After its first two terrific installments, the newest edition of “The Hunger Games” left me hungry, like a feast that’s stunningly prepared but flavorless and non-nutritious. I think “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” delivered a dab of stomach acid, too.
“Mockingjay” is an extra-desolate chapter in the ongoing story, more a setup for 2015’s real finale than a complete chapter on its own. A minor work on a major scale, it moves its heroine Katniss Everdeen from the strong, brave, compassionate female superhero of the future into regular-person territory.
In the first two films she faced awful emotional crises but kept a stiff upper lip and fought back. Here she’s introduced in a crying fit and returns there repeatedly, like the emotion-pained protagonist of a young-love novel.
For those new to the futuristic franchise, Katniss (an extra-youthful looking Jennifer Lawrence) is a teen daughter of North America’s coal mining District 12. The dystopian nation of Panem dominates every poor region, ethnicity and culture outside of the master race, the ultrawealthy residents of the Capitol. Those who were oppressed failed to take action for nearly a century, being frightened into submission by the leaders’ annual TV pageant of deadly youth combat, the Hunger Games. When her child-age sister was about to be drafted into the next bloodletting contest, Katniss volunteered to take her place.
She and her partner, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), forced to fake a romance for the Capitol’s TV broadcasts, fell in love for real when her skills as a woodland bow hunter brought them to unexpected victory. They became honest televised heroes, deeply appealing to the rising revolutionary masses. She destroyed the Games, and was rescued from the wreckage. He was taken hostage by the Capitol.
Now Katniss slides from a woman who takes control of crises to a woman in despair. She lives in the underground bomb shelter of District 13’s military insurgents, who want to exploit her powers as a revered video propaganda star. Meanwhile, Peeta is doing near-identical broadcasts for demonically evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), uttering messages about the futility of war designed to silence his faraway sweetheart. It feels like half the film is about people watching screens.
The pair’s troubled relationship becomes more of a focus than the Capitol’s imminent doomsday attacks. A visit to her annihilated hometown shows Katniss a barren wasteland of skeletal rubble, but her bitterest tears are for the absent Peeta. Because, you know, it’s like a breakup. She mostly thinks the outside world needs to take care of itself.
Director Francis Lawrence, who did such a bang-up job on last year’s fierce “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (and I hope will do equally well on next year’s finale) swings, hits and misses. Katniss’ devoted best friend and hunting partner Gale (Liam Hemsworth) shows up from time to time to offer her a possible love alternate, but his appearances are shallow and temporary, much like Peeta’s propaganda TV ads. Say what you will about the “Twilight” movies, the passion triangle of the girl, the vampire guy and the werewolf guy was a solid section of the script.
The ever-frightening Sutherland delivers President Snow’s every line like a mean face slap. As President Coin, leader of the military rebels, Julianne Moore is cool, proficient, reserved and personality-free, performing what feels like a sly Hillary Clinton impression. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the Capitol’s former Gamemaker and now its shrewdest enemy, Plutarch Heavensbee, handles every scene with bull’s-eye precision, his line reading playing tag with Moore’s constantly.
A juicy bit part goes to Elizabeth Banks as Katniss’ former PR mentor, the kind of good, slightly evil Effie Trinket. There’s a sassy wisecrack in each comment she issues, including her fashion-focused note that District 13’s dull jumpsuits can be reconditioned appealingly, just “like democracy.” Jeffrey Wright’s scientist returns in a role like James Bond’s Q, giving Katniss arrows explosive enough to shoot a bomber out of the sky.
Though there’s not enough action here to keep “Mockingjay” flying high, Lawrence does get a standout moment doing just that. And she’s entertaining in a silly scene when her character fails to deliver Heavensbee usable political footage, amusingly playing her hero as a clumsy actress. Her most outstanding sequence is the oddest, as she sings on camera a dark country ballad that becomes a theme for the revolution’s suicide commandos. But Lawrence here lacks enough solid, life-or-death material to work with.
This is deliberately the bleakest segment of the series, trying to flood us with emotion. I expect the finish to focus on excitement.