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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is a blockbuster that hates being a blockbuster

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) becomes essentially a major film franchise actress within the context of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1.
Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) becomes essentially a major film franchise actress within the context of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Mild spoilers for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 follow, along with some hints about what happens in the book the film is inspired by.

Let's be honest. There was no good reason to turn Suzanne Collins's Mockingjay into two films. The book is my favorite of the Hunger Games trilogy, but even I will admit its first half largely sits around, waiting for the grim, gloomy fireworks that mark the book's second half to begin.

But Lionsgate evidently noticed how much money was made by splitting the final book in the Harry Potter series into two films, and how much money was made by splitting the final book in the Twilight series into two films, and cast its lot.

Creatively, that's made Mockingjay, Part 1 a bit of a lumpy, misshapen thing, even if it has its charms. Director Francis Lawrence's final shot — of hero Katniss's (Jennifer Lawrence) reflection superimposed over the face of her long-missing, now-found love Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) — is superbly ominous, and the movie uses its terrific ensemble cast (positively stuffed with some of the world's finest character actors) to its advantage.

But what's most interesting about Mockingjay, Part 1 and what saves it from being a completely leaden bore is the fact that it seems, at all times, sort of angry that it even exists. Yes, Mockingjay, Part 1, is a movie that seems actively aware it has no good reason to be here. And that means it's not just a broadside against the villainous Capitol. It's also a broadside against franchise filmmaking itself.

Here are a few reasons why.

1) Katniss's "propos" are basically just movie trailers

Throughout the film, Katniss's primary role within the rebellion is as a sort of celebrity proponent of its cause, a public face that will help cover up some of the less savory aspects of any war. As such, she stars in a series of propaganda films called "propos." These ads look a lot like generic campaign ads, but if you watch them more closely, they also seem like they could be trailers for new Hunger Games movies.

In particular, pay attention to how the first full propo Katniss stars in takes what's an emotional moment for her (as she breaks down after the Capitol bombs a hospital) and surrounds it with bombast, including taglines for the war and a glistening Mockingjay logo. That logo's the symbol for the war effort, sure — but it's also the symbol of the movie franchise. It's a delightfully subversive moment.

2) In essence, the entire movie is about making a movie

Katniss, an untrained actor if ever there was one, is carefully directed, both by an actual movie director (Cressida, played by Natalie Dormer) and by an elaborate war room of advisors that may as well be a Hollywood boardroom, filled with executives offering notes. It's all about finding the best way to make Katniss "likable" and appealing to as many Districts as possible. Not so far from how show business executives talk about movie characters.

3) The utterly extraneous nature of the action sequences is mocked

By far the most common complaint against Mockingjay, Part 1 is that it's a boring slog, filled with very little of the action and adventure that marked the first two films in the franchise. But, then, wouldn't that be the case in a film when the dystopian world of Panem, where the film takes place, has descended into open warfare?

This means that most of the film's action sequences are simply there because they're demanded by the "rules" of blockbuster filmmaking. But at every turn, they're undercut by Danny Strong and Peter Craig's screenplay, which goes out of its way to create scenarios where everything is carefully stage-managed, whether by Katniss's side or by a Capitol that believes it's found the perfect way to launch a sneak attack. Thus even the characters seem aware of how unlikely it is to have an action sequence in this particular story.

4) Effie Trinket switches sides pretty much because it will make for the best story

The film's few bursts of humor come from captured Capitol lackey Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), who finds herself conscripted into helping Katniss progress along her arc toward stardom. But rather than protest too much, Effie also behaves as if she's completely aware she's part of some larger story. She's even invited into the rebellion's inner sanctum. This could feel like lazy character writing, but Banks somehow makes it work, as if Effie has decided her dedication is to style and fashion above all else, and she's going to make that work for her in these drastically new circumstances.

5) President Coin is played as an outright hero

Okay, this one is cheating, because you pretty much need to have read the book to see how the film is playing you. But in presenting rebellion leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) as an inspiring figure who wins the devotion of her followers, the film does an even better job of setting up how brutally the narrative undercuts those notions than the book did.

And that's mostly because Mockingjay, Part 1 plays by the rules of the blockbuster (which require just such an inspiring leader), even as it introduces an unease at those very rules. The Hunger Games series has won such devotion because it asks its young readers to question the narratives they're presented with on reality TV, in politics, and in celebrity culture. Mockingjay, Part 1 might be the least of the films so far, but in dissecting the typical blockbuster film, it's staying true to that spirit.

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