Tuesday 14 November 2023

From the archive: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1"

Back in the 1970s, a film like Logan's Run could take just hours to describe its young heroes' realisation they were living in a dystopian state, their radicalisation, and the revolution they strove to bring about. The crisis in American cinematic storytelling is such that it's taken two whole films, each running two hours plus, for the Hunger Games series to reach just the first of these stages, and to have its heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) wake up to the fact the society in which she's forced to run around putting arrows through the chests and necks of her contemporaries may not be, y'know, all that. From this sorry state of affairs, we can draw three conclusions. One: Katniss Everdeen is an exceedingly dim heroine to construct a film around. Two: the core audience for these things are substantially dimmer than they once were, kids who need walking and talking through every last baby step of these plots. Three: the studio, Lionsgate, has stretched this narrative out purely for financial gain, bestowing us with four meagre films, when the material was only strong enough for one, maybe two tops. This is very different from the teensploitation of the Roger Corman era, where the producers were lucky to eke one release out of half an idea - and thereby cover their pitifully small budgets. The Hunger Games producers have merely succeeded in dolloping out some patently thin gruel, and getting audiences worldwide to hand over millions in return. It's a series governed less by sound storytelling principles than by the corporate world's abiding laws of supply and demand.

One could arguably have said much the same about the Twilight saga, a roughly contemporaneous franchise this viewer proved far more sympathetic towards than most. Yet for much of its run, that series was prepared to scratch about modestly on location, with lesser known actors. (It, too, got into trouble when it split one book into two.) In The Hunger Games movies, there has been an altogether starker contrast between the richness of the assembled human resources and the thinness of the material; barely a scene has dragged by without a familiar face or illustrious name dropping by to mouth some leaden dystopian homily. With Mockingjay - Part 1, we're finally at the point where rebel leaders Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman are all set to face off against Donald Sutherland's tyrannical President Snow. (Even the latter's underlings are played by the recognisable Sarita Choudhary and Robert Knepper, Prison Break's infamous T-Bag.) The splurgy casting never quite takes, because teenagers aren't going to know - aren't old enough to know - Magnolia and Don't Look Now, and the actors don't have the material to work their usual nuance-locating magic. This really is a franchise where the baddies are bad and the goodies are good and everyone's set on a track that permits no deviation - which again makes one wonder just why it's taking so damn long to get anywhere. 

Any onlooking grown-ups, meanwhile, will have long been alienated by the prevailing YA-ness. To be fair, the franchise's impossibly dull and drippy love triangle, involving Katniss, a minor Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson's annoyingly named Peeta - at every point, substantially less engaging than Twilight's better acted Team Jacob/Team Edward rigmarole - is allowed to recede in this instalment; instead, we get what's effectively a two-hour sidebar on the rebranding of Katniss Everdeen, once the postergirl for conformity, now a revolutionary figurehead. All this betrays, however, is an editorial interest in positioning and image control; the revolution this series is really getting to is one of PR and marketing. And again, deprived of the wisecracks action movies usually toss their protagonist by way of light relief amid the prevailing bloodbath, Katniss is revealed as a heroine almost entirely without personality: such an effervescent performer elsewhere, Lawrence is trapped physically under a lifeless gothy dye-job and professionally beneath the most mechanical of characterisations - a cog in a machine who may at some point, we gather, throw a spanner in the works.

What's been especially frustrating with these films is that you keep catching flickers of the more economical and effective pulp this series might have generated at maybe a tenth of the budget. Having abandoned the franchise as a theatrical proposition circa 2012, I'll now concede it was strangely ahead of its time in some respects, more relevant to a post-2016 world, where the likes of Teen Vogue and the congresswomen known as The Squad led the resistance against the snowy-white President Trump. Still, I can't for the life of me see why this series took such cultural hold under the Obama administration. (It's not like The West Wing presenting a bizarro-world alternative to the Bush years - unless people wanted things to get worse.) Beyond that, any residual B-movie delights are swiftly howitzered and buried beneath contemporary event-movie excess. For much of this one, we're hunkered down in bunkers, with light relief limited to running around the rubble of massive, concrete-grey sets; even Elizabeth Banks, whose Effie Trinket brought a dash of camp colour to the first movies, has seen her costume and eyebrows removed. Via such fell swoops, The Hunger Games has shaped up not as a franchise about dystopia so much as a franchise that is dystopia: offering scant pleasure or joy, and no catharsis whatsoever in a cliffhanger ending that reminds us we've got another bloody one of these things to sit through before we can put this needless ordeal behind us. We're nearly seven hours into this tale, and still Katniss Everdeen appears no closer to achieving the necessary change to which she's just been awakened. Time is money, my dear, as your paymasters surely know.

(July 2020)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 is available to stream via NOW TV, to rent via Prime Video and YouTube, and on DVD via Lionsgate Home Entertainment.

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