The Hunger Games, the first film in the titular franchise, failed to impress formally, what with its use of handheld cameras shakily and transparently standing in for the disorientation of entering into the instability of Suzanne Collins's post-apocalyptic world. But Catching Fire played more smoothly, allowing the juxtaposition between the natural beauty of Panem's outer districts and the flamboyant urbanity of the Capitol to speak for itself. And now in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1, the focus has become even tighter, the juxtaposition even more stark: The rebels have been driven underground into the previously concealed District 13, navigating a gray maze of metal and concrete, an entirely manmade world—not a dusty town square in sight—and all while the Capitol still thrives out in the open, albeit under the ominous cloud of imminent rebellion.
Mockingjay - Part 1 opens immediately following the conclusion of Catching Fire, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) being treated in a District 13 hospital after having been rescued from the Games by the rebels, including turncoat Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), formerly the Game Master in the second film who had purportedly been on the side of the Capitol. Lawrence is tasked with a part that's rife with PTSD stereotypes (screaming nightmares, oppressive guilt, a constant inward regression and desire to be alone), but in such a nuanced actress, we can also see decisions being made under the surface, her character weighing options and processing what has happened, is happening, and will happen, even as she remains outwardly cold and impenetrable.
Liam Hemsworth as the stalwart Gale, Katniss's friend and now also an important player in the rebellion, doesn't quite shoulder the increase in screen time here, his self-seriousness lending his character a certain level of authority, but with a distinct lack of depth. But Julianne Moore, as President Coin, political leader of the rebellion, more than adequately vacillates between skepticism and hope. And a scene in which Hoffman's character, now in District 13 and being attacked by the Capitol forces he once worked alongside, reacts with barely controlled terror as bombs are dropped above him—all resolve breaking down, his fear raw and palpable—is particularly heartbreaking.
Technology, or at least access to technology—more so even in this third film than in its predecessors—has become a weapon in this post-apocalypse, but also a lens. Technology, after all, is how we see each other now, how we communicate in a world where physical boundaries seem to dissolve, which is why the infiltration of physical boundaries in the film becomes so exciting and rife with implication. And the most tensely dramatized mission in Mockingjay - Part 1 is the physical extraction of political prisoners from the Capitol by the rebels from District 13, which is made possible by a technological intervention, specifically a live broadcast that jams the Capitol's network. In scenes reminiscent of well-executed military thrillers, we watch the rebel team back at headquarters blocking airwaves and security cameras in an effort to allow their team of soldiers to infiltrate the Capitol by cover of night.
Throughout much of the film, the audience is either looking at a screen or looking at an image being prepared for a screen, the central plot being the creation of propaganda videos to gumshoe onto Capitol transmissions in an effort to mobilize a rebellion in the outer districts. Scenes of actual physical action—the extraction of the prisoners, and also a dramatic impromptu battle sequence in which Katniss downs enemy aircraft, but fails to save the rebels she came to inspire—ratchet up tension in what's otherwise often just a waiting game.
The first two films in the franchise were given major set pieces to provide myriad opportunities for drama (the titular Hunger Games in both cases), and thus Mockingjay - Part 1 suffers from a lack of catharsis, a well-executed heightening of tension without a satisfying release. Not surprising, of course, given that Collins originally wrote the final volume of her trilogy as a single novel. And while the rescue of the captured victors is presented as this film's most singular embedded plot arc, its success—or lack thereof—doesn't pack the same punch in the end. Instead, much of the film's drama is achieved through the idea of the gaze: who's watching whom, and when.
But for a franchise perpetually obsessed with notions of reality and fabrication, as well as the relative veracity of narratives produced by the media, this third volume doesn't add much to the conversation. The tables have turned: Katniss is now an advertisement for the rebellion, rather than a pawn in the Capitol's effort to keep the peace. But this reversal reveals nothing about the actual media apparatus, and in fact serves to highlight the relative simplicity of the film's understanding of politics and propaganda.
The rebels in the outer districts, for example, are assumed by both sides of the war to be almost comically manipulable, responding at once to Katniss's “commercials” even as the rebels worry that they might also respond to a captured Peeta's (Josh Hutcherson) call for peace on behalf of the Capitol. At one point during a visit to a rebel hospital, Katniss is even asked about what happened to her baby, referring to the fictive pregnancy that had been a part of her previous media campaign. The people in the districts seem ultimately to believe everything they're being told. And if the words of a teenager are all it takes to sway a nation toward overthrowing the government or submitting to an oppressive regime, I think we're all in trouble. But as a metaphor for the way we respond to the media, and the way our politics are funneled through the media lens, the film succeeds most when it revels in ambiguity. After all, who are we actually supposed to trust here? How much of what we're being told is true, even by those who claim to be on our side? Even Katniss herself isn't above lying to people for their own good. The less black and white the message, the more interesting the situation becomes, and by the end of Mockingjay – Part 1, the stage is set for a dramatic conclusion to a series of films that has managed to stand out in what has become a very, very dense crowd.