Comfortable and Furious

Mockingjay Part One (The Hunger Games)

123 Minutes, PG-13 for dropping napalm on hospitals

Fair Value of Mockingjay Part One: $4.00. Mockingjay Part One is suffering from a fairly developed case of franchise-itis (which I will explain shortly), making it a slow breather focused on inter-personal dynamics. Watch if you want to see Katniss trying to develop and reconcile with friends and fellow rebels; skip if you were hoping for ass-kicking and action.

The Plague of Franchise Bloat: Filmgoers are familiar with sequelitis; that storytelling disease in which the idea is ‘just like the first one, only more, and in a big city.”. Sequelitis is the delusion that repetition of the same joke or action sequence will somehow deliver the same popularity at the box office. Now, however, studios are thinking purely in a franchise mentality. Nothing is a singular film, a one-off; every film is now merely a cog in a greater 20 film saga that is waiting to be made. And that gives rise to franchisitis.

Franchise bloat is the condition of a film, game, or story that is wholly subservient to advancing and establishing pending future events and conflicts rather than to actual resolution of conflicts and events. It is, in essence, a tease; 120 minutes of foreshadowing and establishment, lacking in catharsis or resolution. It is a watchmaker becoming so enmeshed in setting up the elaborate clockwork that they never bother to set the parts into motion. A plot suffering from franchise bloat only works within the greater mosaic of a film marathon, and fails when regarded as an individual component.

There is a second failure within a plot suffering from franchise bloat: to make a film that only exists to build anticipation for the next film is to curse the next film with anti-climax. Many writers fail to understand that wonder is not a byproduct of volume and amplification, but of surprise. It’s not bigger battles, bigger fight scenes, bigger stakes that entertain audiences; it’s the turnaround- when Eowyn cuts down the Witch King, when the Millenium Falcon swoops in to save Luke. We are not compelled by the grandeur of war but by the caprice of war.

Franchisitis, ironically, is the killer of franchises, by oversaturating the audience with the expectation that the next film will be EPIC and MOMENTOUS. Maybe consider this, studios: maybe the fans don’t want everything to be subservient to one all controlling overweening future climax. Maybe we just want to see “the continuing adventures of….”. The Odyssey didn’t build up to a gigantic climax. The twelfth labor of Hercules was not somehow contingent on the previous eleven labors. Nobody asked Cervantes to have Don Quixote gear up to battle the King of all Windmills, to avenge the windmill that killed his brother, or some such. Modern franchises make the mistake of assuming that moviegoers always want a saga to climb a mountain, when in reality, we’re really just looking for an enjoyable cruise.

Katniss sitting in a bomb shelter for 123 minutes. Such is the failing of Mockingjay: Part One. The Hunger Games are over, and our heroine, raspy Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), is recuperating in a hospital bed. She’s been rescued by the rebels of District 13, who survive in a giant complex of bomb shelters. Katniss has been re-united with her family, and with love interest A, the brooding Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Love interest B, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), remains a captive of the capital, where he grows increasingly bruised and skeletal as the film progresses. As much as Katniss might like to brood, or at least just be a regular solider of the rebellion, she instead must deal with rebel leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), who plans to have Katniss be the Joan of Arc symbol for the rebellion. Katniss has to play along and become the figurehead if she’s going to get backing for any mission to rescue Peeta from out of the capital….

I have an alternate theory for this sparse installment, which mostly seems to take place inside of one set: the star-studded payroll cuts out any money for the props, sets, and costumes. Apparently, this film was mostly filmed in the (US) state of Georgia. There is a very 1970s sci-fi vibe to this film, with everybody running up and down stairs in matching Maoist jumpsuits.

Shades of Syria: The civil war of Panem is heating up, or at least we think it is. Katniss gets to tour several different rubble quarries, and spends a good portion of the film crouching while the earth shakes from the bombs going off above her. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) controls the capital, and the air force; the rebels are everywhere and have numbers, but are outgunned in every confrontation. Of course, there aren’t any religious fanatics or foreign intervention in this dystopian vision of the USA turned North Korea. But the imagery is one familiar to the teen audience from the news- ragged rebels, shattered cities, bombing strikes.

The one advantage that this film has is a strong cast to support an introspective and somber pause for breath between the action of the second and forth films. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, sadly, is a shambolic mess who doesn’t seem very engaged. But Julianne Moore radiates a good balance of pragmatism and ruthlessness as the rebel commander. Jennifer Lawrence remains wholly plausible as a raspy country girl whose had entirely too much of the action hero life. Most of all, Donald Sutherland comes through by making President Snow into a memorable villain. He’s avuncular, treacherous, and he always takes the time to add the personal touch to every atrocity, whether it’s dropping roses over a bombing site or subtly hinting at his next tactic.

Time to heal and time to mourn: In certain ways, Mockingjay is a very original tangent from the other Hunger Games films in that it is barely an action film, but instead a psychological film about trauma and recovery. But that’s the sort of accident that you get when you decide to make a movie solely out of the first part of a third book in a trilogy. Like Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, you wind up with something that is more recap than motion, more re-introduction than the development. It’s useful to know how Katniss is going to get to the battle royale that will conclude the story, but there is nothing in this movie that couldn’t have been done by good storytelling in the course of twenty or thirty minutes.

This is a film for Hunger Games enthusiasts who want to luxuriate in every detail of the setting, but it doesn’t have much for the casual filmgoer, and almost nothing for action film lovers. It really could have served well as an extra on an extended length DVD. But it’s no more than a rest break, extended into the length of a full film. As such, it’s worth skipping for most people.



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