The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 Review
The country of Panem - comprised of an administrative Capitol and 12 districts which were built on the post-apocalyptic ruins of North America - is in turmoil after the dramatic events of the Quarter Quell, the special 75th anniversary of the barbaric Hunger Games which were designed to keep the districts in check. District 13, long thought destroyed by the domineering Capitol, has revealed itself by staging a daring rescue of Katniss Everdeen from the games arena. Her unwitting show of dissent in the games a year earlier has sparked civil unrest across the nation, and she's been saved by the D13 rebels to become the face of their revolution. They hope that she’ll unite the districts in their fight against President Snow, the blackhearted ruler of Panem who's struggling to keep his fracturing fiefdom in one piece.
But instead of adding a proud and defiant warrior to their ranks the rebels have acquired a traumatised young woman, wracked with guilt because they extracted her from the arena at the expense of Peeta Mellark, her closest friend and ally. No-one seems capable of reaching Katniss until a TV broadcast from the Capitol reveals a terrible truth: Peeta is still alive, albeit under heavy duress, and calling for a ceasefire which the rebels regard as treason. Katniss’ shock gives way to the realisation that she must become the rebels’ mouthpiece in order to bargain for Peeta’s life, and so she reluctantly assumes the guise of the Mockingjay.
Mockingjay Part 1 is the partial adaptation of the final installment of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy of young adult books. While the splitting of the last book into two films - following in the footsteps of certain other teen franchises - has been widely derided as a blatant cash grab by studio Lionsgate, I couldn't care less. Movies like this are created to make money, it’s the reason why sequels exist after all, so cooking up an intermediate episode by chopping a book in two doesn’t strike me as being particularly dastardly (heck, they’ve already hinted at the possibility of more Hunger Games movies in the future). What I do care about is if the resultant films are any good, and I’m pleased to say that I was quite taken with Mockingjay the first.
Director Francis Lawrence’s services were retained for the Mockingjays which were shot back-to-back, and although I wasn't impressed with the slick and glossy feel of Catching Fire (I felt it undermined the core message of the story), this time around his movie has a bit more character. Lawrence’s camera isn't quite as shaky as Gary Ross’ queasy aesthetic on the first Hunger Games, but it's definitely got a more unbalanced feel which is an apt metaphor for the mental trauma that haunts Katniss, and the handheld first-person shots fit nicely with the concept of Katniss being followed by a camera crew as she tours the embattled districts. The extremely gloomy confines of D13’s underground habitat and the fixed widescreen aspect won’t please those who are looking for the same eye-candy as the previous film (there are no IMAX shenanigans this time around!), but it restores some of the grittiness which Catching Fire was lacking.
The cast do a good job across the board. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss continues her downward spiral, having been consumed by remorse over failing to save Peeta and she's still struggling with the PTSD which had begun to manifest in Catching Fire. Lawrence has always been able to pull off the dichotomous nature of Katniss remarkably well (being so strong but so vulnerable) and this is no exception. Josh Hutcherson only gets a short time on-screen as Peeta but he certainly makes a shocking impact, and because Peeta has been sidelined Liam Hemsworth's Gale finally gets some meatier scenes to chew on - you're left in no doubt where his loyalties lie. Philip Seymour Hoffman also gets more to do second time around as Plutarch Heavensbee, ex-Capitol Gamemaker and director-in-chief of the rebels’ propaganda spots or "propos". He ably fleshes out Plutarch’s war-weariness whilst still retaining a twinkle in his eye as he goes about his work.
Effie Trinket makes a much earlier appearance than she does in the book, having taken the place of Katniss’ prep team (who were just background players in the other movies anyway) and she's been given several lines from other characters, including one of Plutarch's scenes that Phil Hoffman sadly never got to shoot. Elizabeth Banks is back as the coquettish Capitol trendsetter, stripped of her finery and suffering for her art in the joyless environs of D13, and she brings a welcome touch of dry humour. Jeffrey Wright gets to repeat his small but crucial role as Beetee, the tech nerd from D3 who masterminded the breakout from the Quarter Quell arena and who's now in charge of hacking into the Capitol's airwaves. Series regular Woody Harrelson is also back in a reduced capacity as the newly-sober Haymitch, along with Paula Malcomson as Katniss' Mother and Willow Shields as young Prim. Natalie Dormer is one of the newcomers to the ensemble and she plays Cressida, a hotshot director who's defected from the Capitol, while Mahershala Ali stands out as Boggs, the no-nonsense security chief of D13.
Sam Claflin reprises the role of Finnick Odair, D4's famed adonis, but his stint in the book as Katniss' co-depressive has been pared back to make way for the on-screen expansion of two of the biggest players in the game: President Snow and President Coin. Donald Sutherland's pragmatic malevolence is in full flow once again as Coriolanus Snow, and Julianne Moore makes her Hunger Games debut as Alma Coin, leader of the D13 rebels. She's been warmed up from a cold, machiavellian character into an almost caring figure, with a new bit of sympathetic backstory to boot. The filmmakers were probably wary of making the rebel leader appear to be as malicious as Snow, but now she seems to be too much of a pushover as she's constantly acquiescing to demands. That said, she grows in confidence during the film and given what eventually transpires in the book perhaps they're setting her up for an even harder fall...
As mentioned at the top, the usual chuntering about avaricious studios greeted the decision to split the book into two films, but Mockingjay Part 1 is what it is. The director and writers were tasked to create a standalone narrative and for my money they've done just that. It follows the most obvious arc from the first half of the story, which is Katniss coming to terms with her feelings for Peeta and being convinced to become the rebel's talismanic figurehead, only to realise that her 'fame' has come at too high a price when she discovers what the Capitol's torturers have done to Peeta. A braver interpretation would've been to put much more of a focus on Peeta and turn the movie into a literal fight for his soul; one such scene where Snow pressures his young captive was cut from the film.
Much of the initial part of the book - with Katniss wandering about in a daze as she grapples with her demons - has been reorganised and had some connective tissue added, which was the right decision because it's the most dramatically inert portion of any of the novels. That's the irony of this 'book splitting' business: they're using the extra room to enlarge the cinematic reach of The Hunger Games instead of following the text to the letter. They reference certain threads from the previous movies (I loved it when Snow's granddaughter slyly undoes her Katniss-style braid when he outlaws any association with the Mockingjay; you might remember how she gushed about it in Catching Fire) and they've shifted ever further away from the Katniss-centric narrative to accommodate the enhancement of other key characters.
Thankfully the filmmakers have stayed true to Collins' underlying motif about the dehumanising aspect of war & violence (with some more overt allusions to come in Part 2), and they've also elaborated upon the propaganda battle that the characters are waging. While this is undoubtedly a major component of the book, it's been realised on-screen with a chilling echo of contemporary troubles as Snow outlaws all depictions of the Mockingjay, punishable by death, and he orders public executions of kneeling, hooded figures to prove his point. (With that in mind, the movie pulls no punches within the bounds of its US PG-13/UK 12 rating, as Katniss surveys the smoking remains of the Seam and stumbles onto a pile of charred bodies, and the choking scene late on is disturbingly intense.) It even takes on a distinctly meta feeling at times, like when we see a rebel propo which could easily pass for a trailer or TV spot for the film itself, and Jennifer Lawrence's backwoods rendition of The Hanging Tree (an old folk song from the Seam which Katniss' father sung to her) actually lodged in the music charts in several countries around the world.
There are still a few niggles though, as a lot of the music appears to have been recycled from Catching Fire, and some of the story's sharper edges have been blunted in the transition from page to screen, like the below-decks brutality of D13 which got softened along with Coin herself. And where was 'I KILL SNOW'? That circles back to my point about them packing the movie with new material; the knock-on effect is that occasionally they're forced to make simplistic narrative shortcuts with what remains of the original story. Still, it wouldn't be the first book-to-movie conversion to do so, as the subtleties of the author’s prose are often sacrificed for cinematic expediency, no matter how long the film(s) might be. Mockingjay Part 1 also lacks the propulsive third act of the previous films - the major action beats are found in the second half of the book, so shall it be for the collective Mockingjays - but it does feature a smart hostage extraction sequence, which substitutes slam-bang action for a tense raid shrouded in darkness and played out in night-vision (not unlike Zero Dark Thirty).
Some commentators have long dismissed Suzanne Collins' work (which she helped tailor for the screen) as a soppy YA-oriented version of Battle Royale, but instead The Hunger Games has transcended its roots to become one of the most important American science fiction series of recent times. Like all good sci-fi, it holds up a mirror to the current state of the human race and the reflection ain't pretty. This adaptation of Mockingjay Part 1 has done nothing to tarnish that legacy from either a critical or commercial perspective, with the majority of reviews offering praise (albeit begrudgingly in some cases) and it was sitting at the top of the 2014 US box office charts before the American Sniper picked it off. Part 2 will follow in November 2015, and it should be a suitably explosive and emotional send-off for Katniss Everdeen, the 'Girl On Fire'.
Lionsgate has released the movie in the UK in a Blu-ray/UV copy package with a lovely embossed slipcase. The disc appears to be the same as the US platter with the exact same audio/subtitle options, but it's region B locked. The main menu takes the form of the rebels’ command centre, randomly playing either Katniss’ “If we burn, you burn with us!” propo or Snow’s speech banning symbols of the Mockingjay. [This review has been updated 16/03/2015]
This franchise has been unusual in that it's been lensed in a different format every time. They used spherical Super 35 for the first movie, shot the second with a combination of anamorphic 35mm and large format 65mm IMAX, and they've changed it up again for the two Mockingjays, shooting anamorphic on the trusty ARRI Alexa. The decision was made to switch to digital (but not without some reservations) because of the enclosed, cramped, dark interiors of the D13 complex which had to be lit with largely practical fixtures. You lose part of a stop just by shooting anamorphic, and the excellent low-light performance of the Alexa ensured that they wouldn't miss any of the gloomy details, rounded off with a 4K DI finish. (It also got a 3D conversion for release in China, which has led to a worldwide 3D IMAX release for the final film.)
This 1080p Blu-ray is framed at 2.40 widescreen and is, ah, somewhat variable. Blacks can look fine in one scene then incredibly milky in another, and the shadows also take on a red tinge in some shots. The contrast is similarly uneven, with the washed-out D13 interiors clashing with the intentionally blown-out highlights of the overground scenes. Colour also shifts between locales, with the natural-looking skin tones above ground giving way to sallow, sodium-lit faces when underground. The image isn't blisteringly sharp owing to the old anamorphic glass (a favourite of DP Jo Willems) and the constant use of smoke to diffuse the unforgiving acuity of the digital capture. However there's still plenty of fine detail to go around, showing every silver strand of Coin's immaculately straight hair with no sign of aliasing or haloing. Noise is never an issue. None of this is wildly inconsistent with the digital theatrical projection I saw - it's simply not a pretty-looking movie, although the Blu-ray could've done with higher gamma to give the blacks more depth – but there is a noticeable issue which was definitely NOT there in the cinema.
Unfortunately it suffers from the same problem as so many Lionsgate discs have done recently (including Catching Fire on Blu-ray): banding a.k.a. posterization, which means that subtle gradations of colour & light degrade into clearly delineated bands and it makes the encoding look very amateurish. It's not a massive problem for the first 90 minutes or so (though it's still there if you look for it) but the rescue sequence late on is awful, with the dark skies above the Capitol looking like some sort of impressionistic artwork and the red shoulder lights of the soldiers also make the banding readily apparent.
It's immensely frustrating that Lionsgate can make so money from this series but are either unwilling or unable to go the extra mile with the Blu-ray encode. Oh, they're happy to fart about with lots of retailer exclusives (especially in the US) but treating the movie itself properly seems to be the last thing on the list. Sony have used oversampled bit depth to virtually eliminate banding on their high-def titles and the other majors don't usually have chronic issues with it either, but Lionsgate are lagging badly behind. There's also a lot of extra stuff packed onto this one disc which means the average video bit-rate for the main feature is just under a miserly 18 Mb/s. I'm always glad to have such a decent array of special features (detailed further below) but if they impinge on the presentation of the movie then it's something of a bittersweet outcome. Sure, in an ideal world we'd get the best AV quality AND lots of quality extras every time, but in a pinch I'd always prioritise the former over the latter.
The audio options are headlined by a lossless 24-bit Dolby Atmos mix. I only have a 7.1 system so the playback of the ‘core’ TrueHD 7.1 will have to suffice for this review! By its very nature the film isn't some action-heavy blockbuster so it's long on dialogue and short on action. Speech is reproduced with precision and gets some nice directional use across the fronts, the music encompasses the entire sound stage and there's a solid bass extension (but I never got the "shock wave through your guts" feeling as described by Katniss in the book when D13 gets bombed). The mix is adept at establishing atmosphere, with the constant background hum of machinery in D13 and voices reverberate accurately within the enclosed spaces, although a scene set outside in pouring rain wasn't nearly as enveloping as on other 7.1 mixes I've heard. Perhaps more explicit information is held in the Atmos height channels? In any case, the 7.1 track still supports the film in an extremely competent fashion.
N.B. The movie encode appears to be made up of separate .m2ts files (Lionsgate have employed a crude method of copy protection which generates hundreds of false playlists that jumble up the movie if it is ripped), so people might encounter audio dropouts when bitstreaming the TrueHD/Atmos mix over HDMI with certain older Blu-ray players, e.g. the OPPO 93/95 and derivatives thereof. I documented the same problem with the recent IMAX Blu-ray of Star Trek Into Darkness here: Blu-ray review.
As with the previous two films the centrepiece of the Blu-ray extras is a new feature-length documentary. The Mockingjay Lives is playable in 8 separate chunks or as a continuous 134-minute assembly and it covers the main aspects of production, with contributions from the key personnel in every department. While these Hunger Games 'making of' documentaries have never been as brave as I would like and seem a bit routine now, they're well worth a viewing because they convey just how mammoth these sorts of movies are and there's still some insights to be gleaned from them, like Francis Lawrence's commitment to practical effects and what the original ending of Part 1 looked like. Suzanne Collins remains conspicuous by her absence, but maybe they'll finally be able to get her in front of camera for the extras on Part 2.
There's a selection of 9 deleted scenes, most of which have been fully post-produced with VFX and 5.1 sound - BUT they've been mastered with the brightness far too high, as even the letterbox borders look greyed out. It could be a technical fault (like not having undergone the correct conversion from PC to video levels) but the cynic in me thinks that it's been done deliberately so that people can't make their own homebrew 'extended edition' - yet it's not like the brightness can't be corrected by the average fan editor. Strange.
The deleted material is mostly short extensions, but two longer stanzas stand out: a newly-formulated piece with Snow ordering Peeta to be his voice of reason to the districts, and another that's a direct lift from the book with Beetee, Katniss and Gale as they marvel at some hummingbirds in D13's hydroponics lab. Gale's calculating hunter's mind comes to the fore as he works out how to trap the skittish birds, which is a theme that occurs again in Part 2 so it's a shame it got cut. (It's also a shame that the movie's advertising campaign of teasers, trailers & posters styled as Capitol propaganda has been omitted from this disc.)
The remainder of the extras include an 11-minute tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman who died during a hiatus in production, an 8-minute interview with singer Lorde about "curating" the Mockingjay soundtrack plus the music video for Yellow Flicker Beat, and a 4 minute 'sneak peek' for Insurgent. Then there's the audio commentary by director Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson, and it's not a bad little chat track. Jacobson loves to state the obvious but Lawrence delivers some interesting bits of info. Last up is an easter egg hinted at in the menu, as it says "Depressed BLUE: Locate Haymitch's secret stash to discover how a revolution dies". If you press the blue button on your remote when you see the Mockingjay symbol as the main menu starts, you'll be shown Katniss' woeful first Mockingjay propo.
I enjoyed Mockingjay Part 1 a lot, it being more of a psychological Hunger Games rather than an action-packed one, and because of that it'll probably always be looked upon as the odd duck of the franchise. But time may yet be kinder to it once Katniss' cinematic journey is complete and the predictable grumbling about the movie split has died down, so it can be judged without prejudice.
This UK Blu-ray has highly effective audio but the video quality suffers from unsightly banding - not for the first time on a Lionsgate release - and even though I expected as much, it doesn't make it any less disappointing. The admirable spread of HD special features is good to see at a time when other studios are cutting down on such things, but Lionsgate are putting the cart before the horse by lowballing the movie presentation at the same time.
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