THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART I, or: How to Start a Revolution

mockingjay_jennifer-lawrence_05The spirit of rebellion is in the air, even if people don’t seem to know what to do with it. The Arab Spring was meant to change things in the Middle East, though it seems that they are still struggling even after the balance of power has shifted. In Russia, the masked punk collective Pussy Riot continues to be a thorn in Vladimir Putin’s side. In my home country, we have seen many of our country’s secrets exposed by hacktivists like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. We have seen groups like Anonymous and Occupy Wall St. attempt to poke holes in a seemingly impenetrable fortress of secrets and lies. It’s hard to not be reminded of these recent events when one sees them mirrored so chillingly in the latest installment of the HUNGER GAMES series.

These seeds of revolution had been planted in the first two films and with the latest installment, we see how these revolutions are created. We see the effect on people who are thrust into times of turbulence and how they are molded into something they never intended. THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART I winds up being both a plea for mercy and a raised fist in the air against tyranny. It’s a film marketed to the young, who should all have at least a spark of rebellion within them, but winds up being more complex than what typically passes for mature entertainment these days. At this point, isn’t it disingenuous and limiting to call these films “young adult entertainment?”

There is no denying that we are entrenched in more adult territory at the beginning of MOCKINGJAY. The first image we see is not a lush forest as it was in the earlier films. Instead, it is of our protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), now buried underground in the mysterious District 13. Tears run down her puffy, sweating face as she tries to remind herself of who she is and what is happening. After facing two life-threatening ordeals, this is how the film serves up its heroes – broken, beaten and praying for the nightmare to end.

At the end of CATCHING FIRE, Katniss was plucked from the Hunger Games and taken to District 13, a place that was believed destroyed 75 years prior. Katniss’ family and a few close allies have managed to stay alive. But in retaliation, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the Capitol has done to District 12 what they only pretended to do to District 13 so many generations ago. Snow has bombed Katniss’ home into rubble. More than 90 percent of the more than 10,000 inhabitants were slaughtered. Katniss is horrified by this turn of events and is sick with worry over friends being held prisoner by the Capitol, especially Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).

Still, something has changed. Her act of rebellion has spiraled into a genuine movement as the remaining districts, who are mostly ignorant of the bombings in 12, begin to rebel themselves. Each district provides the Capitol with much-needed supplies, so anything that disrupts that flow of materials is a blow to the decadent seats of power. Such stirrings of rebellion can peter out over time, or can be quashed under the iron boot of those in power. If the rebellion is to succeed, it needs a figurehead, someone to rally behind and serve as a symbol for the struggle. It needs the Mockingjay.

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It is at this point that MOCKINGJAY PART I gives us the most amazing and subversive statement I’ve seen in a recent blockbuster. Katniss is given makeup and dressed in a sleek warrior’s uniform, the “best dressed rebel,” according to Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks). She is placed in front of a blank canvas as digital effects are superimposed around her. These effects are the sleekest CGI they can afford, complete with cheering avatars and fire effects that would make Michael Bay green with envy. The music rises up over the images and it all sounds very familiar. Then the logo and text appear and it’s more familiar still. The end product is unmistakable.

This is not just propaganda. It perfectly mirrors Lionsgate’s advertising campaign for THE HUNGER GAMES.

Sitting in my seat, my tennis shoes sticking to the dried soda on the ground, I was left speechless. When was the last time such a major production directly commented on itself and the marketing frenzy surrounding it in a stern, ironic yet completely non-satirical manner? I’ve been wracking my brain and the closest comparison I can think of is the slow pan through the gift shop in JURASSIC PARK. And yet, even that was not as brazen as what director Francis Lawrence serves us in this sequence.

The hidden agenda in the propaganda sequence is twofold. On one level, it is absolutely a commentary on the way Summit/Lionsgate has marketed THE HUNGER GAMES and other young adult franchises such as TWILIGHT and DIVERGENT. The same motif used to lead people into battle in MOCKINGJAY is also used to lead people to the ticket counter, where they will pay a premium price and buy concessions, perhaps including a Mockingjay collector’s cup (I have mine.).

But primarily, it shows that revolutions are built on advertising. This is not far from the messages given in the first two films. In THE HUNGER GAMES, survival in the arena depended largely on how appealing Katniss could make herself to outside sponsors, even if it meant living a lie. Likewise in CATCHING FIRE, it was the building of alliances that led to the history-making final moments of the game, a plot that Katniss was ignorant of at the time. And now we have the Mockingjay, and once again Katniss is putting on an alien skin in order to bring about change in the world, and ensure the survival of those for whom she cares. The iconography, the logo, the James Newton Howard score and the four-tone whistle are all meant to be hooks to get people on their feet. Fifty years later, will people be spending their hard-earned money on t-shirts with Katniss Everdeen on them, in much the same way the images of Che Guevara are plastered everywhere now?

But it should be noted that it is the heart of Katniss that truly rallies the people. This is revealed in the same sequences where Katniss is awkward and stiff while delivering her scripted dialog. While Jennifer Lawrence is an excellent actress, Katniss Everdeen is not. She is not able to commit herself to a lie, something which also puts the previous charade with Peeta in perspective. Hence, she needs to react with genuine horror, warmth or anger and for that, she needs to be put in the field. Once again, she enters a new game, one where she will hopefully be able to wrench power away from her many puppet masters.

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THE HUNGER GAMES is a series far more sophisticated and special than the myriad of other major franchises. The way Gary Ross adapted Suzanne Collins’ first novel ensured the original HUNGER GAMES a spot on my Ten Best list from 2012. Francis Lawrence didn’t quite match that audaciousness with CATCHING FIRE, though he certainly turned in a good film which was made better by an intelligent script and top-notch cast. Lawrence seems to have found his swimming legs, because MOCKINGJAY PART I is nearly as fantastic and groundbreaking as the original, in some ways moreso.

This was never a series about people being forced to fight to the death. It was about the monstrous lengths oppressive governments will go to keep their citizens down and retain their power. It was about the constant cycle of fear and intimidation political structures impose on a cowering populace. The first of the two-part MOCKINGJAY film illustrates this perfectly. No rousing special effects scenes here. This film starts out with public executions and scenes of our protagonists experiencing night terrors.

The film only covers the first half of Suzanne Collins’ book, which has been a main source of criticism from fans and non-fans alike. I can understand this and ordinarily, I might agree. But Lawrence doesn’t waste our time with irrelevant scenes. Rather, he uses the opportunity to let the characters breathe a bit and to expand upon the themes in Collins’ novel. The film gets in the characters’ heads like few others would. It was never dull and had me riveted for the entire running time. This is a film where I’m glad that Lawrence stepped back and did some intense evaluation.

Stepping back is actually an aesthetic theme throughout. The film is lighter on action than the other installments, so one would expect the filmmakers to exploit any opportunity to engage in a bonanza of special effects. This is not the case. In one of the film’s climactic sequences, we see no shots fired nor one building destroyed. Instead, an assault from the Capitol is relayed by the reactions of people escaping and then waiting in an underground bunker. The HUNGER GAMES films have always walked that line, choosing to excite but not revel in the spectacle of violence. It is not the act that is interesting, but the impact it has on the people stuck in the middle. Hence, we don’t get the show-stopping money shot. We get periodic darkness, we get claustrophobia, we get fear.

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART I should end debate on whether this is a series for kids or not. Rather, it is a primer on what it is like to live under an oppressive regime, the struggle and terror linked to rebelling against your masters and how propaganda always seeks to strengthen one group, whether the cause is noble or not. It’s a film that isn’t afraid to get into not just the characters’ heads, but ours as well. It presents a dark and violent picture of how to start a revolution and how to make a revolutionary. And then it asks, with terrifying uncertainty, if there is anything left of them when they come out on the other side.  The Best.

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RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA

  • What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals? 
  • In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?

The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.

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