Dark and hazy, relentlessly glum and dull, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” is the first film in this sci-fi series to refuse to even attempt to stand on its own.
If you haven’t seen the previous films, good luck picking up on what the story is or who those people are off camera that on-screen characters mention. Good luck remembering who everybody who shows up on screen is as well, for that matter.
And if you know the book, you know they’ve saved the climactic action — much of the action — for “Mockingjay Part 2.”
That said, “Part 1” is an interesting change in tone and approach. Francis “I Am Legend” Lawrence directs with more concern for smoky underground atmosphere than for exposition, with more interest in telling the audience what they want to hear than letting them feel it for themselves.
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Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is traumatized by the bloodshed of the previous “Games,” and by the loss of her beloved Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). The revolutionaries she inspired against The Capital have spirited her away in their vast underground fortress. That’s where other childhood beau Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is at her side, and old colleagues like Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and the daft fashion plate Effie (Elizabeth Banks) might be some comfort.
But the powers that be — the revolution’s leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and cunning propaganda chief Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — have big plans for her. She is The Mockingjay, the symbolic “face of the revolution.” They want her to do some heroic posing for the cameras, to get the other bombed and embattled districts, where labor is enslaved to do The Capital’s work, to join in the rebellion.
All Katniss wants is Peeta. He survived the last “Games,” and is now turning up on TV, urging the rebels to give up on behalf of Panem President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
So it’s a video war, with Katniss coached and made-up and pitted against a frail and haunted Peeta, both of them guided by marketers or straight coercion into staying on message. That’s why the rebels need fashionista Effie, “condemned to this life of jumpsuits,” in her new subterranean cell.
The humor is more overt here, but so is the melodrama. Every move and counter-move is arch and built around a ticking clock — doors about to close, bombs about to explode.
George Lucas obsessed about poorly armed peasants bringing down hi-tech war machines with sticks and stones, an idea he built his Ewoks of “Star Wars” around. It finds new life as we see Katniss bring down a futuristic hover-copter with her bow and arrow.
The underground facility scenes have a smoky quality, as if poor lighting was not enough. The ventilation isn’t up to the job. And what DO all those people down there do to survive, aside from wearing jumpsuits?
Lawrence strains to find real emotions to play here. Her undying love for Peeta seems more unreal than ever. And Moore is entirely too stiff to be a compelling leader of rebels. But Hoffman, after a rough opening scene, reminds us of the shock of his death, bringing a quiet urgency to a supporting role any number of actors could have played, all of them with less shading.
It’s not a bad film, this first-half of the concluding chapter of “The Hunger Games.” But it is, from first scene to last, just a tedious good-looking set-up for what one might hope would be a more lively, and perhaps better lit and ventilated, finale.