We’ve gotten used to seeing either senseless action or sappy romance from our blockbusters – from the never-ending explosions and clash of metals in Transformers, to destruction of huge cities in Godzilla and Man of Steel, to Bella’s constant romantic ping-ponging in Twilight.
There is satisfaction in watching these titles, as they offer some sort of escapism. If it’s what the people want, it’s what the people get. And I’m definitely down with that – I’m a huge believer that cinema is fundamentally a form of entertainment. It’s the same reason why, locally, Deramas’ works although severely criticized rake in the big bucks at the box office.
But then came the Hunger Games in 2012 – from Lionsgate, then a smaller player in the Hollywood establishment. It revolutionized the way franchises and blockbusters are handled. It hired an Oscar-nominated (now winner) lead actress in Jennifer Lawrence to add weight and credence to the movie. And akin to a US version of Harry Potter, it featured great American veteran actors such as Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland in its supporting cast.
But more than that, it tackled themes that would otherwise be unpalatable to a young audience. It proved that it’s possible to reshape the blockbuster into a more socially and politically relevant film.
With the third installment in this franchise not containing the eponymous games from the first two, there was a bit of doubt as to how Lionsgate would handle the change. Some critics called it boring, not having enough action, or stretched too thin. But I beg to differ. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 might be one of the smartest blockbusters to come in a long time.
Director Francis Lawrence presents a surer, more mature movie. I would even liken it to 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. There’s no misplaced scene here, and I particularly like how Katniss’ (Lawrence) actions impact the world of Panem on a much larger scale.
Action set pieces are placed strategically within the plot, but if you’re here only for the spectacle, then you’re sorely misguided. Splitting the final book into two films has received its fair share of flak, but I feel it’s justified to give a fitting development to Katniss’ character arc and to add more weight on her effect on the resistance forming in the districts.
Additions and deviations from the book are thoughtful changes, particularly the expansion of Effie’s (Elizabeth Banks) role. So I doubt book readers would be enraged by the movie’s direction.
If the first one is more about survival and the second one a budding resistance to a totalitarian government, the third one amps the stakes by showing the beginnings of a rebellion – and how propaganda has become a major aspect of getting people to fight for a cause.
Indeed, it’s about sustaining the rebellion through information capital – through mediated messages from both the capitol and the rebels. On one end, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is being used by the Capitol to urge its citizens of how futile and destructive the rebellion is, while Katniss is being used by the rebels to show the full scale of the capitol’s violence and why it’s the right time to finally unite and stand up for their rights.
It’s then, ultimately, a battle of wits and brains, of moves and counter-moves. The capitol chose to showcase Peeta through tell-all interviews with Caesar Flickerman to capture his looks of sincerity. The rebels chose to show Katniss at her rawest of emotions – delivering moving messages to the Capitol after witnessing the atrocities of war.
And surprisingly, the film’s own mediated message has crossed its way to real-world situations. We’ve heard how the Hunger Games salute is now being used by students and young protesters in Thailand, leading to some theaters refusing to screen the movie.
In China, the release has been indefinitely delayed. Although the official reason given is because the government aims on “balancing domestic and foreign box totals before the end of the year,” giving domestic films “a clearer playing field,” it’s speculated the movie has rubbed the censors the wrong way with its anti-authoritarian slant. And much more recently, a Missouri landmark was vandalized with Katniss’ famous line “If we burn, you burn with us” in support of the indictment of a police officer who shot and killed an unarmed teenager.
Never in recent times has a movie or franchise had such an impact on worldwide events. The series has resonated enough to give its audience the will and agency to change the world the way Katniss did.
And lot of that credit needs to be given to its lead star Jennifer Lawrence, who has played Katniss so brilliantly. Although Katniss is a flawed character, she imbues her with so much heart that you still end up rooting for and empathizing with her.
Lawrence commands the screen in a way only seasoned movie stars twice her age could. In a much quieter film like Mockingjay Part 1, she’s the glue that holds the audience until it ends. I wouldn’t be surprised if she receives awards buzz for this role, even if it still technically belongs to the Young Adult genre that’s largely belittled, even ignored.
It goes without saying that you should watch Mockingjay Part 1, but set your expectations straight. It’s not loud or overly spectacular; it’s tonally different from the first two and does not contain the famous games. But in exchange of that, you get a movie that transcends its genre and delves into themes and messages you seldom get to ponder on.
Plus, it aptly sets the stage for the closing saga of this franchise, showing next year. And that is a rewarding experience in itself.
Stray observations (SPOILER ALERT! READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!)
- It’s interesting to see Katniss playing with a small iron ball with her fingers and Finnick (Sam Claflin) constantly tying knots – signs of post-traumatic stress, people.
- Buttercup is such a douchey cat!
- All of Effie’s lines are GOLD!
- Katniss is sometimes really funny too: during her negotiations with Coin (Julianne Moore) and her acting for the propos.
- Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) is styled really similarly to Snow Villiers of Final Fantasy XIII.
- Cressida (Natalie Dormer) still looks really beautiful with half her head shaved.
- I felt sorry for Mesalla (Evan Ross) for having minimal to no dialogue. Maybe he’ll get a meatier role in Part 2?
- Jennifer Lawrence has a really good singing voice. Do I smell a Grammy nomination for this one? Slay JLaw and get that EGOT.
- For a second there, I thought the crashing planes from Katniss’ shot landed at the hospital! What a relief it didn’t.
- Cressida’s a bit insensitive to ask Katniss to deliver a message just right after the hospital burned down. But hey, a director’s gotta do what a director’s gotta do.
- Showing the propos is unexpectedly cheesy… in a good way! Join! The! Fight!
- Peeta still has his signature jaws even when he became thin.
- Some of the revelations by Finnick during his long speech were mortifying – prostituting tributes to patrons? It wouldn’t have been long until Katniss and Peeta suffered the same fate.
- Gale (Liam Hemsworth) must be one of the most masochistic characters ever. Why volunteer to rescue Peeta?!?
- Yay, split-second Johanna (Jena Malone) appearance! She didn’t appear in the regal white gown as shown in the promos though.
Director: Francis Lawrence
With: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth