|'Katniss is forced to reconcile her past as a manipulated figurehead for the Capitol's games with the fact that her new position is as a manipulated figurehead for the resistance'|
I never meant to become an avid watcher of The Hunger Games franchise, but somehow that is what my life has become and somehow I've even found myself enjoying that fact. The first film is a little ropey, sure, but the second is make-dystopia-teen-friendly gold and at the start of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 we're in a nice place: gone are the games of the title. Now for the serious stuff.
That is, for the most part, a good thing, but returning director Francis Lawrence does fall into some of the traps that the action of splitting the final novel of this series into two films immediately proffers to him. For a start, there's precious little by way of character journey outside of Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and maybe Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who is imprisoned by Donald Sutherland's President Snow at the start of this narrative. Katniss is forced to reconcile her past as a manipulated figurehead for the Capitol's games with the fact that her new position is as a manipulated figurehead for the resistance, whilst Peeta's future is largely speculated on by other characters until the final third of the film.
Whilst those two advance then, others do spectacularly little. Effie (Elizabeth Banks) may have lost her fine clothes but still fulfils the same role, ditto Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), but swap clothes out for drink. Gale (Liam Hemsworth) continues his movement towards strong silent warrior (and gets a Godzilla/Call Of Duty-like moment as reward) but is simultaneously getting less interesting as he does so. Philip Seymour Hoffman is criminally wasted in terms of how much his character has to do with the core plotting, particularly given how duplicitous he was in the last film and Julianne Moore's stoic leader could be any stoic leader from several films gone by.
It's left to Lawrence (Jennifer) to carry it, something she could do better if Lawrence (Francis) allowed her to not mope quite so much. This is a remarkably mopey film, in the way that - whisper it - only the Twilight series has managed before it.
When Katniss isn't moping, the good stuff does break out. A minor mid-point action scene is OK, if brief and reminds us how harsh this franchise can be on occasion. The relationship between Katniss and Coin (Julianne Moore) works, predictable though it is. It's not revolutionary, but its ample fayre for the most part, though a telegraphed final bit of tension with a cat is misjudged and incredibly twee for this sort of big budget offering. Gale's tense abseiling does seek to rectify matters.
I've just been listening to Mark Kermode talk about the film's finale and how it goes a little bit creepy, with an almost The Exorcist-like final shot. He's not wrong, but it is another film that Francis Lawrence is more clearly looking to with his downbeat denouement. This wants to be The Empire Strikes Back of the franchise and certainly we're left with uncomfortable questions about some of our heroes. It's just a shame that in between those questions we don't get the pure joy and sound character development of films which have done this better before. You can set us up for a rousing finale, without the need to tread water.