We went to a newly opened Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson, Texas, to watch the new Hunger Games movie. My wife and I were at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, and it was the day after. When we walked in, there was a big display for the movie- I can’t remember exactly what it looked like, but it had the mockingjay symbol on it. We stood in front of it for a picture, each of us holding up the three-finger symbol that basically functions as a revolutionary rally cry in the series. We all smiled.
This would normally be innocuous, except that only one week before, students were detained in Thailand for holding up the Hunger Games salute at the movie’s Bangkok premiere. They weren’t arrested or anything, but “detained” sounds a lot worse in a militant dictatorship than it does here in America. The whole incident makes taking a flippant picture using the gesture seem disrespectful and ignorant, not to mention the cognitive dissonance one experiences watching the movie itself, which is ostensibly a blockbuster, a popcorn movie, a franchise used for hawking other products, though it’s about a people revolting against an oppressive government and the consequences therein.
You could carry out this line of thinking with a lot of movies though. Should I enjoy movies like The Avengers or Star Trek into Darkness in which thousands of people die to fulfill the story’s plot? When blockbusters make death and destruction integral to their plots, we naturally recalibrate our minds to essentially ignore the vast number of human lives lost when they are merely tangential to the characters we’re invested in. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But when real life intervenes, like with The Hunger Games, the process becomes a little more morally ambiguous.
However, the new Hunger Games does us a favor by taking its stakes seriously. My sister and I had a conversation this past weekend about how Hunger Games is the premiere young-adult movie franchise, and nothing else really comes close. Divergent may have made a lot of money this spring, but no one is really taking it seriously as a rival to Hunger Games (nor should they- it’s ridiculous). And the other members of the genre (Percy Jackson, Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures) have been widely derided and flopped at the box office. Part of the reason is that the Hunger Games filmmakers have dressed up a story geared toward teenagers as if it was meant for adults. This franchise makes prestige movies now; they draw the best talent, have the best production values, and spend money to make their action sequences gripping.
Mockingjay – Part 1 does have the misfortune of being one of those movies where they took the third book in a trilogy and divided it in two to make more money- and let’s be real, no one thinks this wasn’t about money. As a result, Mockingjay does feel like butter spread over too much bread (h/t Tolkien). There’s a lot of Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) trying to act for cameras and failing, which is funny, but not terribly exciting. There’s also a lot of Katniss staring at Peeta’s (Josh Hutcherson) face on a TV screen, and Katniss walking around ruins.
It’s sort of the nature of the book’s plotline, which has Katniss stuck in District 13 with the rebellion (led by Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman as President Coin and Plutarch Heavensbee, respectively) fighting the revolution by making what essentially amount to YouTube vlogs aimed at the Capitol’s digital throats. At one point, Plutarch has Katniss acting in a truly terrible trailer- but at least the movie knows it’s terrible. When they try to improve it, we get one of the movie’s best moments, when Katniss unleashes all her anger at the Capitol into a camera, putting her feelings into words we didn’t know she had. It’s a great scene from Lawrence, continuing to amaze even after she seems as if she’s done everything.
The best scene in the movie (indeed, perhaps in the whole series) comes at the end, when rebels try to rescue Peeta and the other tributes captured at the end of the last movie. It’s the most propulsive, the most visually exciting, and the most diagnostic of what’s wrong with the rest of the movie. Francis Lawrence, the director, showed us in Catching Fire that he’s more than capable of delivering a great blockbuster while taking his subject matter seriously, but Mockingjay lacks the forward-moving action necessary to pulling that off.
The Hunger Games is already ingrained in our global culture; Mockingjay – Part 1 doesn’t need to be great to make that true. And I applaud the filmmakers for continuing to treat its subject matter with the seriousness it deserves, a task they began with the first movie, which dealt with kids killing other kids (!). It’s pretty cool that protestors in other countries have picked up on the serious themes in these movies and are using the salute to stick it to oppressive jerks. I only wish Mockingjay – Part 1 were a little more worthy of that honor.