Monday, November 24, 2014

MOCKINGJAY won't fill you up, but it's a good meal while it lasts.

If you thought the ending of last year's CATCHING FIRE was abrupt, be forewarned that its follow-up, MOCKINGJAY PART 1 comes to an end just as suddenly. This third HUNGER GAMES film is a bit like half of a meal that's is suddenly cleared from the table by the busboys mid-course.

But it's a good half of a meal.

We pick up right after we left off at the end of the prior film. Katniss's rebellion in the games has sparked an uprising. Katniss's home district, District 12, has been destroyed and the rebellion has set up shop underground in District 13. The district President, Coin (played by Julianne Moore) wants to use Katniss as a propaganda tool to keep hope alive in other districts long enough for them to move on the Capital and President Snow.

Snow has his own propaganda tool, Katniss's partner in the Games and her showmance lover, Peeta. His fame is quickly put to use at both discrediting the rebels and breaking their spirit. In a televised interview, he denounces the revolt and urges everyone to surrender. Most of District 13 immediately brands him a traitor, but Katniss is convinced he's being forced to say these things. She submits to her usual role as a PR tool after extracting a promise that the rebels will rescue Peeta as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

And that's really all that PART 1 deals with. It's a half-measure towards resolution as we see the immediate consequences of that set-up play out, but the big chess moves feel like they're being saved for next year's finale. This often makes for a movie that feels like just another episode in the middle of one TV season's long arc.

The more claustrophobic production design adds somewhat to that feeling. A great deal of the film takes place in the underground bunker that houses the last 10,000 or so survivors of District 12. It makes for a striking contrast with the aggressive opulence of the Capital or the wild beauty of the Games habitats in the first one, but it still calls to mind the sorts of "bottle shows" that a series will do when it needs to save money.

The TV series feeling also comes from the fact that this is a film that depends very much on our memories and emotional ties with the earlier films in the series. Details like Katniss's bond with Peeta, her simmering feelings for Gale and her complicated alliances with Plutarch and Haymitch all pretty much are taken for granted by the filmmakers.

Earlier this year I remarked how surprised I was that my previously-uninitiated wife was able to watch X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST and not be hindered by the backlog of continuity because of how well everyone was (re) introduced. I doubt that's a feat that could be repeated as effectively by MOCKINGJAY. This won't be a problem for most viewers, but it contributes to the feeling that this is less of its own movie.

The film's biggest asset is no shock, though. Jennifer Lawrence gives as much to her role as Katniss Everdeen as she has for any role that she's been nominated for. One advantage of the film's limited scope and slower pace is that it's able to really hone in on Katniss's emotional arc here. As I discussed in my CATCHING FIRE review, the great thing about Katniss is that she wasn't "born special," it's her actions that ended up defining her as the flashpoint for revolution. As she herself says, she didn't want any of this. This all started to keep her sister alive, and then later to keep Peeta alive.

The big reason that the HUNGER GAMES saga has remained so compelling is that it all hinged on Katniss's agency. She makes a choice and choices have consequences. That one moment in the first film where she volunteers as tribute is what brought all of this about. Katniss isn't a leader, or at least, she didn't set out to be one, but she inspired so many. She's never fully embraced her icon so much as she's allowed others to exploit it. The Katniss everyone wants to follow is a pure media creation, or at least a distortion of her.

With different writing, or possibly even a different actress, Katniss's continued rejection of her role in this might be read as whining. Lawrence plays it so raw and real throughout that you can't help but be moved by her fear and horror at all that has come from her few acts of defiance. We don't often get to see a hero spend as much of the film as clearly traumatized and shell-shocked as Katniss is here and it's an approach that makes the audience identify more emotionally with the story as well. Katniss's vulnerability is the film's greatest strength and it makes the moments where her resolve does emerge feel that much more emotional.

I've not read the books (no spoilers please) but this chapter made me feel certain that even if Snow is deposed, drawn and quartered, there is no happy ending in the offing. Katniss has lost so much that any victory is bound to feel Pyrrhic to her. I don't see the final chapter ending with an elated celebration like the Rebels and Ewoks partying after blowing up the Death Star.

Not that we wouldn't be tempted to cheer should Donald Sutherland's President Snow meet a particularly gruesome end. I don't want to give away some of the few real surprises in the film, but Snow stands reveals as pure malevolent evil by the end of this film. I'm not the biggest Donald Sutherland fan, and I think there's a good stretch of his 90s filmography where he was basically sleepwalking through sinisterly-twinged roles (Outbreak being a good example.) I saw some of that in the first two films but in this one... this one Snow is a guy who you want to see dead. You want every one of the main characters to line up and get a shot at bringing the hurt to this guy.

One of Snow's evil plans leads to the film's biggest shock (which I won't describe here.) It's a twist made more potent by the decision to only make brief shifts to show the Capital's perspective. We're confined to seeing mostly what Katniss sees, and the film uses our uncertainty about what Snow knows and doesn't know to great effect. Elements like that give the final act enough of a sting that this movie doesn't feel like a total exercise in table-setting for the final chapter next winter.

There's no denying that the film ends abruptly, too abruptly to allow the movie to get any sense of closure within this particular chapter. It's a bit like if Return of the Jedi was two films and the first of those ended with Luke leaving to surrender to Vader.

I really hope that we aren't going to start seeing more of this sort of approach in franchise storytelling. The further I get from Guardians of the Galaxy, the less I like the fact that Thanos was paraded in for a fan-service cameo that exists mostly to establish him as a force in later films. I think he might have carried more mystique as an off-screen presence ala the Emperor and Jabba the Hutt in the first Star Wars. If you saw GOTG, your biggest impression of supposedly the most fearsome bad guy in the universe was that he sits on a hovering stone throne all-day. We don't even check back in with him after his minions fail. Though at least Guardians was a pretty decent film. Amazing Spider-Man 2 showed this sort of sequel-seeding at its worst.

MOCKINGJAY shows another peril of franchise-storytelling - that feeding your audience half a meal may leave them hunger, and not always in the best way. There's a lot here that keeps the film alive, but repeat viewings might exacerbate that "mid-season episode" feeling and that could have an impact on the enthusiasm for the conclusion. If nothing else, I hope that other franchises take note of why this gambit is successful in some ways and realizes just how easily this could have been a major misstep

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