Would you pay ten bucks to see only half a movie? You could consider it, in this case.

Miss Everdeen, it is the things we love most that destroy us.

–President Snow

I hemmed and hawed for a long time about how to approach this review. For one thing, The Hunger Games is essentially critic-proof as a franchise, being a wildly successful YA property that its fans will flock to see no matter what. But thanks to the studio trend of improbably extending its franchises, they’ll have to flock one more time. Back when Warner Brothers split Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in two, it was largely derided as a cash grab, a way to double their money while keeping their sacred cow in the zeitgeist one more year. However, fans of the book knew that there was so much to do, so many loose ends to tie up at the end of a seven-part series, that Deathly Hallows deserved that additional time.

That belief was well founded, as those two films (when combined) made a spectacular, assured, well-paced finale. But other franchises that followed in its wake, from Twilight to The Hobbit, have struggled (and struggled mightily) to justify making the same decision. Having read Suzanne Collins’s books, I wasn’t sure going in on which side Mockingjay would fall. I was concerned that Part 1 would only barely be a movie, amounting to two hours of throat clearing. And yet, surprisingly, it kinda, sorta, almost works. Sure, it’s exposition heavy — the climax is essentially just Finnick (Sam Claflin) filibustering into a camera — but as the first act of a larger story, it’s undeniably effective.

It helps that Mockingjay brings us a radical shift both in structure and tone; the Games of the arena are gone, replaced by paramilitary operations and clashes of propaganda. This is a war film, and the scope is much, much bigger than one teenage girl’s fight to survive in an isolated forest or on a beach. After the events of Catching Fire, in which Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her alliance of former Victors blew up the arena and hightailed it to District 13 (previously thought to have been destroyed), the seeds of rebellion are being sown all across Panem. Yet for every small victory against Capitol forces, there is a devastating counter-attack, and the leaders of this revolution — the icy President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) need something to unite the people…or someone.

So despite the feeling that this all would have been the first half hour of a single Mockingjay film, Part 1 actually has an interesting story to tell, even in isolation. A shell-shocked Katniss goes from being a puppet of the Capitol’s President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to a puppet of the insurgents, and she’s not thrilled about it. Yet she’s seen what Snow has done to her home of District 12, and knows there’s only one way forward, even if it ends in her death. So she agrees to truly become the “Mockingjay,” and star in a series of slickly-produced “propos” rallying people to the cause. (The film has some meta fun with this, as the pieces really look like they were edited by Lionsgate’s trailer department. Right down to the font, and that eerie four-note whistle.)

Less interesting is the obligatory love triangle. Katniss is reunited with her theoretical boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth, who has more to do in this film than in the first two combined), but is consumed by thoughts of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who was captured by the Capitol and is being used as their own mouthpiece of propaganda/probably tortured. Blah, blah, blah. I wanted to shout at the screen, telling Katniss to get it together, that there was so much more at stake, but alas. She’s a much different person than she was in the last film — more haunted, more broken, more reliant on others. She isn’t “The Chosen One,” or anything like that — just an occasionally selfish girl, swept up in this machine, with a question niggling at the back of her mind: if the Capitol is overthrown, how much better will the new regime really be?

The strength of Mockingjay, as it has been from the beginning, is in its cast, and its mature, confident world-building. Jennifer Lawrence hits barely a false note, showing a steely resolve even as she comes closer to total psychological breakdown. And she has a world-class group of actors surrounding her, beginning with Hoffman, who comes to the forefront of the story this time around, exuding his special brand of disheveled confidence. Julianne Moore seems less at ease, but her character’s depths have yet to be revealed; Donald Sutherland is all Machiavellian menace, electrifying the screen whenever he appears. Also making a strong impression is Game of Thrones‘s Natalie Dormer as Cressida, the filmmaker enlisted to create the rebels’ propaganda. She has a calm but fearsome presence, and provides a unique viewpoint into the story that makes it more than your typical dystopian fiction.

Katniss, famously terrible on camera, is initially an awful spokeswoman. Watching the beloved J-Law play her as a bad actress is a treat, and a too-rare comic highlight in a punishingly serious, bleak film. But the perfectly-timed re-appearance of a newly sober Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and a newly de-wigged Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, in an expanded role) are an entertaining shock to her system, and to ours. It isn’t long before Katniss is out in the field, shooting down bombers with incendiary arrows (a thrilling sequence), and exhorting the masses with real balls of flame as her backdrop. And President Snow is just as entertained as we are — you get the sense that going head-to-head with Katniss over the airwaves is the most fun he’s had in quite a while.

As the Mockingjay ads begin to work, and loose bands of rebels score strategic points, the film builds in momentum. (A sequence where Katniss’s singing of a folk song — lushly orchestrated by James Newton Howard — dovetails into an attack on the Capitol’s power grid is beautiful, and mesmerizing.) Even for being only half a story, it’s remarkably balanced, and director Francis Lawrence pulls the right levers to keep things moving — up until the final 15 minutes, where the film turns its attention to its least interesting story thread, the pacing suddenly flags, and then the movie suddenly ends. It’s a shame, because almost everything worked up to that point, and the film is somewhat trapped as an adaptation. At the midway point of the book, Katniss is a frustratingly passive character, and Part 1 does little to fix that.

I don’t know how you fix it, to be honest. Mockingjay is what it is, and though the weaknesses of the book are still manifest on screen, so are its many strengths. Francis Lawrence, who will have directed three out of four films when this is over, has done a remarkable job with the tone and the believability, ensuring that the series be taken seriously as storytelling, more than just light sci-fi for teenagers with low standards (looking at you, Divergent, whose sequel’s trailer actually drew mocking laughs in my theater). While not reaching that classic-cementing, rarefied air of Harry Potter — it’s lacking a bit of, for lack of a better term, “magic” — the Hunger Games series is still miles ahead of just about everything else in its genre.

After Part 2 is released, would I ever again watch just Part 1 on its own? I doubt it. It will need its second half to make a truly rewarding experience, much more than Deathly Hallows did. But as we head into the lobby for our year-long intermission, we’re still eager to see what’s next. Whether the decision to split this finale was made for creative or financial reasons, the film is good — handsomely crafted, well-acted, and engaging. But more than just being “critic-proof,” it wants to earn itself a pass on any evaluation until it’s done telling its story. It asks for the same benefit of the doubt we give an ongoing television series. But film plays by different rules, and Mockingjay, Part 1 isn’t really a film: it’s a warm up.

Grade: B+

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