This is obviously Lionsgate’s attempt to reap even more profits from the lucrative young adult franchise spawned from Suzanne Collins’ bestselling young adult trilogy by following the formula made familiar from the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series by dividing the final book into two pictures. (“Mockingjay Part 2” is scheduled for release a year from now.) But the result is a dark, rather dreary picture that’s all wind-up and no delivery, a tedious time-filler that merely takes up space between the superior “Catching Fire” and what one hopes will be a return to form with next year’s conclusion. Simply put, this third edition of the “Games” is likely to leave you hungry for more action.
In this curiously pallid installment indifferently directed by Francis Lawrence, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself in Panem’s District 13 after being rescued in the aftermath of the Quarter Quell. There she finds rebellion simmering against the Capitol and its cruel President Snow (Donald Sutherland)—a movement that has coalesced around District President Coin (Julianne Moore). Coin and her confidantes, publicity specialist Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and scientific genius Beetee Latier (Jeffrey Wright), plan to use Katniss as the Mockingjay, the symbol of revolution who will inspire the people of all regions to unite and rise up against the injustice represented by Snow
Unfortunately, Katniss is so distraught over the fact that Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the boy she came to love during their time together in the games, remains a captive in Snow’s evil hands that she refuses to cooperate—until, of course, she does, but only under the condition that an effort will be made to rescue him.
Much of the rest of the film consists of Katniss alternately making propaganda commercials for the rebellion while sniffling over Peeta, who periodically appears on Capitol television urging her to lay down her arms. With the exception of a few forays outside, she’s ensconced in a bunker-like structure with the population of District 13 as well as her home-town pal Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), a hunk who’s obviously smitten with her, and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), an erstwhile rival from the games who’s also bemoaning the capture of his love Annie (Stef Dawson) by Snow. Old standbys like her former trainer Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and erstwhile press escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), both now in the rebel camp, also make appearances, mostly to offer her words of encouragement
But the claustrophobic nature of the setting, continually shot in gloom, leaves the picture feeling as stranded as the rebels are. There is one sequence when Katniss, Gale and a film crew headed by hard-nosed Cressida (Natalie Dormer) venture out to a rebel field hospital which is then bombed by two of Snow’s aircraft (the sole occasion when our heroine unleashes one of her arrows), that offers some genuine excitement. But another, in which the base is attacked by a fleet of bombers, is meant to get the pulse racing, but it’s mostly dull stuff since the assault is shown entirely on radar screens )a means of saving money on special effects, perhaps, but a pretty cheesy one). It’s also undone by an absurd digression about Katniss’ dull-as-dishwater sister , appropriately named Prim (Willow Shields), who puts herself in danger by going off to save her pet cat as air-raid sirens are wailing. Will she make it back to the lower level before the huge metal doors close, stranding her outside the safe zone? This ridiculous scene is intended to generate suspense, but is more likely to cause you to stifle a laugh. A final attempt to excite—a special-ops mission to free Peeta led by Gale—also fails because it’s photographed in almost total darkness and explained afterward. And the concluding twist is so predictable it barely deserves the name.
Under these circumstances Lawrence, who’s invigorated the previous installments in the series, comes across as little more than a weepy lass pining away for her fellow, and the rest of the cast is similarly ill-used, with Moore forced to deliver a passel of high-minded speeches while Hemsworth puts on the stalwart pose of a jilted suitor and Hutcherson is reduced to brief periodic appearances designed to make Katniss weep a bit more. (The last of these, incidentally, seems at odds with what’s ultimately revealed about the character, but one supposes it’s necessary to preserve the story’s sole surprise.) On the other hand, Claflin makes a fairly strong impression, especially toward the close. Among the remaining adults Harrelson, Banks, Sutherland, Wright and Stanley Tucci (as TV MC Caesar Flickerman, who appears with Peeta on his broadcasts) seem to be coasting here; only the late Hoffman juices things up a bit by adding a bit of elfin humor to his delivery.
Technically the production is solid if unexceptional; the earlier installments gave far greater opportunity for outstanding visual work, but cinematographer Jo Willems and production designer Philip Messina do what they can within the limitations imposed by the narrative. James Newton Howard’s score is forgettable.
“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” can be summed up in a line that Coin speaks to Heavensbee as the Capitol’s assault on District 13 begins. “It’s going to be a long night,” she tells him. The movie may actually only a bit over two hours, but it seems to drag on longer than “Gone With the Wind.”