Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has a good reason to be pissed. She has survived not one, but two, government-imposed fights to the death and all that she has to show for it is misery and devastation. Her community of District 12 has been destroyed, leveled in a cataclysmic blast that killed many and left nothing behind but a sea of rubble and skeletal remains. Her fellow tribute victor and possible love, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), is being held captive in the Capitol by the vindictive, dictatorial President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland). Having exposed the Capitol's games arena for the rigged, synthetic cheat it is, Katniss has inspired an uprising in no less than seven other districts. Brought to the underground lair of the thought-extinct District 13, she is sought by the noble President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to be their symbolic Mockingjaythe face of Panem's revolution. What she must do now could put everyone in grave danger, but choices are limited in the shadow of Snow's tyrannical, merciless reign.
Full of anger, despair and resoluteness, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I" earns the right to be as mad as its strong-willed but certainly fallible lead heroine. Returning director Francis Lawrence (2011's "Water for Elephants
") has a top-tier cast and politically charged source material on his side. He is well-equipped for the task of bringing Suzanne Collins' 2010 novelthe last in a trilogyto the big screen, but here's the problem: said book has been split down the middle into two films, weakening the impact of what could have been an epic final installment. Lionsgate's decision to do this is solely for financial reasons, an attempt to prolong a proven moneymaking franchise while doubling their profits. Is it the right choice for this series, though? The answer is, without a doubt, no. "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I" feels unfinished in a way that 2012's "The Hunger Games
" and 2013's "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
" never did. Despite being pieces to a larger saga, they still told their own individual tales and had a clear beginning, middle and end. By comparison, "Mockingjay - Part I" only tells a piece of a piece of the story. It's two protracted hours of setup with no satisfactory climax or payoff. That audiences have to wait a whole year for "Part II" borders on insulting.
Suffice it to say, "Mockingjay - Part I" is in no position to ask for favors. Screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong are at a disadvantage having to take what should have been an grandiose finale and cutting it at the knees. While this drive for commerce over art is nothing new, it doesn't make Lionsgate's contemptible schemes right. Now here comes the saving grace: the film is captivating as both drama and allegory, and may even one-up the previous two entries in terms of its force of will and emotional complexity. Major action set-pieces are in short supplythose will have to wait for the follow-upbut there is a potency in Francis Lawrence's direction that ensures it works on a dynamic human level.
The depth that Jennifer Lawrence (2013's "American Hustle
") has blessed Katniss with should not be underestimated. In regards to how she plays her character and reacts to the seemingly insurmountable adversity that comes her way, Lawrence makes bold, wholehearted choices and sells them. Katniss is a born fighter, yet it is the vulnerability the actress brings to the role that makes her sympathetic and complicated. In a picture of so much gloom, figuratively and literally, Lawrence also displays adept comedic chops, as when Katniss is tasked with appearing in an impassioned rallying cry video to inspire the other districts and proves that acting might not be her forte. Peeta's screen time is reduced here, but his personal arc over these last three movies, from a sensitive, soft-spoken soul into a tortured, battle-scarred scapegoat, might be the most extensive and affecting of all the participants. Josh Hutcherson (2012's "Red Dawn
") is superb, finding fresh wounds and startlingly raw layers to plunder.
The continued third wheel in the plot's quasi-love triangle is lifelong friend Gale, an underdeveloped stump in the mud who doesn't share a fraction of the chemistry with Katniss that Peeta does. The fault lies not with Liam Hemsworth (2012's "The Expendables 2
"), but with the writing of a part that has offered nothing of consequence to the narrative over the course of three films. Stripped of her flamboyant wigs and costumes, former District 12 chaperone Effie Trinket has found herself a District 13 rebel. Though a little bit wiser now, she has luckily lost none of the vivaciousness Elizabeth Banks (2012's "People Like Us
") continues to bring to her. At the end of "Catching Fire
," devious gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee experienced a substantial role reversal that allows the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (2012's "The Master
") to explore a very different side to this character. New to the series, Julianne Moore (2014's "Non-Stop
") gives President Alma Coin an assertive intelligence and gravitas, all the better to lead her people as they prepare to risk everything for their freedom. Meanwhile, Paula Malcomson continues to worthlessly look on as Katniss' mother, who has no opinions about anything and no personality to show for the powerful daughters she has raised. If there is one character who has continued to be squandered more than Gale, it is this one.
"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I" knows how to hold one's attention and would be perfectly impressive if only there was a third act. Without this, the film ends in a frustrating "is-that-seriously-all-there-is?" cut to black. Faithful fans deserve better than a project compromised by the greed of its studio. Fortunately, they will likely get just that when 2015's "Mockingjay - Part II" allows them the chance to watch the two features back to back and imagine the great single film that might have been. At the center is the incomparable Jennifer Lawrence, performing her heart out while overcoming one of the most pitifully unconvincing wigs in recent memory. Her hair might be fake, but as an actor she is free of artifice. "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I" is worth the hassle for her alone.