Director Peter Jackson was in the room with New Line Cinema founder Bob Shaye back in 1998, or so the story goes, pitching him on making J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy into a pair of films, when Shaye stopped him with a question: "Why make two films when you can make three?"
Fast-forward to today, when not only do trilogies like the "Divergent" series routinely get three films, but single novels, if they conclude a popular series like the Harry Potter or "Twilight" books, get split into two parts, with the potential for increased earnings that motivated Shaye still a key driving force.
As its elaborate title indicates, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1" is the latest franchise film to have taken the "Lord of the Rings" model to heart. Though everyone tries her or his hardest to make it otherwise, this is by definition a place-holder film that exists not so much for itself but to smooth the transition from its hugely successful predecessors to a presumably glorious finale one year hence.
While it's unlikely that anyone who hasn't seen the previous films will be motivated to start here, the hordes already pulling for the redoubtable Katniss Everdeen will be hard to keep away. Sticking closely to the plotting of novelist Suzanne Collins (who gets an adaptation credit here), director Francis Lawrence delivers on what dramatic beats half a novel affords him. You just wish there were more of them and that they provided a more complete, more satisfying story arc.
"Mockingjay" does benefit from the return of most of the cast from those earlier films, notably Jennifer Lawrence as unquenchable flame Katniss, whose dramatically shot arrow at the close of "Catching Fire" literally and figuratively breaks a glass ceiling assembled by the carefully regimented totalitarian future state of Panem.
Lawrence, who's been nominated for three Oscars and won once (for "Silver Linings Playbook"), maintains her tight hold on the fierce character of Katniss, a rebel by instinct who insists, always, on being defiantly her own person.
One reason the "Hunger Games" trilogy was so successful in print (more than 65 million copies in the U.S. alone) is the shrewd way the plot combines the personal and the political, intertwining a kind of "High School Confidential" romantic triangle with serious bread and circuses concerns about spectacle, tyranny and the manipulation of public opinion.
Written this time by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, "Mockingjay" opens where "Catching Fire" ended, with Katniss having just been plucked from the Quarter Qwell arena. She's been told that her actions have been the spark that has inspired a nascent rebellion against the totalitarian system run with evil efficiency by the way-devious President Snow (Donald Sutherland.)
Katniss now finds herself in the militarized underground city that is the headquarters of the revolt, the super-secret District 13, under the command of steely President Coin (Julianne Moore, new to the series).
Coin's prime strategist is none other than Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), the former games maker himself. He and President Coin want Katniss to become the face of their rebellion, to help them unite the put-upon Districts against the dread Capitol. "To start a revolution, we need a voice," she's told, and she is the consensus pick.
Katniss, being Katniss, is not so sure. For one thing, she is worried sick about one of her beaus, her Hunger Games partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who's a prisoner in the Capitol. Perhaps under duress of some sort, he's turning out the kind of anti-revolt propaganda that makes him persona non grata in District 13.
Though she doesn't say so explicitly, we can tell that Katniss is not sure how far Plutarch and President Coin can be trusted. As someone who acts from the gut, she is ill at ease with the calculation of her new colleagues, even though she shares their disgust at President Snow's depredations. You can almost hear the "meet the new boss/same as the old boss" lyrics of the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" going through her mind.
Helping Katniss calm down is the presence of her other beau, the hunky Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), now a District 13 soldier, and old colleagues from the games. Back in business is futuristic fashionista Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), determined to make Katniss "the best-dressed rebel in history," and her old mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson at his relaxed best), now clean and sober, albeit much against his will.
Because this is the first Hunger Games movie without any actual game action in it, "Mockingjay" is often slow going, with not enough strong emotional moments (the one exception is Katniss visiting a rebel hospital) to compensate.
Plus, having the film end at a particularly dramatic en media res moment only underscores how frustrating it is to have to wait a whole year for the conclusion. If it's going to be true, as someone predicts to Katniss, that everyone in Panem is "going to want to kiss you, kill you or be you," it hardly seems fair to have to wait so long for all of the above to happen.
"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1."
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Playing: In general release