This ‘Mockingjay’ just won’t fly

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“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1” is the penultimate entry in the four-film dystopian franchise. It represents an adaptation of the early portion of the final installment of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling YA trilogy.

We are reunited with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the protagonist of the first two films. “Mockingjay” does not deign to provide a recapitulation of the prior proceedings.  Instead, it assumes that the viewer recalls that in last year’s “Catching Fire,” Katniss and her partner, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) had disrupted the 75th edition of the Hunger Games. This sparked a rebellion in the outlying Districts of Panem against the oppressive Central government led by tyrannical President Snow (again, a deliciously devious Donald Sutherland).

The rebels had rescued Katniss from the Quarter Qwell arena. However, she is now afflicted with a severe case of PTSD. Katniss is surprised to discover the situation that has emerged.

Under the leadership of Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, new to the series), the insurgency has gained traction. The rebels are headquartered in a secret, subterranean lair situated in District 13. Nearly all of the film is situated there.

Above is a screen capture from the trailer of "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1"  at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PkkHsuMrho

Above is a screen capture from the trailer of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PkkHsuMrho

Coin’s top advisors include Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillips Seymour Hoffman, to whom the film is dedicated in a touching end coda), who is a savvy tactician, and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), a computer hacker, who is confined to a wheelchair. Recovering alcoholic, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), has nothing to do other than stay sober. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is also back, but is no longer the outlandishly coiffed and couture character of the past.

This episode no longer platforms Katniss’ skills as an action heroine. Instead, the free-spirited character struggles with the regimentation of underground life and broods about totalitarianism. Katniss’ compatriots include her sister, Primrose (Willow Shields, a name well-suited for a character in this fantasy series); an aspiring suitor, the hunky Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth); and another macho male, Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin).

Katniss is overjoyed to learn that her erstwhile partner, Peeta, is alive. However, he is in the custody of the Central government and been brainwashed by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). Now, Peeta is being exploited to make propaganda broadcasts, condemning the rebellion. Katniss is appalled, but recognizes that Peeta no longer has free will.

The leaders of the rebellion try to recruit Katniss as the spokesmodel for their own counter-propaganda campaign. Initially, she resists their overtures. However, Katniss eventually capitulates. She predicates her willingness to cooperate on two conditions. Peeta will be rescued from the Federal capital headquarters and pardoned for his treasonous support of the Central government.

What made the first two installments of “The Hunger Games” dramatically satisfying? They both boasted action-filled storylines in an outdoor setting. They pitted a resourceful heroine against a cadre of colorful adversaries. Katniss became a groundbreaking feminist icon.

Here, Katniss is relegated to essentially being a supporting character in her own vehicle. She wanders around the film’s perpetually dark, claustrophobogenic setting, engulfed in a PTSD stupor. Katniss’ persona is blunted and stripped of the spunky edge, which had made her character inherently appealing. Disconcertingly, she is rendered a passive bystander to the film’s principal action set piece.

“Mockingjay” lacks an engaging plot or a narrative trajectory. It abruptly ends at a juncture that makes no sense from a story-telling vantage point. This reflects a cynical decision by the filmmakers to squeeze a separate feature film out of an arbitrarily truncated novel. Substituting expository dialogue for action, “Mockingjay” devolves into a philosophical screed about the abuses of power.

The talky, terminally dull “Mockingjay” is an unworthy successor to the well-crafted antecedent films.

** PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material) 123 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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