“Your girl on fire has burned out,” Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tells District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). The incendiary female he refers to is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a victor in the last two Hunger Games and now a refugee from Panem’s President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Katniss’s emotional temperature has cooled; she’s dazed and confused, depressed and logy, and so is The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1, the third in a four-movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ YA trilogy.
The first two Hunger Games installments earned more than $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office, so the new film’s makers—director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong—dispense with a lengthy recap of the story thus far. Katniss simply whispers a skeletal précis of the plot in the first 15 seconds. In a sentence: War is on; she’s in the underground District 13; and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), her Games co-victor and public boyfriend, is Snow’s captive and counterrevolutionary mouthpiece back in the Capitol. O.K., now what?
Not much. In the greed-is-good tradition of the Harry Potter and Twilight movie franchises, the overseers of The Hunger Games have split the last book into two films. You may recall that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 was the only lame episode in the entire canon and that Mary Pols titled her TIME review of the penultimate Twilight film “Breaking Yawn Part 1.” Expectations for the artistic and entertainment possibilities of this half-Mockingjay should be at least as low, though it’s likely to be the top-grossing movie of 2014. Hundreds of millions of people will go see it in the same way reluctant Catholics used to attend Sunday Mass: under threat of the mortal sin of having to confess you skipped it.
For a start, in this Hunger Games, there are no Hunger Games. The Survivor-for-real televised spectacle, which started with 24 young contestants and meant to kill off 23, has been called because of war. And war games aren’t much fun, especially when Mockingjay Part 1 allows for only one massing of troops, one ISIS-style public execution of hooded men and one Navy SEALs-ish guerrilla raid, in which Katniss takes no part. She’s back at District 13 HQ, being schooled in the art of the propaganda video, or “propo,” by Plutarch, costume adviser Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Katniss’s old coach, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). If The Hunger Games series were an actual dystopian reality show now available on DVD, Mockingjay Part 1 would be the making-of extra.
We’re backstage with the star, Katniss, as she tries to rally rebels in other districts against the fatherly despot Snow. Like a famous athlete trying to make a public-service commercial, she looks stiff and sounds shrill when the cameras roll. Wearing eye makeup that even a Kardashian would find excessive, Katniss is a genuine military leader who can’t play one on TV. Not until she ventures aboveground and sees Snow’s air force bomb a District 13 hospital does she explode into telegenic fury and make her big Joan of Arc speech, proclaiming, for all the districts to hear, “If we burn, you burn with us.” Effie, for one, feels the magic. “Everybody’s gonna wanna kiss you, kill you or be you,” she tells Katniss. “Everything old can be made new again. Like democracy.”
There might be some pizzazz, or at least some satiric bustle, in these scenes, but they’re infected by Katniss’s dyspepsia. She’s in mourning for her lost Peeta, or maybe for the zippy woodland capers of the first two movies. The District 13 decor is drab, almost colorless, and the bad-taste splendor and gaudy gowns of the second episode, Catching Fire, have given way to a Stalinist poverty of the visual imagination. Even glam-gal Effie sports the “no-makeup” makeup look, and her stab at making Katniss the best-dressed rebel in history falls far behind Che Guevara’s fatigues as a fashion statement.
So you hope for some erotic crackle between Katniss and her brace of swains. Her old beau Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) should have pride of place; he’s strong and sensitive, and doesn’t take advantage of Peeta’s absence to press his affections. Yet Katniss gives him just one soft kiss, and that, he can’t help noting, is “because I’m in pain. That’s the only way I can get your attention.” Our heroine’s guilt over leaving Peeta behind—even though, or especially because, he’s been turned into a counterrevolutionary mouthpiece for Snow—overwhelms her fondness for Gale.
Why would that be? Fess up, Hunger Games fans: Does anyone care about Peeta, or find him attractive? He’s the Ron Weasley of the series: he gets points for callow valor and sympathy for his run of bad luck, but he remains a pasty, earnest bore. (Contrarian opinions are welcome in the Comments section.)
As in The Hunger Games and its first sequel, Mockingjay Part 1 springs to life around the 80-minute mark. Hearing a flock of mockingjays chirp overhead, Katniss sings a folk-song dirge, “The Hanging Tree,” which builds into a stirring, thumping chorale and leads to some long-promised action sequences. But the number has no more impact than (as Gale observes sourly) “a fight song at a funeral.” It’s certainly not enough to make this film more than a placeholder for the finale, Mockingjay Part 2, which is expected to hit theaters on Nov. 25, 2015.
The distinguished actors, including Oscar winners Lawrence and Hoffman, often deliver their dialogue in a flat, disengaged tone, as if at a first reading. And though we still believe that Lawrence, who turned 24 in August, can do no wrong, she isn’t given much opportunity to do anything spectacularly right here. Her performance is a medley of sobs and gasps, in mournful or radiant closeup. This time, her Katniss is as much a prisoner of her circumstances as Peeta is. She and the movie are both victims of burnout.
“It’s the worst terror in the world,” President Coin tells Katniss, “waiting for something.” The two-hour foot-soldier slog through Mockingjay Part 1 forces audiences into mostly wasteful waiting for something special to happen. Coin and her idealistic minions have hurt Katniss in a way President Snow barely dreamed of by turning this military heroine into a celebrity spokeswoman. The same goes for Collins and the film’s makers: they created the most popular activist-heroine in modern movies—with one of the biggest, most gifted and appealing stars in the world—and make her sit this one out.