No doubt about it: "The Hunger Games" has captured the imagination of American moviegoers. Much of its popularity owes to breakout star Jennifer Lawrence, riding a heartening new wave of heroine chic, while some may be due to the franchise's young-adult inheritance from "Twilight." But above all, it seems we love "The Hunger Games" because it caters to the suspicion -- stoked in a time pitting the 99 percent against the 1 percent -- that the have-it-alls have fixed the odds to be ever in their favor.
And so mallgoers flock to slum it in Panem, the dystopian post-apocalyptic nation marked by its minimal bread and garish, gory circuses: annual fight-to-the-death reality TV competitions called "the Hunger Games." Having survived two bouts in the arena, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) finds herself ensconced within the rebel faction poised to wage all-out war on the Capitol, a city of lavish excesses lorded over by Donald Sutherland's serpentine President Snow.
"She's the face of the revolution!" enthuses former Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman) to rebel leader and District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). But convincing the iconic "Mockingjay" Katniss to play along with Heavensbee's propaganda campaign will require addressing her chief concern: the recovery of beloved Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) from the Capitol's clutches, where he was left behind in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."
Unsurprisingly since "The Hunger Games" films derive from YA novels, there's another man in Katniss' life: hunky bestie Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), who spends most of this sequel mooning -- and occasionally shooting -- by Katniss' side. Also in Katniss' rebel-base orbit: fellow Games escapee Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), now-sober alcoholic mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), unhappily displaced Capitol fashion plate Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), tech whiz Beetee Latier (Jeffrey Wright) and Katniss' sister (and soul) Primrose (Willow Shields). Throw in appearances by Panem TV personality Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), and the all-star gang's all here.
And yet there's something lumbering and even self-defeating about this sequel, which -- as per profit margins -- has split Suzanne Collins' novel into two, two-hour-plus films. Director Francis Lawrence (who also helmed "Catching Fire") applies his considerable budget to playing out these chapters on a grand scale, but most of the picture is dire talk seen through dim light, dull color and just-so hazes.
We're meant to feel the weight of Katniss' situation, and we do, but the picture is leaden as a result. Despite talk of "the fire that the Mockingjay started," the action is sparse. Indeed, little of consequence happens, as most of the key incident is back-loaded into next year's "Part 2." "Part 1" devotes an entire scene to convincing a fashion designer to make an outfit: This is what usually decorates a cutting-room floor.
On the other hand, there's something pleasingly perverse about a blockbuster movie that's so focused on making its audience suffer along with its heroine (and J-Law suffers impressively, as only a movie star can). This is a film in which the hero begins the story with severe PTSD and one of the good guys utters, in the opening moments, "I wish they were all dead. I wish we were too." Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
At its best, "Mockingjay - Part 1" noodles on the franchise's key themes of the burdens of leadership and celebrity, and the skilled manipulation of a population through distraction and propaganda. But even on these points, "Mockingjay" isn't much more than skin deep, and worse, indulges its own form of narrative manipulation. Even granting her concern for Peeta as a rationale, Katniss' tortured resistance to being a propaganda tool seems contrived: Why wouldn't she do anything in her power to stoke resistance against the Capitol? By so underplaying Katniss' doubts about the alternative rebel government, "Mockingjay" misses an opportunity for both complexity and character clarity. No doubt the gamesmanship will step up ... after a long year's wait.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material. Two hours, 3 minutes.