The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 picks up the story after The Hunger Games have been destroyed. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, discovers District 13 has been decimated before moving onto District 12, where President Coin convinces her to become a symbol for the revolution. All the while, Peeta's increasingly dire situation is being transmitted via talk show interviews with Caesar Flickerman, making an attempt at rescuing him seem inevitable if not impossible.
Katniss Everdeen without The Hunger Games is like Harry Potter without Hogwart's. After two similar movies building up to the series selling point of teens in a lethal Lord of the Flies game of Survivor, it would have been a yawn to go there again. However, without the underlying tension of a relentless tumbrel on its path to a kill-your-buddy-or-be-killed scenario, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1feels like a different movie altogether.
Peeta and Katniss have been separated, the Districts are playing up some Wag the Dog propaganda with Katniss and a guerilla film-making crew and it's now a much broader war game. The concept of an insider bringing down "The Man" by playing according to his rules helped create a wonderful sense of irony and tension. Watching Katniss being groomed to be a figurehead for a revolutionary struggle, without truly questioning it herself, doesn't have the same appeal.
While The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 feels somewhat adrift, it's still a finely crafted film. Francis Lawrence has a more mature grip on the series, as demonstrated by The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. He continues to exert this influence, providing us with a grittier, darker and ominous vision of The Hunger Games aftermath. While on the brink of revolution is dead serious business, it would have been good for there to have been some levity to a fairly joyless experience.
"Guns, roses, jungles... sweet child o mine!"
The lead trio return with Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth reprising their roles. Lawrence is still on-form continuing where she left off, although a few of the vulnerable moments don't quite work. Hutcherson is good but less prominent, and we literally see less of him as the actor seems to have slimmed down to an almost emaciated state. Liam Hemsworth delivers another second fiddle performance and you can't help but feel the character's been short-changed.
The formidable supporting cast is made up of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Donald Sutherland as President Snow. It's impressive on paper and while Hoffman and Moore get most of the screen time, each of their performances help anchor the dramatic integrity of Mockingjay - Part 1.
The sets and solid CGI add weight and scale to this epic war time sci-fi adventure as Katniss rallies the troops like a futuristic Joan of Arc. While dark and almost depressing at times, we get behind our heroine's quest to free the enslaved and scatter President Snow's troops. While often set underground, the film does sometimes feel like a Star Trek battle as two spaceships and camps wage a tactical and political war from their home bases.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 is enjoyable owing to the groundwork done by the series and its ability to keep us invested in our heroine's plight. While the experience is rather joyless and seems somewhat adrift, the film's overriding quality and thrilling action peril smooth over the no-fun approach with Jennifer Lawrence heralding a grand showdown for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2. It's not as sharp as The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but there's enough to tide us over.
The bottom line: Entertaining