One of the best things a franchise can do is play around with genre. Not only does it allow the series to feel more expansive and broad, but it also allows the filmmakers to explore different genre connections, twist them around, and mash them together. It's worked for Alien, and The Fast and the Furious franchises, and luckily for the Hunger Games filmmakers, author Suzanne Collins hardwired this curve into the book series. So while The Hunger Games and Catching Fire are dystopian gladiator film, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 transitions us from acts of defiance to open rebellion. Mockingjay picks up shortly after the previous entry and finds Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in the newly revealed District 13, trying to cope with leaving Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) behind in the arena. Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is now working with President Coin (Julianne Moore) running propaganda for those in resistance against the Capitol, and wants Katniss to be their figurehead/mascot, The Mockingjay. Katniss also learns what happens to her home, and why Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her mother (Paula Malcomson), and her sister (Willow Shields) are living among the rebels. Once Katniss decides to become The Mockingjay, she is joined with Cressida (Natalie Dormer) to rouse the rebellion by heading out into the field and become Panem's equivalent of Captain America, trying to boost morale without actually being in danger.
Meanwhile, Peeta is being turned into an establishment foil for Katniss by the Capitol, appearing on TV with Ceasar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) in a series of Nightline-style interviews that plead for peace. Because in a rebellion, peace allows those in power to stay there. Using Peeta for their own purposes President Snow (Donald Sutherland) manages to isolate Katniss even among the rebels, as only she and a few others understand exactly what Peeta is being put through, while the rest of those in District 13 see him as a traitor to their cause. Even her supposed allies in Heavensbee and Coin often treat Katniss as a means to an end. In Catching Fire, Snow referred to Victors as a "species," and that theme continues here, with only Finnick (Sam Claflin), and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) knowing the true horror of the Games and how it has affected those involved.
All of this leaves Katniss once again adrift in the center of her own story. While Katniss is the figurehead of this rebellion, it is only as the Mockingjay that she holds any sway in District 13. She is once again part of someone else's agenda, and can only direct things through irrefutable actions. The film adds gravity and weight to this by not shying away from some of the darker moments from the novel, including firebombed corpses, executions, and aerial bombing. This is not a glamorous war film, but rather a demonstration about the human toll that war takes. Some of the best moments in the film are those use parallel action to show the result of Katniss' propaganda appearances in the other Districts. These short diversions from the brooding and planning in 13 show both the range of this conflict as well as the scores of people who have sacrificed their lives for the cause.
Along with the change in genre, this film trades in the sleek Capitol setting and lush areas of the first two films for the dark metallics of Dictrict 13's missile silo home and gray rubble of the other Districts under fire. It's a stark change, reinforcing the switch in genre as well as the dire situation of the characters. The franchise to date as incorporated a lot of looks and visual styles, and that continues to work to its advantage, underpinning the class-focused story with strong visual cues, even if nothing here approaches the glory of the IMAX-filmed arena scenes from the previous film.
Mockingjay - Part 1 doesn't quite overcome the problem of splitting one book into two films. It's a business decision that realizes there are more tickets, discs, and merchandising to be sold by double-dipping. From an audience perspective, it is truly only an issue for the next 364 days or so of waiting for Part 2, when viewers will have the ability to watch both films in quick succession. Artistically it does pay off some dividends. The novel is the easily the most plot heavy of the trilogy, and being able to spend at least 4 hours adapting the book allows for this film-- like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 before it-- to find space for the quieter moments in addition to moving the pieces into place for the climactic finale. There is a lot of set up and additional world-building done here as Katniss learns more about the Capitol, and trying to shove it all into one picture could easily have felt rushed.
Director Francis Lawrence maintains the quality achieved in Catching Fire and successfully transforms the series into war films while maintaining the brutal nature of the source material. While Mockingjay - Part 1 is a somewhat episodic story chunk, it is no less satisfying for it.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 opens in Philly area theaters today.