So, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls; here we are again for the third of our annual visits to the Hunger Games franchise. I just had an interesting discussion with a somewhat like-minded friend down the pub, who expressed surprise that I was even going to see this film, revealing that he hadn't thought it to be my cup of tea. 'What, you think I don't like big-budget Hollywood SF movie?' I said, my face probably assuming a fairly distinctive expression.
'You think it's SF?'
'Well, yes, of course – what do you think it is?'
'Yes, but Young Adult SF.'
Oh, how the evenings fly by when we get together, especially when I start going on about The Hunger Games' place in a long lineage of things like (say it together with me) Battle Royale, Rollerball, and The Year of the Sex Olympics. Anyway, my point was ultimately that if all Young Adult movies (is that even a proper genre?) are as sophisticated and cynical as the Hunger Games series, then there's no call to be snotty about them.
This time around we are treated to the fairly unwieldy title The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One, for the adaptation of Suzanne Collins' final book has been chopped in two. (Rather mysteriously, Collins is credited for 'Adaptation', while two other bods have their names on the script. Hmmm.) This isn't the only unwieldy thing about the film, which has most of the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessors, but at least it's reasonably short.
One problem is that the film seems to be made with the dedicated fanbase in mind (is there much of a fanbase? The coffeeshop was running a marathon showing of all three films this week, but I've no idea how many turned up for it). As before, there's no recap or reprise from the previous film, we're just dumped into the action, and it took me quite a while to remember exactly who everyone was and what they were up to. This was irksome, and if you haven't seen the other two I suspect you will never work out what the hell is going on.
Anyway, stubborn bow-wielding knitwear-lover Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is still ensconced in the separatist enclave of District 13, her home region having been devastated in the uprising that broke out at the end of the second film. The rebel leadership (various genuine luminaries like Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, and the much-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman) have the plan to use her as a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol and nasty old President Snow (Donald Sutherland). She signs on, in the understanding that her sometime love-interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is sprung from Snow's clutches. Naturally, Snow is using Peeta to issue various statements undermining Katniss and the rebel cause.
As you may have surmised, there aren't actually any Hunger Games in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One, but to my mind this was rather to the film's benefit, as the games were by far the least interesting bit of the second film. This one builds on the strengths of the second, especially in its bleakness and the sophistication of its politics.
Once upon a time this sort of 'heroic rebels versus evil empire' kind of film would have been about just that – plucky underdogs triumphing due to their own essential virtue and the rightness of their cause. The Hunger Games is savvy enough to recognise that things do not work this way: this film is all about the media management of the rebellion, which is presented as being absolutely crucial to both sides. We first see President Snow objecting to having to call the rebels 'rebels', and a word with more satisfactory connotations is soon found. Katniss' allies are not interested in her as a person, but as a symbol to the masses they are trying to bring into the conflict.
She is, in short, much more useful as a propaganda aid than as a warrior, and when she is sent to the barricades of the rebellion she is accompanied not by a team of soldiers but a camera crew. In a fiendishly clever bit of scripting, no sooner does she meet the people she is supposed to inspire than she finds herself having to lie to them: the subtext is clear. She is, in short, being manipulated by her superiors just as Peeta has become a mouthpiece for the regime.
This is all surprisingly sharp and impressively cynical for a major release aimed at teenagers: the film is all the more timely, given how much it recalls the high premium placed on media-management in recent conflicts in the Middle East. The bombed-out, shattered landscapes of Mockingjay are horribly reminiscent of any number of news reports from Iraq, Libya, or Syria, and Snow's doleful threats that civil war can only end in unimaginable slaughter and suffering sound depressingly plausible. I can't quite see where the happy ending at the end of the next film is coming from; I hope the writers don't completely cop out on all this good work.
This is all so engaging that you really don't notice the slightly soapy teen romance angle of the story, nor a few somewhat improbable plot developments. The fact that this is really just the first half of the story means that there isn't actually that much action in it, and hardly any of that features Jennifer Lawrence herself. Lawrence's ability to maintain a career as both a bona fide box office star and an acclaimed actress is impressive, and it's a shame that here she has a largely passive role, spending a lot of her time staggering about looking appalled at whatever atrocity the bad guys have committed most recently. Other senior members of the cast are much luckier: Moore, Hoffman, and Sutherland are all clearly having a ball scheming away at each other.
The Hunger Games is one of those series which rather impresses me while I'm watching it, but doesn't exactly linger in the mind once I've finished. Maybe it's just expectations management – the level of intelligence and grit in most SF franchises is somewhat lamentable – but it seems to me that these films are always much smarter and more surprising than they have any right to be. I just hope the concluding episode doesn't let the side down; there are grounds here to be hopeful, I would say.