In Catching Fire, the second installment of the Hunger Games series, our heroine Katniss is repeatedly told to "remember who the real enemy is."
That was an easy task when we existed in the familiar comfort (ha ha!) of the games themselves, where her true enemies—the Capitol game makers or the competitor throwing a spear at her head—were mostly obvious, but now that we enter District 13 and the bleak and nuanced world of Mockingjay—Part 1, things have become a lot more complicated.
From the get-go, Mockingjay, Part 1 faced plenty of creative challenges. Basing his script off of what is probably the most criticized book in Suzanne Collins' dystopic Hunger Games series, screenwriter Danny Strong (who you might know as Jonathan on Buffy or Doyle on Gilmore Girls) had to add excitement, action and color to the decidedly grey world in which Collins sets the first half of Mockingjay. While The Hunger Games and Catching Fire could dazzle us with the spectacle of the Capitol or the unpredictability of the arena, Mockingjay forces us to exist, almost exclusively, inside a cement bunker with most of the action happening off page or frame.
However, despite these hurdles, Strong and director Francis Lawrence have excelled at making Mockingjay spring to life. While the onscreen world of District 13 feels oppressive at times, it never feels oppressive without purpose. Like Katniss (played with tight-jawed aplomb by Jennifer Lawrence), we sometimes feel strangled and frustrated by the highly regimented and cold environment of District 13, but just when it seems like it's going to be too much, filmmakers will cut to a moment of levity (usually in the form of Elizabeth Bank's delightful Effie Trinket—who is making the most of District 13's piss-poor fashion choices with makeshift gloves and turbans—or Katniss' unhappily sober mentor Haymitch, played by Woody Harrelson). Or they'll cut to action in the districts (a visually stunning battle in the lumber district had me and my seatmate Kate Dries literally clutching hands) or Katniss enjoying a tender moment with Gale (Liam Hemsworth) or her sister Prim (Willow Shields).
While we could use this time to get into the old Gale vs. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) debate (for the sake of Katniss' apathy, I am TEAM NEITHER), I say we put that conversation on hold until never (or until Mockingjay—Part 2) and focus instead on how, at its heart, Mockingjay, Part 1 is a movie about the politics of war, with Katniss now joining the long tradition of YA heroes (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter) who have been shoved—quite grumpily—onto the front lines of a war that they'd rather not be a part of.
Previously, the division between good and evil has always been ham-fistedly clear in The Hunger Games universe: Katniss is the reluctant savior to the struggling districts and President Snow is the districts' purely villainous oppressor. In Mockingjay, Part 1, that dichotomy still stands, but as I mentioned before, the in-between has gotten a fuckton more messy. It's hard to tell who your enemy is when you've been turned into a tool for propaganda and seemingly everyone is using you to get something without any regard to your well-being. Katniss might be the face of the rebellion, but she is not the one controlling the war. That's the job of Plutarch Heavensbee—who, expertly portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, would be just as at home on House of Cards as he is in Panem—and the steely and quietly menacing Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), two incredibly calculating individuals who are perfectly willing to throw Katniss headlong into danger or coerce her with threats, as long as they get a good soundbite out of it.
While at times Katniss might seem overly focused on the fate of Peeta or caught up on the intricacies of her friendship with Gale (especially when you consider that the districts are at peak rebellion and hundreds of people are probably dying in her name everyday), it's understandable that she would dig her heels in and and throw tantrums over seemingly teenage shit (because remember, Katniss is a teenager). Making small demands on behalf of those who she loves or sussing out her own feelings are some of the few things Katniss has control of. Everything else—her image, her home and her fate—have been taken away from her and witnessing that from the audience is a positively gut-wrenching, yet worthwhile experience.
But if an entertaining study on the emotional and personal price of war doesn't interest you, Stanley Tucci's portrayal of Caesar Flickerman as a less corny and more bearable Matt Lauer is well worth the price of admission.
Image via Lionsgate