So here we are, another year older, another year Hunger Gamsier. We may be in the end-game when you count down the clock on the franchise, and the page numbers of Suzanne Collins' books, but that doesn't mean Mockingjay Part One is sliding towards the exit as quickly as possible. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the first 30 minutes of the latest installment is spent bumbling around the underground interiors of District 13, the rebel outpost, as Katniss (Lawrence, brilliant as ever here) discovers what happened at the tail end of Catching Fire, not only to her and the Games, but her home of District 12 and all of Panem.
Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) is at the top with President Coin (Julianne Moore), plotting the PR strategy of spreading the message of revolution, with Katniss at the centre, Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson) has sobered up, more due to prohibition in the district than choice, and Effie Trinket (Banks) is stuck in a jumpsuit and wig-less, hiding in her quarters to avoid prying eyes. Those once with a sense of place are lost, and those without are now finding their feet. Especially Gale (Hemsworth) who has become his own man in D13, ready to take arms and protect, fight, aid anyone and everyone. But there's clearly someone missing among the family and friends in District 13 - Peeta Mallark (Hutcherson) - and despite Katniss's seeming ambivalence to the kid for two films now, her fake on-screen romance has led to some severe emotional quick-changes for our intrepid heroine.
That's a lot to inhale, and it's unfortunate that Mockingjay struggles to find a natural rhythm to play out all these moments of audience and protagonist catch-ups, which ultimately leaves folk like Banks and Harrelson standing around on-screen with little to do, and barely any character left to play with. Thankfully a switch is hit after this first act and the film finds a way to deal with its dark media and PR campaign skewering along with the concepts of war, revolution, human destruction and world domination without being too snarky, too cynical or too melodramatic. Katniss's world is changed so vastly, and her mindset is shot to ribbons by now, so watching her in this world, knowing she is but a figure, an icon, a puppet for a greater cause, is a fascinating place to set a feature.
Having been with Katniss for so long, seen her go through so much, the restrained nature of the events she has to face in Mockingjay Part One is a cocktail of kindness and knowing the worst is yet to come. The brief spell of action she gets into is larger, but the casualties aren't personal, they are rather the devastation wipes out hundreds to thousands of people, as opposed to one or two teens at a time. She now aids a greater war, and the way the film plays out is tactically different, texturally new and with a feeling of importance and confusion at the same time. Mockingjay Part One doesn't, can't, follow the format of the first two films: D12, Capitol, Stadium, Epilogue. In this, you're never certain exactly what will happen next, and gloriously we don't stick just with Katniss during these times. We witness the Capitol, we witness the uprising across districts, in magnificent and brutal set-pieces, and we get to sit in with Coin and Heavensbee as they discuss and plot the tactics of war and the PR of revolution as part of the same team.
The only other issue to find in Mockingjay Part One is the teenage love story element that has always felt thrust in for the sake of shameless YA bait hitting the Twilight, later Potter book successes. Katniss's love of best friend Gale has been a lacking part of the series, and her on-screen love of Peeta never as enthralling as the Districts seem to have found it, and while there's not much of that here, it's thrown in at times to make Katniss do dumb teenage things when the character should have learnt from her new world that she is and must be more adult. It's a bit of an embarrassing side-plot at this point, more for the sake of easy outs in stories to allow your characters to do the dumb things rather than finding more interesting ways to set-up action issues. Katniss's love of her mother and sister in Mockingjay are infinitely more engaging and important to her decision making than the misplaced romantic triangle.
Lawrence's return behind the camera on Mockingjay Part One show an evolution from his magnificent work on Catching Fire, after Gary Ross's artistic decisions to bend the rules of cinema and play shaky camera the entire film, Catching Fire's acceptance of the 180 rule and throwing in tracks and tripods for cameras helped the impact of the story more than any neo-realistic styles ever could, and Mockingjay Part One goes even further into cinema. The visuals are gorgeous, moving without shaking, exploring the world from high above this time, no more train rides, and even in the underground bunker we have many high balconies and stairways to look around the world from above. Shots of the revolution are bloodless but brutal, not shying from body count, and keeping us down with the people when needed - although one particular shot from above a dam as peacekeepers train their weapons on incoming citizens is potent in and of itself. Then there's a sequence set in the Capitol, which looks to be out of a future Mission: Impossible film; it feels like pure action cinema handled in the manner of deeper resonance and emotion, the connection with the masked figures abseiling into a building is surprisingly strong, and unlike Ethan Hunt and his team, any one of these folks could be offed within the shot. That's intense, that's interesting, and best of all it feels like pure cinema.
Mockingjay Part One has faults, but ultimately it is so well handled that come the satisfying end of the film you can't think of it purely in terms of a financial choice to split the book up. The story is balanced, cleverly building to the height of tension, crafting the characters and world perfectly, with a script full of ingenious touches and concepts, and Lawrence's direction is utterly sublime. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One isn't quite as great as Catching Fire, but it remains as magnetic, intriguing, intense, stunning and purely cinematic as that film. Next year is a long way, but that just means plenty of time to embrace this film and really look into some of its extraordinary sequences and set-pieces. A magnificent penultimate piece of a four-part trilogy.