'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1'

Just as President Snow or Plutarch Heavensbee or Haymitch Abernathy seems to know of every last chink in Katniss Everdeen's armor, so have three installments of The Hunger Games franchise exposed every last flaw in the telling of her story.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1 -- our penultimate visit to Panem -- has more of those signature blemishes than its predecessors. Yet right down to its final frame, it also manages to retain much of the same breathless energy that is sure to draw fans back in droves next year for Part 2.

Mockingjay picks up right on the heels of Catching Fire, with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) recuperating from her second trip to the arena in District 13, the supposedly destroyed region of Panem that, all this time, has actually been marshaling its resources and slowly rebuilding in a massive subterranean compound that leaves them undetected by the Capitol.

The Games are over for her, but the night terrors and PTSD are not. Powerful people still view her as the symbol of a movement whether she likes it or not, leaving her vulnerable to the demands of the establishment in the Capitol and to the rebels who have taken her in. She is not heading back to the arena, but her problems have followed her out of the electrified barrier of the Quarter Quell. A civil war looms, and because of who she is and what she has done, everyone that she knows, especially Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), now a hostage of Snow (Donald Sutherland), is in grave danger.

Maturity, in the form of more complex and difficult choices, has been thrust upon Katniss, and director Francis Lawrence seems as uncomfortable with it as his heroine. In this regard, at least, you can begin to fashion a rational, uncynical explanation for why Suzanne Collins’ final book was split in to two films. For the main character, the reset button has been jammed in to the on position.

The built-in drama of the Games — more narrow and clear-cut than an uprising with the potential to cost thousands of lives and drag on for years — is gone. Katniss is overwhelmed by the life she finds herself living in District 13. Realizing her value to Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has defected from the Capitol, and President Coin (Julianne Moore), the leader of 13, as a propaganda symbol, she begins to show some degree of comfort with her newfound power. Yet she also expresses more helplessness and hopelessness than ever, especially when messages from Peeta, crafted under duress in the Capitol, are transmitted around Panem.

Realistic as her behavior might be, it makes for an uneven, difficult-to-tell story tonally. Katniss doesn’t really know what she is doing, and Lawrence doesn’t seem to know how to turn that inertia in to a standalone tale. So he settles for simply building and building toward the franchise finale.

Small details like Katniss’ au naturale look and somber, more modest Mockingjay costume (a far cry from the Girl on Fire, to be sure) tell us things have changed dramatically. So too do cataclysmic events like the firebombing of District 12 that leaves only rubble and charred bodies, the destruction of a dam providing much of the power, or the brave, bloody uprisings in the districts.

Trouble is, Katniss never gets that close to the action, and so these changes — both subtle and seismic — don’t feel fully connected. She jets around the districts, filming “propos” — propaganda spots somewhere between a 30-second Super Bowl ad and a YouTube video — and, by design, never gets close to the life-and-death strife between the rebels and Capitol forces. Katniss is changing. So is Panem. But there is not a clear link between the two.

The lone exception is her first trip about in Panem to a rebel hospital and holdout that draws the attention and firepower of the merciless Snow. It’s the only time Katniss is in real peril for the duration of Part 1, and Snow’s slaughter of the wounded is a stark reminder of his ruthlessness and, now, his desperation.

Katniss, like some sort of arrow-slinging Michael Jordan, is at her best with her life on the line, in this case firing exploding, red-tipped arrows at a bomber from the Capitol and darting between rubble piles in bombed-out industrial landscape. The film even seems to acknowledge its own challenges in explaining why Katniss is out and about on the front lines to begin with; her line delivery in a District 13 studio is so poor that the “propos” have to be filmed on location to be of use. It’s an intractable puzzle then — this tacit admission of sorts — that she spends most of the rest of the movie out of harm’s way and with a vague sense that something big is building around her.

By the end, Mockingjay — Part 1 feels like an episode in a slow-burn TV show. The preceding two hours are never quite fulfilling, but you end up primed for the next two. Just like Katniss, you can feel a very vague something building. Part 1 especially, but to some degree the series as a whole, doesn’t stand particularly well on its own in this sense. This is the downside, I suppose, of continually upping the stakes rather than alternating through hills and valleys. I’d prefer that this chapter didn’t feel like such a stepping stone to the grand finale, and I expect movies to be a class better than a slow-burn TV show. They ought to stand on their own more. On the other hand, I’m eagerly anticipating what lies ahead. Part 1 might feel like an extended trailer in that sense, but it’s a pretty damn good one.