No fan of YA fiction needs to be told that The Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen is vampire years’ different from Twilight’s Bella Swan because #duh. One sacrifices herself to save her sister’s life and leads a revolution; the other swoons over an undead control freak and falls a lot.
But at this point in the Katniss chronicles, after two consecutive Oscar nominations and one statue, franchise star Jennifer Lawrence could certainly get away with phoning it in—expressing her character’s conflicting emotions by, say, playing with her hair while thinking or audibly exhaling while, well, doing anything. (No offense, KStew.)
The very first scenes of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1, however, prove that Lawrence wasn’t about to sleepwalk through a critic-proof tent pole. We’re reintroduced to Katniss as she’s hiding out in the dismal underground of District 13 after her physical destruction of the Quarter Quell games—a big no-no—led to Panem-wide rebellion and mass destruction. She’s unable to sleep and quaking, repeating her identity in rapid-fire whispers in an attempt to separate reality from the Capitol’s mind-fucks.
Katniss is soon found and dragged back to her hospital-like room, but already, Lawrence has adeptly and achingly established Katniss’ mental fragility in this sci-fi world as well as she did as a present-day depressive in Silver Linings Playbook. The rest of the A-list cast matches her performance: Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Jeffrey Wright, and, heartbreakingly, Philip Seymour Hoffman never give the impression that they’re just cashing a paycheck, even when delivering laughable lines like “Prepare to pay the ultimate price!”
Mockingjay—Part 1 is the first filmic half of the last installment of the Hunger Games book trilogy, an unabashed cash grab following the precedent set by Harry Potter and Twilight. So far, it’s the dystopi-est installment of this dystopian series, all concrete, gray jumpsuits, and rain. There’s a lot of gaping at a lot of ruin.
But even though there was no need to split Suzanne Collins’ final (and mostly derided) book in two, returning director Francis Lawrence (no relation to JLaw) manages to keep the padding to a minimum—or at least make it feel that way. The story is mostly posturing, strategizing, and trash-talk as Panem brass (led by Moore’s President Coin and Hoffman’s rebellion-leader Plutarch) persuade Katniss to represent the movement as the “Mockingjay,” tasked with inspiring the citizens and taunting Capitol President Snow (Sutherland).
You gotta have romance, though, and Mockingjay’s heart again boils down to Team Peeta and Team Gale. Peeta (Hutcherson), has been captured and seemingly brainwashed by the Capitol, and Katniss is both relieved that he’s alive and horrified by his pleas for a cease-fire. Meanwhile, Gale (Hemsworth) fights by Katniss’ side, struggling with his feelings for her when it’s become clear it’s Peeta she loves.
Despite some repetition, there is a slow-build momentum here as violence—and Katniss’ anger—escalates. The film isn’t as mind-numbingly bleak as it sounds, with Hoffman, who died just before filming wrapped, injecting characteristic charm into his few lines and a rather funny scene in which Lawrence must go bad-actress to show how uncoachable Katniss is. When the credits roll, it does seem ridiculous that fans now have to wait until 2015 for the story’s conclusion. But as Hollywood has learned, if you split it, they will come.