The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 review: J-Law goes to war

What we thought of the penultimate film in the Hunger Games saga – SPOILERS

After the first two films took place mainly in the arenas, it’s hard not to feel a certain sense of apprehension with Mockingjay Part 1, which isn’t set in an arena at all. It was the same sort of reaction that met the Deathly Hallows leaving out Hogwarts.

Thankfully, the odds were in Mockingjay’s favour. When you are in it for the long haul, you end up watching for the characters. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence)’s life is still a mess and the brutal yet family-friendly ultra-violence lives on.

Another wobbly prospect came in the form of a question: does the final novel really warrant two films, or is this just the filmmakers following the trend? From reading the book, it seemed as though Part 1 would be sitting tight and Part 2, non-stop action. It’s a delicate balancing act, but just going by the first half, it’s one that has been nailed.

The ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ rule doesn’t apply to the arena, it seems, as the stunt with the arrow in Catching Fire cost Katniss her home, her district and countless lives. One woman’s arrow is another woman’s revolution firestarter, and once again Katniss has all of Panem’s attention.

Adapting to life in the underground District 13 – once believed to be destroyed – isn’t easy, especially when combined with Katniss’s PTSD and the capture of Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). On top of that, the district’s president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Gamemaker-turned-rebel spin doctor Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) are trying to turn Katniss into the face of rebellion, the Mockingjay, for a series of propaganda videos, but she isn’t having any of it it.

After finding out that Peeta is still alive  in the Capitol, she doesn’t take much persuading. She agrees to be the Mockingjay on the condition that Peeta is rescued at the first opportunity, along with District 7’s Quarter Quell tribute Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin)’s love Annie Cresta (Stef Dawson). It all goes a bit pear-shaped from there.

One of the things that make The Hunger Games films feel like actual dystopian action movies rather than a teen sci-fi franchise is the fact that the actors can actually act. Lawrence yet again proves herself to be a worthy Oscar winner – if you fail to be moved by her performance at least once you should probably go and talk to a doctor – but the rest of the cast are more than just stepping stones for the story to balance on.

The big players like Hoffman and Woody Harrelson are as top-notch, but the younger cast members hold their own too. Hutcherson was good as Peeta, the Lover Boy Baker’s Son in the first two films, but he steps up a notch as Peeta, the Piece in the Games in Mockingjay Part 1.

Generously sandwiched between the globs of angst and emotion is tension and suspense. Katniss may not be watching her back in the arena anymore, but you’re still on the edge of your seat. There are a few standout scenes you’re going to want to watch out for, but goosebump moments happen often.

The Hunger Games is becoming the Katniss Everdeen of the YA arena; it just keeps on winning.