Let me deflate any false hope by starting this review with the following sentence: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay does not need to be two movies. I left Mockingjay Part 1 with the expected interest in the final installment (due to be released next year around the same time), but fairly surprised at how little ground this penultimate chapter covers, despite its two hour length. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, despite my mixed to negative feelings on the films, certainly warranted two parts. Peter Jackson's 3 movie adaptions of the 300 page novel are the source of much controversy, but I feel there is effort to make the movies feel as complete and eventful as possible. No such effort was made with Mockingjay Part 1; an entertaining threequel, but ultimately, an almost completely inconsequential one.
Katniss Everdeen is now living in District 13, a place that was unknown to most before now. Katniss now must work with those in District 13 to fuel and lead a massive revolution against the Capitol. All the while, Katniss wonders what has become of Peeta, who has fallen into the hands of the Capitol, and is under taxing and mysterious circumstances.
The short review of Mockingjay Part 1 is this: The movie is entertaining. It moves along at an agreeable pace, gives us some snippets of what made the previous films so engrossing, and provides some excellent performances. Its flaws are numerous, but the movie works well enough to satisfy fans.
And that last point leads right into my longer review of the film. Mockingjay Part 1 will certainly please its loyal followers. But if you've failed to find yourself engaged, interested, or entertained by the events and characters from the previous films, you won't find any improvements here. Catching Fire (Mockingjay's predecessor) managed to convert the naysayers and unsatisfied moviegoers that were disappointed by the first Hunger Games movie (helmed by Gary Ross). Don't expect any such conversions to occur here.
One of Mockingjay's most surprising problems is its conflicting messages. When Peeta shows up on Capitol talk shows, telling District 13 to cease their revolution (not a spoiler, this is in the promotional material), Katniss defends Peeta by insisting that he's only saying and doing these things to stay alive. Yet, Katniss (and many others) have no problem shooting down Capitol soldiers with explosive arrows (witnessed quite prominently in the trailers).
Even more disturbing is the amount of attention that is given to Katniss' boyfriend situation. Will she choose to love Peeta or Gale? Not only are Katniss' intentions here ridiculously obvious, but the amount of time that's spent on this love triangle effectively trivializes the horror of what's going on in the Capitol. Was not the point and source of controversy surrounding the Hunger Games was how casually those in the Capitol accepted it? To them, it's just a TV show. A source of entertainment. By placing so much focus on the romance between Katniss and Peeta/Gale, is the movie then succumbing to the very same sense of morals that our audience is supposed to associate with the Capitol?
Even if the amount of screentime devoted to the love triangle was justified, it's still inept. It's uninteresting, and sometimes laughable. It isn't cringe-worthy to the same degree as the other Hunger Games films, but I still wish it had less screentime, if any at all. I question the need for a romantic interest in these films at all, but as long as it gets butts into seats, I suppose it can be considered necessary. If nothing else, one should give the Hunger Games series credit for attempting to address difficult questions and challenging substance, and presenting it to a teenage audience. While the love angle of this is obnoxious, it's a source of interest for many teenage girls. In the end, I'm glad that these movies can attract a mainstream audience, even if we do have to pay a hefty price in the form of poorly written "romance."
Many will point to Jennifer Lawrence as the strongest cast member. And indeed, she's great here, though she has much less to work with than before. But the real star is Donald Sutherland as President Snow. While his time on screen is a lot smaller than in the previous films, the scenes he has are fantastic. At times, Sutherland is absolutely chilling. The rest of the cast sparkles, excepting the expressionless Liam Hemsworth (though Josh Hutcherson has notably improved). Critics inevitably highlight Philip Seymour Hoffman's supporting role in this film due to his unfortunate death earlier this year, but his performance is good enough that it would deserve recognition regardless.
James Newton Howard's score here is actually weaker than his previous efforts (though there's not very much music in the picture). While some will appreciate the occasional moments of grandeur that was rarely achieved in the previous films, Newton Howard's work here lacks the memorable quality of the previous scores. One song that's featured very prominently in the film (and is sung by Lawrence's character in a mildly ghastly part of the film) feels surprisingly rock-oriented, and isn't as effective as one would hope or expect.
Mockingjay Part 1's biggest problem truly is its lack of events. Very little of the film advances the overall scheme of things. The film sustains interest, but there's no real sense of tension until the last hour (and no particularly important events until the last 30 minutes). The sparsely used moments of government oppression and abuse feel more like afterthoughts than impacting shock points. After two excellent movies, audiences have a right to expect a third entry of the same quality. However, Mockingjay Part 1 is hindered by its weak source material and its "placeholder" role in the franchise which prevents almost anything from happening. As a fan, I liked this film as much as I could. But as a movie goer, I was disappointed.