Sunday, November 30, 2014

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - Part 1 (2014): Judging a Franchise

I may be the only reviewer in America who has never watched the first two films in this series or ever read the The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins – while still deciding to go see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.  Despite entreaties that the subject matter was too complex to watch the film without initiation, I bought a movie ticket and added a few more dollars to the $370 million in box office receipts this film has already received.

With assistance from a nephew and niece, I was able to figure out what was going on.  Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is still traumatized by her recent participation in the “Hunger Games” staging – a futuristic gladiator competition – and now only wants to spend time with her sister, Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) and their mother (Paula Malcomson) while they are forced to live underground.  Katniss is cajoled by Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), head of the rebel forces and Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Coin’s able assistant, to appear in some propaganda footage directed against the evil Capitol that is led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland).  The one complication is that Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who Katniss has previously fallen in love with, is still being held by the Capitol and apparently has been brainwashed as he does propaganda interviews for the other side.  The rebels eventually do some damage to the Capitol and are able to bring Peeta and other rebel members back.  However, rather than greet Katniss enthusiastically, Peeta tries to choke her to death on their first meeting.  We are left to guess what is to occur next (unless you’ve already read the books) when Katniss at the end of the film sees Peeta in a rubber room strapped to a table and obviously suffering from delusions.

Like the Star Wars movies, for which the Hunger Games series owes its very existence, this was never meant to be just a single film.  Yet despite Star Wars great success, Hunger Games are well on their way of becoming the most successful series of films in cinematic history – not to mention the substantial profits Ms. Collins has made off the sales of her books.  This is Hollywood at its money-making best.

At the center of its success is obviously its young star, Jennifer Lawrence.  She is its main and possibly only significant attribute of the whole film series.  At 24-years of age, she can right now demand almost anything she wants.  At least in the only movie I’ve ever seen her in, she introduces the closest authentic component in its 123 minutes of viewing.  She is believably tough and vulnerable at the same time.  Other than when they doll her up in required costume to shoot her arrows at airplanes and all the other nonsense, she looks and behaves surprisingly like a courageous young adult girl.  They’ve thankfully downplayed the romance element (which, though the romance angle introduced so far is not believable, I suppose it will inevitably become a greater focus in Part 2) and instead show a girl understandably trying to cope with nightmares from what has previously occurred.  While supporting parts played by Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks bring a bit of humor to the movie, these roles are extremely limited.  The talent of Phillip Seymour Hoffman is largely wasted in this film by playing such a generic character.  Julianne Moore does nothing for me one way or the other.  And Donald Sutherland plays the same kind of tyrant we've seen many times in film, and he does it without a great deal of flare.

The fanfare surrounding this movie is more interesting than the film itself.  Beyond smashing box office records, many political commentators on both the right and left, desperate to seek validation for their beliefs, have been trying to claim the film as their own.  Protesters in Thailand and Ferguson, Missouri have made reference to this film or used “Mockingjay” three finger salutes (though in Ferguson they've now decided to go with the more understandable gesture of holding their hands up in the air).  Still other commentators have criticized the film story for not taking a more explicit political stand.  I don’t think I have ever seen so many calls to “revolution” used in relation to any film as individuals have directed towards the entire Hunger Games series – references made without exception by na├»ve people who have no idea what revolution entails, what they really would want out of the chaos that would ensue, or what they could stomach.

For whatever it’s worth from someone who has never read her novels, I don’t think that Collins’ dystopia will make us forget the one that Orwell put into place.  Collins’ novels, as the novels of Margaret Mitchell or Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain, will be remembered because of the films the books inspired.  Just as occurred with Chandler and Cain's novels, no one will be interested in reading her works anymore. 

What’s notable about The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is that it doesn’t even come close to being a complete work in and of itself.  We’re watching a young girl’s struggle only as a lead up to the next film - so more money can be spent by moviegoers on this series.  There’s extremely little humor and almost no one else to care about.  I liked portions of the film because of the acting of Jennifer Lawrence.  There are small portions of the film such as the references to the ambiguities of war and peace and revolt that come close to being intelligently stated.  The best that can be said is that the upcoming movie will probably be more entertaining.

November 30, 2014

© Robert S. Miller 2014