‘Mockingjay’ Review: Don’t Start the Revolution Without Memes
If there is a particular value in adapting a long series of novels into an extended motion picture franchise, it’s that typically the sequels get better and better every time. It should be poor form for a sequel to simply rehash the plot of the original without taking the characters anywhere new. And while there are notable exceptions, one is forced to wonder after watching the latest entry in the Hunger Games franchise just how Hollywood has gotten away with it for so long.
What began as a pubescent knockoff of The Most Dangerous Game has gradually evolved into a striking examination of just how far marketing has invaded into our lives. Whereas the previous film, Catching Fire, explored the odorous exploitation of teen stars for heartless capitalistic gain (a theme which, in a vacuum, came across as downright hypocritical given all the Hunger Games merchandise there is for sale), Mockingjay, Part 1 has gone in the opposite direction, with downright fascinating results.
After the events of Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has found herself in a bunker in District 13, an underground city long thought destroyed by the fascist overlords of The Capitol. The revolution is underway, and it absolutely must be televised, so the spin doctors we distrusted in the previous two films – Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) – have set about the task of callously manipulating the masses once again. This time they just happen to be doing it for a good cause, in the aid of District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore).
And although director Francis Lawrence once again slickly dramatizes the dynamite action and the emotional outbursts of his young cast, those parts are now mere window dressing. What The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 executes best isn’t the “Us vs. Them” packaging but the rather cynical notion that the masses are always sheep, are always swayed by calculated propaganda, and that they require the guidance of benevolent, powerful overlords in order to do the right thing.
There’s something undeniably sick about that concept, but Mockingjay devilishly treats it as a matter of fact. A world in which spin doctors secretly control our lives by conveying their clients’ messages with flourish isn’t the setting for a sci-fi fantasy anymore. It’s right here, right now. It’s a state of affairs that everyone is forced to embrace if they actually want to change the world.
In fact, the action-thriller Mockingjay could almost double as serious drama about all the filmmakers who produce the “Would You Like To Know More?” propaganda in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, slyly manipulating the populace, and under the distinct impression that they are doing the right thing. And here, maybe they really are. But the cold logic behind the production of Katniss Everdeen TV spots, directed by Cressida (Natalie Dormer), provides an occasionally funny, always thoughtful framework for an otherwise familiar tale of rebels fighting fascists in an exhilarating sci-fi future.
The images of the masses singing a Katniss Everdeen commercial jingle while marching into revolution plays like heroism, and it probably is, but it also brings to mind the government-sanctioned murderers of Full Metal Jacket singing the “Mickey Mouse Club” theme as the world burns. The individual is a truly desperate creature in the world of The Hunger Games. Katniss is dragged from meeting to meeting like an intern, and her feelings are usually a nuisance. This is not a war for freedom or anarchy, it’s a war between two political systems that only use the idea of individuality as a selling point to install one machine or the other.
That’s a beautifully challenging concept for a PG-13 action thriller – that the exact same tools are used to both heal and destroy – and Mockingjay, Part 1 presents it with appropriate levels of rage and acceptance. Francis Lawrence keeps the action paced out impressively, making the whole journey feel less like a hypothetical civics lesson and more like an unusually deft thriller punctuated by explosions, romantic angst and cat and mouse games with an enjoyably wicked Donald Sutherland, as the dictator President Snow.
Although the first Hunger Games was competent and the second was slicker, smarter and a little bit vicious, this third installment feels excitingly new. It’s the blockbuster reimagined for a modern age of social consciousness, in which having the right idea means nothing if you can’t also make a meme out of it. This is intellectually and emotionally charged big budget cinema, and it leaves you hungry for more.