Right now, as we speak, I envision the publicity team for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 holed up in a bunker, multiple computer monitors dead ahead, just watching, and waiting, for the moment the first reviewer calls it “The Empire Strikes Back of The Hunger Games.”
Because the movie so, so wants to be that. And not just in the “dark tone, cliffhanger ending” way – President Snow (Donald Sutherland) actually uses a couple of maneuvers from the Emperor Palpatine playbook, while heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, impressively de-glammed) must figure out how to become the New Hope. Impressive…but this franchise is not a Jedi yet.
Mockingjay Part 1 is the best Hunger Games movie so far, though. And you can quote me on that.
I speak as someone who has not read the books, and have been told repeatedly that Mockingjay is the worst one, but for me, the best thing about the new movie is its unpredictability. In the first film, you know there’s going to be a tournament, and Katniss will win. In the second movie, you know there’s going to be another tournament, and Katniss will win again…okay, so she escaped rather than winning, but every beat up to that point was predictable. With the tournament out of the way, I didn’t know what would happen next, and therein lies the fun, as the theme of survival by media-savvy and the updated ’70s sci-fi aesthetic both continue in a whole new way.
Having been rescued by Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss finds herself in the underground bunkers of District 13, which, superficially at least, looks as communist and drab as the Capital is decadent (the classic Metropolis dichotomy). Having been abused as a media symbol for the corrupt purposes of President Snow before, Katniss finds herself once again manipulated as a symbol, but in the opposite direction – now she is to be the focus of propaganda films (which look not unlike the movie trailers for this film itself) to inspire all the districts to fight.
It’s no stretch to compare this to some of Lawrence’s own media tours, as it is noted by everyone that Katniss only works as a symbol when she’s allowed to be herself and not stage-managed (though she does wear impractical boob-armor; have to motivate the young men, I suppose). But it would be silly to think the metaphor only applies to her – young adult fiction catches on by resonating with young adults, who want to shake of their clique stereotypes and often feel like they’re not allowed to truly be themselves. That Katniss has post-traumatic stress disorder means the identity crisis is amped up by a factor of at least ten.
Here’s where I must take a personal detour…
There is somebody very, very close to me who has PTSD. I won’t say more because it isn’t my story to tell, but I have seen it in vivid detail. When Katniss gets up in the middle of the night to find a hiding place where she feels safe, and screams when people try to bring her back to bed, I’ve been there. When she lashes out defensively even at people trying to help, just because her slightly sabotaged survival instincts have kicked in, I’ve been on the receiving end of that too. When the slightest bump on the road to recovery sends her spiraling back to square one because she doesn’t want to deal with something that wasn’t part of the plan…I know that all too well. That she manages to be heroic anyway, and realize that other people don’t see her as a damaged person but as someone inspiring, well…that’s inspiring to me. And true. Lawrence absolutely nails it.
Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta, now a captive of the Capital and displayed on TV propaganda interviews with the Bill O’Reilly-like Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), displays the hallmarks too, though his facade doesn’t crack till much later in the movie. Meanwhile, Katniss gets sent to war zones that are deemed relatively safe to shoot footage of her meeting injured rebels, and seeing just how crushed her home town is. A folksy murder ballad she sings casually gets remixed, autotuned, and cleaned up (“rope” is changed to “hope” in a song about hanging) to become a rallying cry. And of course President Snow counterattacks, making any possession of even the Mockingjay symbol into a capital crime.
The overwhelming theme? Don’t trust grown-ups; they’ll just use you for their own purposes. Even Katniss fan Plutarch intones that “anyone can be replaced,” a statement the actor’s own tragic death ironically repudiates. The only exceptions seem to be Jeffrey Wright’s Beetee, who has become Q to Katniss’ under-prepared Bond; Effie (Elizabeth Banks), now thoroughly deglammed and chastened; and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), whose life is even less fun now that he has been forced into sobriety by the austere society of 13. And frankly, all three are immature and childlike in at least one key way, so they’re honorary non-grownups.
Due to the PG-13 rating, some of the darker stuff in the books has to be told and not shown, which one would normally consider a cinema sin, but at least it gets in there: towards the end, Finnick (Sam Claflin) recites some of the atrocities committed by President Snow, and they’re worse than anything the MPAA will allow to be seen onscreen without an R. It successfully ups the stakes, though, emphasizing what a truly rotten son-of-a-bitch the bad guy is, and why peaceful coexistence is simply not an option.
For once, the real hunger game is in the way Mockingjay Part 1 leaves us wanting more.