The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 Rebuilds the Mockingjay From the Boots Up

If the Hob still existed, everyone (read: Greasy Sae) would be gossiping about whether or not they can survive Mockingjay being chopped in half for the final two Hunger Games films. Tributes, I have been beyond the fence and can tell you: YOU WILL NOT ONLY SURVIVE, YOU WILL BECOME STRONGER THAN BEFORE.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, which is set to land in cinemas across the nation TONIGHT with all the thunder of a secondhand hovercraft, goes so deeply into the workings of Panem and all its characters that the previous two films meld together in your memory to form a bright, sugary Star Wars: A New Hope to this year’s masterful, complex, and dark The Empire Strikes Back. 

Having been plucked from the games arena by a rebel contingent after lighting the world/forcefield on fire with her arrow (and some copper wire *hat tip Beetee*), Katniss begins the movie from what I will charitably call an emotional “Beauty Base Zero.” Demoted to a white nightie and thermals, and housed in the medical wing of District 13’s vast underground (deeper than you know), Katniss is stuck in a cycle of nightmares, sedatives, and attempts to reconcile herself to the new world: she is stuck in a district she thought was destroyed, her own home demolished by a rebellion she never quite thought possible. Looking back on the events of Catching Fire, you realize that, like a terrible surprise party, Katniss was the last to know.

When District 13’s leaders allow Katniss a sightseeing trip to the smoking rubble of District 12, you realize just how fully her past has been obliterated. Bones crowd the road out of town, and the justice building lies in ruins. Only the Victor’s Village is left standing. In the book, the suggestion is that the Capitol preserved it for use as accommodation, but the sense you have watching the film is that President Snow is sending Katniss a message that nothing will survive but the Capitol’s way; that in some way he has spared her. Likewise, the surprise Valentine he has left in her house is a little bit Phantom of the Opera-y. This girl has seen a LOT of unwanted attention.

Still, Katniss is safe at last: she has her mother and Prim (Willow Shields), Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Haymitch (oh Woody), utilitarian jumpsuits, and triangular meals served in hubcaps. What more could she want?

Peeta.

The sensitive baker boy is missing (present only in the form of the pearl Katniss clutches throughout), held by the Capitol along with Annie, Finnick’s tribute girlfriend. Finnick, by the way, looks even worse than Katniss, his brilliant, gleaming chest and smile hidden under a nightie and his hands twitching as they tie knots over and over again in a piece of leather. He’s better acquainted with President Snow’s game, and more pessimistic.

Katniss’s only chance to change anything is to consider the request of District 13/rebel union chief President Alma Coin—whose dystopian blonde coif she is naturally wary of—and become the Mockingjay; the face of the revolution. Her batsuit, designed lovingly by Cinna, is ready and waiting, but early attempts to Photoshop Katniss into marketing spots for the other districts are laughably bad: she’s a terrible faker. This leads Coin and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to send Katniss into the field with a propaganda team led by Cressida (Natalie Dormer). Things get real and messy when a photo op with the staff and patients of a rudimentary District 8 hospital is interrupted by a Capitol air raid, and when Peeta appears on Panem screens asking, traitorously, for a ceasefire.

This time, there isn’t a Seneca Crane to announce two winners; this time, Peeta and Katniss have been assigned to different teams. Plus, President Snow has a diabolical crush on our Mockingjay, and doesn’t seem keen to share her with anyone. On the fringe is Gale, a soldier now, and the hero responsible for saving the hundred or so people who made it out of District 12 alive. He’s Katniss’s childhood soulmate, but they’re butting heads over their ideas about war, and Gale obviously feels he can’t stack up to very-sympathetic-prisoner-of-war and champion cuddler Peeta.

There are big, bold things being said here about tyranny and the U.S. government, but none of Katniss’s options are clean, and that’s as much the takeaway as anything. By the end of the film, she has more or less caught up mentally with a revolution and a love triangle dilemma a lifetime in the making, setting the scene for an absolute cracker of a finale next year.

For the most politically sophisticated YA dystopia of recent years, The Hunger Games series manages to peg out a lot of emotional terrain. One of the starkest reminders that things have changed is Prim, who has grown up since her days as Katniss’s little duck—her deceptive strength and thoughtful counsel steer Katniss back out of her funk. Effie, back by popular demand, has replaced Fulvia as a Capitol expat adjusting to the militant world of District 13, and her attempts to Project Runway her sad uniform into something more chic come off as optimistic and artistic, as opposed to vain and consumerist, giving us a more complex look at the people of the Capitol (i.e., those on the “wrong side” of the conflict). Plus, she’s hilarious.

The filmmakers have described the first film as being concerned with Katniss’s immediate family, and the second film with her friends, and they widen the scope exponentially to look at the thousands of Panem civilians who are standing up for their basic rights. Katniss’s romantic confusion feels frivolous to her, set against the backdrop of war, but emotional junk is always frivolous set against the world’s troubles, and it’s a little bit brilliant to tie Katniss’s loyalties into the machinery of propaganda. In one scene, when an avox whistles the four-note salute out by a river, a flock of mockingjays picks it up, amplifying the tune into a chorus, and someone grumpily says, “Now they’ll never stop.” Katniss is the Mockingjay whether she wants to be or not, thanks to her actions in Catching Fire, and she can help the fire along or self-destruct in it…for all the concern that the film lacks “action,” you’ll be surprised at how good of a warrior Katniss turns out to be.

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