The most important thing to know about “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” is that you’re only going to get two thirds of a movie.
Mirroring the increasing trend in popular film franchises (“Harry Potter,” “Twilight”) and TV shows (“Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men”), distributor Lionsgate has split Suzanne Collins’ final novel in her best-selling trilogy into two films. That decision feels like a pure cash-grab this time around — the book was no longer than the others, which were comfortably squeezed into standalone single movies — and you walk out of the theater vaguely unsatisfied at the lack of a third act, a release of all the tension and suspense director Francis Lawrence expertly crafts.
Imagine an Olympic track and field race in which the announcer shouts “Runners on your marks ... get set ... come back next year!” That’s how you feel when the end credits pop up. Instead of going full-hog and sending out the series with a full-on, three-hour epic, the filmmakers have opted to squeeze every last drop from this money-minting rock.
That said, “Mockingjay — Part 1” still makes for dark, grim and exciting entertainment. Picking up where “Catching Fire” left off, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have been separated: She’s been rescued by the rebels, led by President Coin (Julianne Moore, rocking long white hair) and her assistant Plutarch (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), who hope to use Katniss’ popularity to fuel the oppressed population to rise up against their oppressors.
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Peeta, meanwhile, has been captured by the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who has brainwashed the young man into appearing on TV to convince people to obey their leaders and lay down their arms.
Peeta becomes a propaganda tool, a countermove to every small victory by the uprising to capture the hearts and minds of the public.
Like the novel did, “Mockingjay — Part 1” eschews big action set pieces and the colorful spectacle of the previous two films for a graver tone that explores the effect of the media on the average person and how easily political messages can be manipulated to garner the intended results. Both sides are guilty of this: Initially, the rebels try to film a reluctant Katniss on a soundstage, trying to fuel a revolution via scripted lines, but she comes off fake and unconvincing.
The only way to get Katniss to spark fire in the populace is to send her out on the battlefield and let her see the destruction the Capitol has wreaked on her former hometown as punishment for her behavior.
Adapted by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, “Mockingjay — Part 1” could have easily become a talky and dull polemic designed to give the coming war some heft. But the actors draw you in, making you forget almost half of the film takes place in a dank, gray underground shelter. Moore, Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright help lend gravity to what could have come off as silly and trite, and Liam Hemsworth as Gale, Katniss’ boyfriend, is finally given more to do than form one leg of a romantic triangle.
Returning players Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks, as Katniss’ trainer and assistant, are no longer cartoons: Over the course of three films, they have become vital characters. Lawrence continues to plumb depths of despair and anguish in Katniss without becoming tiresome; her transformation from a reluctant I-don’t-want-to-do-this recruit into a willing political symbol is convincing and rousing.
Director Lawrence, once again proving how bad of a fit filmmaker Gary Ross was with the first, cheesy film, gives you a couple of suspenseful action set pieces, but this is more of a prelude to the storm than anything else.
There’s no point in whining about what could have been if “Mockingjay” hadn’t been cleaved in two: What’s done is done. But it’s a testament to how good “Mockingjay — Part 1” is that the temptation for those of us who haven’t read the books to search Wikipedia to find out what happens next has never been greater.