The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1. She’s Baaaaaaack.

 

There’s something to be said for The Hunger Games series: I can always remember the last one.

And that’s no small accomplishment. I saw every installment in the Twilight raft of films, but each time I felt I had missed several episodes since I didn’t have a clue what was happening on screen. Didn’t somebody get killed in a Floridian ballet studio but all of a sudden we’re in Rome with a bunch of undertakers and who in the world are these Seattle street vampires? I know Bella and Edward had a child, but didn’t she die and come back to life and two of them ate the kid? I really can’t remember.

With The Hunger Games, I’ve managed to follow the plot from flick to flick—if in admittedly broad strokes. Based on the hugely popular novels by Suzanne Collins, the story is set in a dystopic future world called Panem where the ruling elite keep the people in line by, among other things, making children battle each other to the death.

Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, and such characters as Peeta Mellark, Haymitch Abernathy, Plutarch Heavensbee, and Finnick Odair—oy, those names—have turned against the system and are leading a rebellion.

Why they’ve needed three films (and counting) to tell that story is anyone’s guess, but I have been able to pick up the thread at each movie. (Although wasn’t Wes Bentley in one of them with a really weird beard? He hasn’t been around for a while so maybe I dreamed it.)

A Quest for Truth, Justice, and Effective Marketing

When last we left Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence), she had fired an arrow into the sky and it crashed through the computer simulation screen and all of a sudden Philip Seymour Hoffman showed up in a space ship and flew her away to meet the underground rebel alliance.

So here we are at the beginning of the ridiculously titled The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1. We’re in District 13 (Panem is divided into outer Districts serving the central Capitol city), only we’re very deep underground in a multi-storied bunker. Katniss is in a pretty bad state. Her fellow Games compatriot, Peeta, has been left behind and she blames Heavensbee (Hoffman), tech-wizard Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), and rebel president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) for leaving Peeta in the clutches of the evil empire. (I warned you about the names.)

Alma tells her she needs to get it together because the Capitol will stop at nothing to kill the rebels and the alliance needs Katniss (who has become a folk hero) to inspire and motivate the peoples of Panem into overthrowing the government.

Katniss doesn’t care … or something. I didn’t really get this part but all of a sudden Katniss is being flown back to her District 12 to see the devastation that the government, under the rule of evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), has wrought. It turns out to be pretty gruesome and Katniss agrees to become the insurrection cover girl.

Then the plot screeches to a dead halt as we get thrown into the creative marketing meetings where the rebels’ PR campaign to brand and peddle Katniss-as-Savior is developed. I loved this part of the film, though why it’s here is another matter. I guess since they were stretching one book, Mockingjay, into two films they had to toss in everything they could think of. It’s an odd, pointless, but very welcome addition.

Welcome, because the rest of the film (which I won’t go into, to avoid spoilers) is unremittingly dark and dank and dour. Appropriately so, I suppose, but two hours of sincere grimness is a lot—especially considering that you go to see something like this for a bit of fluffy fun.

The Revolution Will Not Be Stylish

Yes, I realize that Katniss and her chums are fighting for the survival of humanity against a heinous villain. But does that mean we can’t smile every now and again? Julianne Moore (in the exact wig Meryl Streep wore in The Giver) sets her face in a mask of stony determination and it’s so over-the-top, from an actress known for her subtlety, that I found myself wondering whether in the next installment Alma Coin will turn out to be a traitor. (Don’t tell me! I’ll wait to find out.)

In this world, you know who is evil because they wear colors. All the good people are in taupe and oatmeal and gun-metal gray while those nasty wicked people sport primary colors. You know, democracy doesn’t have a bigger fan than me, but would a pattern and maybe something with a heel be so bad? I’d look like a potato in those shapeless shifts everyone’s wearing. Suddenly, joining the evil class where people have tailors doesn’t seem so bad. (That I’m also not crazy about children might have had something to do with it, too.)

Which is maybe why my favorite character is Effie Trinket. In the other movies she was sort of an elaborately bewigged and bejeweled hostess of the Games but now she has joined the rebels … in spirit anyway. Wigs and jewels are definitely out of the picture in the underground revolution, so she bitches constantly about the drab dreariness of her environs and fights back by wearing elaborate (and hysterical) do-rag creations—anything to bring some life to the joint. She’s played by one of my favorite comedic actresses, Elizabeth Banks, so I’m definitely on Team Effie.

Oscar-winner (for American Hustle) Lawrence is a beguiling screen presence as Katniss. She’s terrific at shading her thoughts and motivations from us but still keeping us absorbed in her inner world. The best way to describe the work of director Francis Lawrence—and, indeed, of the fleet of actors (famous and not)—is skilled and serviceable. Which is as it should be. The readers of these monumentally successful novels are not interested in anyone bringing anything new to the party; they want their books up on the screen exactly how they’ve imagined them.

Mission accomplished.

Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.