and she refuses to sugarcoat their final steps. Snow capturing Peeta and Annie (Stef Dawson) paints Katniss and Finnick (Sam Claflin) respectively into a corner only love can create. They’ll either crack under pressure, watching everyone around them perish, or they’ll direct that pain and anger at the man tightening his iron grip on their freedom.

Say goodbye to the colors, excess, and naiveté masking the horrors of the games. Stanley Tucci‘s Caesar Flickerman and Elizabeth Banks‘ Effie Trinket still both provide some much needed levity, but it’s shrouded in the severity of a looming apocalypse. The escape the games supplied has disappeared and reality is finally setting in whether within the drab utilitarian regime of Coin’s District 13 or the faltering of the once impenetrable sheen of opulent perfection at the Capitol. Genocide has replaced the slaughtering of a few lambs to appease Panem’s God and no one is taking it lightly. Lawrence gives us a couple examples of the district-wide surge of identity, shows us the price being paid, and returns to the central pretty people able to weep under steely jaws and vengeful spirits to strip away celebrity as worthwhile heroes.

There’s a natural evolution and maturity in all involved—save Woody Harrelson‘s Haymitch who’s now relegated to playing the Peeta role of Katniss’ friend and confidant while the boy’s held captive by Snow. Gale (Liam Hemsworth) has become the soldier he yearned to have the opportunity to be; Prim (Willow Shields) has followed in her sister’s footsteps to be anything but deadweight; Hoffman’s Plutarch retains his smarts while exposing a fear cultivated by existing in a new environment he cannot control; and Katniss begins to realize saving her family can no longer be accomplished through silence. Everything that came before did so for a reason and all involved, whether crew or cast, have come to bring this change to fruition no matter the preconceptions its source material’s genre generally receives.

The dystopian aesthetic is also spot-on in its demoralizing grey. New roles like Mahershala Ali‘s Boggs andNatalie Dormer‘s Cressida arrive with heart and determination. And we’re treated to a tense two-hours of cat and mouse espionage as each side sets its plans in motion. You must be willing to accept the departure in pacing and tone from its predecessors to appreciate the meaningful maneuvers Collins makes, but that shouldn’t be difficult for anyone caught up in Katniss’ arduous journey towards enlightenment. She’s waking up to her world’s dangerous machinations alongside us. We simultaneously reach a point of clarity about the possibilities of victory, the heavy costs it will incur, and the knowledge things will get worse before they turn better.Mockingjay Part 1 prepares for war and instills the confidence that the filmmakers will do it justice.

Score: 7/10 

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 123 minutes | Release Date: November 21st, 2014 (USA)
Studio: Lionsgate
Director(s): Francis Lawrence
Writer(s): Peter Craig and Danny Strong / Suzanne Collins (novel Mockingjay)