If nothing else, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 demonstrates with bleak efficiency that the director can only do so much. Francis Lawrence, making his second Hunger Game, still has all the chops he demonstrated with 2013's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and back further still to the 2007 adaptation of I Am Legend, once again capturing with admirable rawness the desperation and raggedness of life after apocalypse. But consistency and strength of tone, as vital as they are in a film of this sort, are powerless in the face of such a useless script as the one adapted by Peter Craig, Danny Strong, and Suzanne Collins from the worst half of the worst book of Collins's dystopian trilogy. <Catching Fire and I Am Legend weren't the most perfectest screenplays ever crafted, mind you, but Mockingjay 1 doesn't just have an imperfect screenplay: it has an actively draggy, tepid screenplay that all but dares you to find anything pleasurable or meaningful in its wretched plonking arrangement and re-arrangement of characters on a chessboard that the folks up at marketing said we can't actually play with yet.

This comes as no surprise - did we not see the Part 1 in the title? The arbitrary division of one book into two halves hasn't been made for artistic reasons yet (even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, the instigator of the trend and easily the most successful, is pokey and frequently aimless), and Mockingjay isn't about to be the one to start. It's crippled from the outset by the structure of Collins's novel, which is all wind-up until almost exactly the point that the film is obliged to end at (and "obliged" is exactly the word: with the decision to cut the story in two coming from the corporate overseers and not the writers, presumably, there was virtually no other point at which it made sense to do so, while leaving Mockingjay 2 with any chance of being functional in its own right), and if that means that I get to be yet another critic to wander out of the film with a wan expression and the words "...but nothing happened" dancing on my lips.

Well, fuck originality. Nothing does happen in Mockingjay, just a lot of discussions of how something might happen if, like, we just... nope, nevermind, there it went. The film starts at least several hours, maybe a few days after the close of Catching Fire (offering no opportunity to play catch-up: sorry newbies, you don't get to join in this time), with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) dealing very poorly with life in the underground bunker called District 13, home to the only military-trained rebels left to oppose the future dictatorship ruling North America from its glitzy, tawdry Capitol. The leader of District 13, the unsmiling commander President Coin (Julianne Moore), wants Katniss to serve as the face of the rebellion's propaganda, in the form of the "Mockingjay"; so do the far warmer faces of Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), a tech whiz who helped smuggle Katniss out of the Capitol's murderous Hunger Games, and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his last completed role), a former Capitol bureaucrat, and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss's friend from their now-destroyed home, who gets more screentime than in the previous two movies combined, and no longer seems to give a shit about becoming Katniss's boyfriend. For her part, Katniss just wants to find some quiet hole to abandon all the world, but when the Capitol starts releasing its own propaganda videos, starring Katniss's friend and fellow victim of the Games, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), she's finally jabbed into action. And so the filming begins, as Katniss and the other District 13 refugees get a firsthand look at just how wretched live in the 11 surviving colonies has become as President Snow (Donald Sutherland) of the Capitol begins mercilessly cracking down on the revolutions that have sprung up in the wake of Katniss's defiance during two successive Hunger Games.

So, so many words for such a simple concept! "An apolitical woman reluctantly agrees to help the propaganda wing of an unpleasantly militaristic rebellion" - that's it, that's the plot. Not the logline, not the plot of the first half: the plot of the whole goddamn movie. Francis Lawrence and the writers do manage to push that to a running time almost all the way up to two hours, without end credits, but it's not interesting in the slightest. Just about the only thing in the entirety of all this slow drip of incidents that's remotely intriguing is the film's depiction of radicalism in an era of mass media, and its limited suggestion (due to be fleshed out more in the sequel) that just because one side is obviously bad, that doesn't mean that the other side is obviously good. None of which is terribly insightful or politically savvy in any way, but it helps to recall that Mockingjay has a target audience of teenagers, for whom these concepts are more revelatory than they are, I hope and pray, to grown-ups who've spent more years consuming carefully massaged political media.

Dramatically, though, it's one long, low, wet fart, consisting of scene after scene of people talking glumly, interspersed with scenes where the walk outside among ruins and corpses, even more glumly. Within the film's first ten minutes, it has a sequence consisting of Hoffman, Moore, Wright, and Jennifer Lawrence all sitting at a table arguing: that's a shitload of acting talent to have on one set at the same time, and yet all they get to do is mushily voice wobbly concepts and aching exposition, and Francis Lawrence does nobody any favors by framing all of the actors mostly in one-shots, so we only barely even get to see them respond and react to each other. And with so little interesting to do, none of the film's many terrific actors has much to do, and so they largely end up relaxing: Jennifer Lawrence irritably meanders her way through all but the biggest scenes (and even those are inconsistent: she completely blows her delivery of the big "They can take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom" speech in the middle by biting off each word too harshly), and she's still far livelier and more emotionally present than Moore, playing a brittle military commander as a collection of war movie clichés, or Wright, playing the world's most visibly bored tech nerd ever (I think Hoffman is doing the best work in the film, but I can't trust that it's not just mourning talking there).

The only thing that brings any kind of meat to the film whatsoever comes in Francis Lawrence's gift for ushering us through a world: it's what was best in I Am Legend, and it's what's best here, with the caveat that the film's limited dramatic scope is matched by its limited physical range. We spend a lot of time in District 13, and it's a dim, grey place; pointedly so, and it's a good physical expression of the kind of unimaginative concrete hole that a rebellion like this would have to occupy, but there are only so many ways it can be shot before it starts to get needlessly monotonous. Meanwhile, the script has cut out all the details about how District 13 actually functions, so the impression we get is of a bunch of people in grey jumpsuits who spend all their days walking back and forth against grey walls. It's brutal.

Outside, though, Lawrence and his team are in terrific shape: there is a shot of charred skeletons that the filmmakers frame with hideous awe, and it's powerful enough to make up for quite a lot of bland talking. Other moments are similiarly high-impact, and even within the warren of District 13, there are some shots where the geometry and action combine to suggest a level of tension and activity that brings the movie, temporarily, to life (one shot of a stairwell, in particular, is absolutely terrific, energising cinema).

We can argue if this is the point: the film is using its form to dramatise the stilted, tunnel-vision world of District 13 by contrasting it with moments of dread and disgust, asking the viewer's own shift from boredom to horror to serve as the stand-in for the gulf between the peremptory efficiency of the rebellion's higher-ups and the actual human lives they're sacrificing. But Jesus, is that ever meeting the film more than halfway. No, Mockingjay 1 is, I think, exactly what it seems to be: a tedious exercise in place-setting that could have been easily handled in 30 minutes, enlivened solely because its director has a good eye for expressing the misery of a bombed-out world in a PG-13 context. The film's commitment to market concerns over storytelling ones is vividly obvious throughout all of its aimless, airless minutes, and the only pleasure to be extracted from watching it is the knowledge that the thing coming out a year from now almost certainly has to be better.

Reviews in this series
The Hunger Games (Ross, 2012)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lawrence, 2013)
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (Lawrence, 2014)
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (Lawrence, 2015)