Having recently read (and reviewed) the book, the last part (lucratively split into two films) of the Katniss Everdeen story was still pretty fresh in my mind when I went to see the movie. I knew to expect that the saga that began with a teenage girl bravely competing in a dystopian to-the-death competition has led to a civil war in the science-fictional nation of Panem, where 12 districts have been dominated by a powerful Capital and its evil President Snow. For those of you who don’t recall (or maybe never cared until now), Katniss not only won the Hunger Games with her friend and ally, Peeta Mellark, she became an inspirational symbol to the oppressed who wanted to fight back — a bird symbol known as the “Mockingjay”. In the second movie, Snow upped the ante with a special Hunger Games where past victors competed against each other, and a secret plot was executed to set Katniss up with allies, then rescue her from the Capital. At the end of the previous movie, we were left with the shocking cliffhanger that Katniss’s home, District 12, was destroyed and that she was being taken to the rebels in District 13.
As has been a trend with many of these young-adult series (I’m thinking of Harry Potter in particular), the last volume takes a left turn, often into war. For Potter, he and his friends didn’t go back to school as they had for each of the previous six years, but instead went underground to fight a battle against the evil Voldemort (which ended up back at their old school, go figure). Similarly, while the first two instalments focused on the Hunger Games competition, this last one expands the conflict into a civil war that has been sparked by the events in those games. Instead of the close group of characters, where good and bad actions determining their fate, we are now looking at a broader canvas with political and social ramifications for a whole nation (along with a much wider cast). From that perspective, Katniss can’t help coming across as a bit of a whiny teenager sometimes (especially in the book). Nevertheless, District 13 wants to use her as the face of their propaganda (“propo” for short) campaign to rally all the districts to their rebellion. At first Katniss resists being used and only thinks about saving Peeta from the Capital. But pretty soon she is swept up in the devastation of war and provides plenty of fodder for the propo cameras without prompting. Still, she’s just a teenager and that means she’s not a general or even a soldier. She can’t do much by way of fighting, so thankfully the focus of the story is really on her relationships — at the heart of which is her relationship with Peeta (and to some degree, Gale, her long-suffering boy[dash]friend).
As for the movie itself, I didn’t love the drab, concrete, industrial-bunker aesthetic of District 13. It reminded me a lot of the backdrop for the other recent YA-book-turned-movie franchise, Divergent. In so many ways District 13 felt kind of same-old-same-old (though I find it hard to believe that this district has been living this way for 75 years). The Hunger Games had now become another movie about rebel forces fighting the good fight. It was a nice change, however, to focus on the propaganda angle, rather than the fighting. In a way, the movie itself (more so than the books) is doing the same thing — trying to get audiences to feel something by using Katniss/Jennifer Lawrence (along with music and production values) to stir our emotions. I confess that I was stirred — even though I knew what was coming, and when I’d be manipulated.
The other thing about this movie is that not much really happens. For those who have not seen either of the first two movies, this is not your jumping-on point. The others are much more exciting and fun to watch. In a way, that’s why many have felt disappointed by this being the first of two parts. It feels a lot like we’re being strung along for our ticket money. Nevertheless, the filmmakers are staying somewhat true to the book (which is also relatively low on the action sequences). Even the scene where they sneak into the Capital to rescue Peeta and the others, is no exciting military assault. (Maybe they’re saving it all for the second half when they take down the Capital’s main fortress.) Still, I’m a movie-franchise kinda guy and I did enjoy seeing all the old characters again, especially the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee (game designer turned rebel strategist) and Donald Sutherland as the calmly wicked President Snow. I also liked Natalie Dormer as propo director, Cressida, though she really didn’t have that much to do. Elizabeth Banks is back as Effie Trinket (who seems to be an amalgam and replacement of a few characters in the book), and for once I don’t find her incredibly annoying. Woody Harrelson is still wonderful as the crotchety Haymitch, and Liam Hemsworth gets a little more screen time as Gale (but I don’t really need more of him, anyway).
For a part-one-of-two, we’ve done an alright job with this movie. It’s filler, but it’s enjoyable filler. I look forward to the grand finale of part two, but for now this movie is probably a 3.5 out of 5