Rich with suspense, part one of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay two-film billing is a planet-sized chess match between President Snow in the Capitol and President Coin with the District 13 brain trust assembled in a vast bunker underground. Katniss and Peeta are pawns on different sides of the board, almost completely at the mercy of the presidents for two hours.
Katniss is in a fragile mental state, but is expected to be the mockingjay — the propaganda symbol of the rebellion — and she’s tirelessly referred to as such because nothing is more infuriating than depersonalizing someone who’s just looking for a friend during an uncertain time. But Prim and Gale stand by her side — Willow Shields and Liam Hemsworth, respectively, perform well in significantly larger roles, in this film, and it’s a breath of fresh air in such a confined bunker.
The film is director Francis Lawrence’s second of the franchise and, while I can’t confidently say it’s better than Catching Fire, the sequences are even bigger. Unlike the second film, Lawrence doesn’t have a large, complicated map to create scenes like the overwhelming jabberyjay sequence. The most unforgettable sequence inside District 13’s cave similarly finds Katniss lying on the ground being stampeded. In Catching Fire, she was boxed into a stamped of jabberyjays attacking her relentlessly. In Mockingjay, she curls up on the circling maze of metal stairs as water soaks everyone from above and she’s surrounded by the trampling feet of her cohabitants all racing the basement as the bunker is attacked.
Lawrence understands, though, that’s it’s key to embrace long sequences. What separates the good films in the same niche as The Hunger Games from the bad ones if how well the director can sustain them. The Mockingjay sequence carries through, as Katniss scrambles back up the seemingly infinite flights of stairs searching for her sister. The shower of water is much heavier now, soaked into Katniss, Prim and Gale’s clothes, and the alarm clock is ticking.
Later, when District 13’s version of a SEAL team is storming the Tribute Tower to save the captured trio, is when Lawrence directs drama at its finest. At the suspenseful intensity level of, let’s say, Zero Dark Thirty‘s compound raid, the minutes seem to tick by slower in this perfect sequence. Different from anything I’ve seen on screen recently, Lawrence slashes back-and-forth between the calm yet direct mission in the Capitol city and the captivating yet uncomfortable atmosphere inside the District 13 command center. At command, everyone’s watching a split — the raid and Finnick’s poignant spiel.
Meant to be a ranting time-waster to steal the power source from the Capitol, I can’t imagine author Suzanne Collins would’ve imagined Finnick’s speech any more perfect. Offering a tip of my hate to the woman who penned this successful book series, Finnick’s biggest moment in Mockingjay has everything — most notably, conviction, appropriate pace and foreshadowing.
And as if these two examples aren’t enough, Lawrence pulls from his resume, I Am Legend, to create the desolate, skeletal District 12 that Katniss walks through early in this film.
Expectedly, Mockingjay features a larger ensemble, including Julie Ann Moore as the stone-cold President Coin and Natalie Dormer as the intriguing Cressida. The way it’s crafted, Katniss doesn’t quite carry the load as she does so amazingly in Catching Fire, but she certainly bares a lot of emotional distress, kind of scrambling her way around a new, unfamiliar world — she plays it very well, too.
To me, this third film feels like a completed project. The objective from the get-go was to extract Peeta, to bring he and the two other tributes home safely. That’s accomplished, and yet there’s more to be excited about next November. If it’s one thing you’re looking for, from part one, to get you excited about part two, it’s as simple as this: it’s another chance to watch both Lawrences at work.
“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1”: ★★★