Overview: Katniss learns to play a different type of game in the first half of the final installment in The Hunger Games trilogy. We should shorten these titles. Lionsgate; 2014; Rated PG-13; 123 minutes.

Building Blocks: This was never going to be a completely fulfilling experience. That comes with the territory when you split one movie into two. Harry Potter and the Hallows Part 1 is still the most effective example of this – with the nifty cliffhangers and setting of the final stage – but Mockingjay Part 1 thrives regardless of this handicap. No, it’s not quite as shockingly good as Catching Fire, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to digest here.

The Different Games: The previous entries in the franchise spent the first hour exploring the ideas of control through entertainment media while prepping for the games, before the last hour is the struggle for survival in the games themselves. Mockingjay continues the themes of playing with the media but for the sake of propaganda. There’s the preparation, only this time it’s preparing for war. Panem is thrown into a full on civil war (Katniss confirmed for Captain America 3) but we only see skirmishes. That’s all fine because the real meat of the story is the media boxing match between the Districts and the Capitol.

Political machinations are the crux of this franchise. It’s what separates it from standard genre fare. There is a love triangle, but Katniss isn’t defined by her choice of men. She’s defined by her perseverance to protect those she cares about. A large issue I had with the book series was that Katniss never seemed proactive. Even with the dozens of pages devoted to understanding Katniss’s headspace, I didn’t believe the Girl on Fire could inspire a rebellion. In this film series, Katniss still only gets to make a few choices on her own, but the choices have weight to them. That’s thanks to the direction of Francis Lawrence and Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. This might not be J-Law’s best role (it arguably is) but it’s easy to see why this made her a star. Moments that didn’t work in the trailer for me had me enthralled with what was happening on the giant screen. The “If we burn, you burn with us!” bit had me glued to the screen. A smaller note on the aesthetic of this heroine: Katniss had Cinna always work magic on making her outfits that were attention grabbing. I’ve grown tired of the black on black battle suits thrown into every modern action movie. However, Katniss looked like a fucking. Bad. Ass.

Mockingjay Part 1 is melancholy. Entire buildings are brought down upon innocent people and fields are littered with charred corpses. It makes the original Hunger Games look tame in comparison and I’d be mindful of bringing younger audience members to this one. Due to the political maneuvering in the movie, the younger audiences may be bored anyways. A child at my showing very audibly asked his mother “When is the movie over?” Others may not be so kind on the lack of action but I’d only have an issue if the movie ever felt aimless. It doesn’t. Just like Katniss, this is a story with purpose.

I’ve grown to really appreciate this franchise. It’s a series that brings young adults into a world of political intrigue and poses valid moral dilemmas for that same audience. The film is only satisfactory on a “Part 1” level. Don’t expect a satisfying conclusion for plot, characters, or themes. With that in mind, the building blocks are not all yet in place. Part 2 will surely still spend time getting characters reacquainted with each other before the final battles, leaving me with the impression that this should have indeed been one giant event movie. But the two-part finales now qualify as globe-shattering events.

Final Thoughts: The final book left me cold and disappointed. This first half of the final chapter built me with more anticipation than I thought imaginable. Even if the second half is just a film failing to resonate as these last two films have, I’m glad I came on this journey to Panem. I hope the final trip is worth it.

Grade: B+