Don't tell Hollywood I said this, but chopping the final novel of the Hunger Games trilogy into two films might be the best thing that could have happened to this franchise. Granted, it didn't work for Harry Potter — the first Deathly Hallows film was terrible — and Peter Jackson is already two-thirds of the way toward demonstrating that turning the brief Hobbit book into three long films was not artistically warranted. And it's not even like the so-far enthralling Hunger Games films needed any help.
It's just that this might be the best possible beginning of the ending that this particular story could have gotten.
The Games are done here. No more playing. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), reluctant heroine of District 12, has been snatched from the arena where impoverished teenagers play out a to-the-death bloodsport for the amusement of their overlords of the decadent Capitol. In that arena, she accidentally inspired a nation of downtrodden serfs in the future North American nation of Panem to begin to tentatively rise up. Now, she is with her rescuers, the people of the lone outright rebellious district, 13, the leaders of which hope to use her as a symbol to ignite all-out civil war.
The series has been, from the beginning, about the power of propaganda and the persuasive capabilities of media to tell a story that will sway hearts and minds. And with Mockingjay Part 1, the films continue on their astonishing track of being, if not actually better than other book-based movies, then at least as complementary. The novels are told from Katniss' first-person, present-tense perspective, which has its own intimate weight but fails to offer us a larger view on her world. In the films, we are shown, from a more omniscient perspective, just how she's used by others to further their own agendas, and the cultural impact of that in her world.
In Mockingjay Part 1, it's no longer the rapacious Capitol and evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who are using Katniss as public inspiration. Now it's the leaders of District 13, including President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and former Gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has defected. The film's viewers may agree, as does Katniss, with their aim to overthrow the Capitol, but it is startling and a little bit horrifying to see how very moving propaganda can be.
A terrific sequence early in the film illustrates this, and also shows off Jennifer Lawrence as an entirely remarkable actor. We saw in the previous films how Katniss was pretty good at pretending to be something she was not (such as "hopelessly in love with Peeta," her Hunger Games teammate). Yet here we see how absolutely awful she is at trying to force herself to show emotion that she intellectually agrees with but isn't feeling at the moment. She's completely unconvincing while shouting lines scripted for her by Heavensbee about freedom and rebellion in a studio setting.
But all that changes soon enough. Once another Capitol defector, director Cressida (Natalie Dormer), gets her out in the field to tour a District devastated by Capitol bombing, and to visit with their wounded, Katniss' ire is genuinely raised. There's a lot of complicated and even intriguingly contradictory stuff going on here: the triumph of a young woman who cannot be managed, yet soars when she gets to be herself, raised a huge lump in my throat, while at the same time I was fully aware that her powerful rage was being turned into a product.
Cutting Mockingjay, the book, into two films means we're left with a sort of Empire Strikes Back feel to this one — that's a good thing — complete with a devastating cliffhanger that doesn't leave room for a lot of hope. Except, that is, the not-at-all unjustified hope that, next year, The Hunger Games will deliver a satisfying wrap-up to what has so far been one of the smartest, most enthralling science-fiction films series ever.