Another year, another Hunger Games movie.
Well, part of one, anyway.
The popular pseudo-Battle Royale franchise is back as the actual "games" finally take a backseat to an actual plot and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a hidden world outside the big city and her own district. To put it in retro movie terms: this is basically the Beneath The Planet Of The Apes of the series, except not awesome.
After breaking out of the arena, Katniss finally wakes up in some kind of underground bunker/shelter occupied by a rebel army led by yet another silly-named character: President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). She is kept up to date by Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his *sob* final roles) and Jeffrey Wright's character as they try to convince Coin that Katniss is a worthy "Mockingjay", the face and spirit of the resistance. But Katniss' beloved Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is still held captive by Donald Sutherland's intimidating baddie President Snow and the latter proves himself to be more ruthless than ever ordering several executions in every district, bombing hospitals etc.
It seems that in every Young Adult book-to-movie franchise, from Harry Potter to Twilight to this one, there'll always be repetition and at least one completely useless film. The first sequel, Catching Fire, felt like little more than a retread of the first, actually decent, film. Sure it ended with a worthy cliffhanger but it never needed to be as long as it was and it was shamelessly near-identical to the first instalment. Mockingjay Part 1 is a better sequel in that it's very different and definitely moves the plot forward. This wholly unconvincing future world is at least fleshed out a little more and it's good to see characters take what they've learned from "the Games" and apply it to real life.
Unfortunately, even this movie has its share of problems.
For one thing, Jennifer Lawrence honestly drops the ball, giving one unsubtle, unfocused and surprisingly clunky performance throughout. Her facial expressions when reacting to... anything alone are laughable and it's often hard to distinguish Katniss' poor acting from Lawrence's, which is frankly distracting. The fault is not all hers, I'll admit, as her character is reduced to an impressively dislikable cry-baby. Now I realise that times are hard in this movie: her district is reduced to ashes, Peeta's in a bad way and all-out war is underway but based on how smart, strong and mature she was in the first film, this is one transformation that just doesn't make sense. Her attachment to Peeta is overdone to say the least, the very mention of his name making her nearly lose her mind, and none of that feels earned at all.
We get it: she loves him.
Can I go now?
Luckily, these movies have brilliant supporting casts so anytime Lawrence makes a weird face or sheds an unnecessary tear, you can always turn to Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci or even Liam Hemsworth for comfort. Elizabeth Banks also makes an appearance and, in case you're wondering, yes she is as over-the-top as ever. The conversation the latter has with Katniss about which clothes she's gonna wear is tough to take seriously when a war is going on and the Disney-friendly whimsy of the franchise doesn't quite gel with the darker elements this movie introduces. Did The Hunger Games franchise really earn its Holocaust imagery? I'd contest that. Admittedly though, those darker moments definitely make this sequel worthwhile as, finally, the harshness of this world becomes a bit more palpable.
Fans of The Hunger Games movies should enjoy this one, for sure. Those more indifferent viewers will find more to like here than in the last movie but a below-par lead performance and some sillier aspects of the film will still annoy at times. Part 2 should hopefully deliver more of the good stuff so at least we're back on the right track and my personal interest in the franchise has perked up a bit.
A flawed but promising second sequel.