While most girl-power, sci-fi, dystopian franchises are struggling to catch up with The Hunger Games, The Hunger Games itself has already moved on. With Mockingjay – Part I, the series becomes a clever commentary on the genre it helped cement.
After her act of defiance against the totalitarian government of Panem that ended The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself recuperating in the underground headquarters of the growing civilian rebellion. Yet she soon discovers that the movement’s leaders – including President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and advisor Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his last screen roles) – want to use her in the same way the government of Panem did in the games: as a symbol, one useful in manipulating/coercing the populace to do their bidding.
And so Katniss becomes the linchpin of a propaganda campaign, complete with her own alter ego: Mockingjay. There is a costume, a branding effort and even a recruiting video with an apocalyptic background courtesy of green screen. (The video could stand in for the trailer for Mockingjay and its many generic imitators.) Yet something’s missing. Katniss is wearing too much makeup. Her words sound scripted. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), her mentor during the games, watches the footage and shakes his head, saying it fails to captures those authentic moments when Katniss “genuinely moved you.”
Without Jennifer Lawrence there would be no Mockingjay.
Mockingjay – Part I has such moments, allowing it to needle its competitors while doing them one better at the same time. The opening scene features Katniss, huddled in a corridor and whispering to herself, “Start with what you know is true.” When an approaching voice tells her she should return to her room, she politely asks for a few minutes of privacy. When the person touches her on the shoulder, she erupts in fury. It’s a striking moment of post-traumatic stress (a secondary subject of this series), ferociously captured by one of today’s best young actors. It’s clear by now that without Jennifer Lawrence there would be no Mockingjay – and I say this well aware of the irony of the statement, given the movie’s meta layer about packaging personality.
On the surface, Mockingjay – Part I still functions as a gripping dystopian adventure, leavened with just enough gravitas to linger after the lights come up. Katniss’ personal dilemma – whether to sacrifice personal identity for the sake of the community – is writ large upon a war-movie canvas, as civilian uprisings take place in the wake of Katniss’ videos (director Francis Lawrence stages a crackling one involving rebellious loggers in a pine forest). And the love triangle among Katniss, her fellow games survivor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and her current companion Gale (Liam Hemsworth) continues to be handled with surprising nuance. At its best, though, Mockingjay – Part I functions as a high-stakes fight over a symbol – and that symbol’s fight to remain herself.