When you spend your whole life being told who you are, can you finally rebel and decide who you are? This is the great question that swings like a pendulum over Suzanne Collins’ globe-encompassing multimedia franchise The Hunger Games.
Now, with its third adaptation The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 currently consuming cinemas worldwide, the answer — at least for this portion of the chronicle — is a seat-rumbling No.
The vaguely post-apocalyptic series revolves around our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, making the most out of a two-note character), and her continuing quest against the totalitarian Capitol after being crowned the victor of the sadistic and ritualistic Darwinian Olympics known as “The Hunger Games”. Keep up at the back!
It is a timely fable: a keen young woman casting off the shackles of the patriarchal establishment that confines the 99% to live in subservient squalor.
Mockingjay – Part 1 unapologetically commences precisely where the previous film Catching Fire left off. [Read Elliott’s 2013 review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.]
If you’re uninitiated, then you have absolutely no hope of finding an enjoyable or coherent viewing experience here. As is now mandatory for a popular series of novels being adapted for the big screen, the final instalment must be carved in twine to ensure the maximum amount of overhead gross. Thanks Harry Potter!
This installment disappointingly eschews the creative deathtraps and imaginative tropical mayhem of Catching Fire (though the silly hair and bad names continue to reign) for a plethora of concrete-hued political brow-beating of life during wartime. Not that this new recipe doesn’t wield some dark delights, but fans of its predecessor’s sprawling kaleidoscopic scope might not remain on board for the sudden gear change.
Now that the games are over, civil war finally bubbles over as the impoverished districts unite under the crest of Katniss, known as “The Mockingjay”, the glamorous martyr. Though now Katniss must face her most complicated challenge: the media during war.
Katniss, deeply suffering from some Return to Oz-style PTSD, is in the allegedly benevolent claws of the rebellion led by District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, fabulous as always) and Plutarch Heavensby (Philip Seymour Hoffman). It’s a good double act and reminds you just how far they’ve both come since Boogie Nights — though it is sad to think that the splintered halves of the Mockingjay films will be the last time we will ever see the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman grace the big screen.
Moore as Coin plays the role like a sort of spiritual Leni Reifenstahl to Lawrence’s Katniss. Through a series of rehearsed propaganda videos broadcast throughout the districts and to the Capitol itself, Coin harnesses Katniss’ traumatized rage for its commercial appeal and grooms her to be the ideal symbolic Joan of Arc that the rebellion needs to unite. The protean messiah is decorated with tailored armour and stylish weapons that will certify her as “the best dressed rebel in history.”
Katniss’ captured and seemingly doomed love interest, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), is being similarly moulded by the villainous Capitol to decry her voice for the proletariat movement. He looks like a gaunt Little Lord Fauntleroy giving a confessional interview to Maury (Stanley Tucci in a pink wig).
A late-in-the-game monologue from the chiseled Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) — admitting to his forced prostitution after the games amidst the opulent Capitol citizens — nearly strikes the right balance of salacious sensationalism versus genuine justice. The depths of exploitation are mined for personal gain by manipulating a seemingly sympathetic situation, so that a silver-spoon-fed few can delight in the squalor and plight for faux artistic fulfilment and/or wanton entertainment.
This is by far the most interesting aspect of the film: how media manipulates its players and — more importantly — its audience in times of political interest and crisis. Anyone with half a brain knows that what they’re getting at the finish line is not what began the race and should severely question the packaged product. As ridiculous as the proceedings may seem to some, it feels as genuine as anything that CNN or Fox News pushes into our faces as “the whole story.”
The forced transmissions also block statistical attack data and project internal warnings. There are some great ideas here, although one gets the feeling that these are almost in spite of the source material in the books. Powered by their megawatt star, the film adaptations have pushed the story into being something else: more vital, more poignant.
The manoeuvring events mirror Lawrence’s own meteoric rise up the ladder and the recent debacle of her leaked nude photos (cruelly dubbed “The Fappening”). That this was such a scandal speaks to her carefully cultivated media persona: “candid” interviews with a pillar of talent to back it up. We sympathize with her plight as it seems like a genuine accident, no matter how much it broke the internet — as opposed to the double-glazed Kardashian hams that pressed through the stilted cover of Paper magazine in a pathetic cry for continued hollow notoriety.
We’ve also had a major upgrade in the soundtrack department. Dead are the days of having merely a lone track from come-to-life strawberry shortcake Taylor Swift. Now a bank-busting Young Adult franchise requires the de rigueur Pitchfork-approved compilation record. Thanks Twilight!
The producers have recruited all-conquering Kiwi goth moppet Lorde (and her handlers) to curate a veritable iTunes Coachella — a lot of processed vocals and pounding beats. But just when things begin to look dull, along comes the original freakshow priestess Grace Jones to liven up the party by serving tribal voodoo realness. Kanye and Ariana Grande can please take several seats and learn how to read from the master.
Unfortunately, this throbbing mix-tape was merely inspired by the film, as none of it actually caresses the action — save for a lone Yeezus-remixed Lorde track tumbling over the closing credits like an afterthought.
Subsequently, you are left with fragments of a story that could never stand on their own merits. The duality of Katniss’ situation strangely makes the whole endeavour feel completely disingenuous.
It’s even harder to care when you know that you’re careening toward a sharp cliffhanger. There is a climactic cutoff point — complete with blackout — that so desperately should have been the brave ending that this film needed. But it is not. It keeps plodding on.
See you next year for Mockingjay Part 2: So Very Tired!
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Trailer – Official Trailer
All photos by Murray Close, courtesy of Lionsgate