Take solace, movie buffs, in the knowledge that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 is a catastrophe in all the ways we expected.
Notwithstanding Hollywood's mercenary trend toward overserialization, esp. where finales are concerned, it still seemed fair to inquire of the cosmos why the execs at Lionsgate saw fit to bisect the worst and shortest installment of Suzanne Collins' dystopic YA trilogy.
With Harry Potter, the two-part-finale concept was a novel one, and one we embraced if only because we wanted to see our friends onscreen one more time...one last time. With The Hobbit, we were sort of baffled, but tended to trust that Peter Jackson would have something visually worthwhile up his sleeve. (He did, if not what we expected).
With Twilight, whatever the those were called — New Moon? Moon Dance? — we didn't exactly pay attention.
The Hunger Games has been a more nuanced, more exotic cinema animal. We were pleased to see the franchise succeed at the outset, or at least weren't praying for a failure so utter and total that it'd have no choice but to cease and desist at once (looking at you Transformers).
The first movie's smash success at the box office was something we regarded with delight. Jennifer Lawrence was then but a rising star, and we were on board with and refreshed by the grit we'd seen in Winter's Bone, a grit we saw her invest in Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games' heroine and heart.
This was also, notably, a studio narrative we could get behind. Here was Lionsgate, primarily a horror house at that time, who'd made something imperfect, but still pretty good, on a budget a fraction of the size of its genre competitors'.
Under no circumstances, though, did we want or deserve Mockingjay - Part 1.
Therein, you'll see very little of the Katniss by whom you may have been swept away in 2012, or for that matter evidence of a studio out to do the right thing.
The film finds Katniss after having been rescued from the Capital's sadistic annual tournament and stashed in the bowels of the Matrix-ish underground District 13. In the film's opening shot, she is whimpering, pleading that she be left alone. She has been transformed by grief and remorse and spends the first hour of the film wandering about in a blue high-waisted jumpsuit like some stoned, aghast flower child.
That won't do for the District 13 brass — President Coin (a charmless, silver-haired Julianne Moore) strategist Plutarch Heavensby (Philip Seymour Hoffman, to whom the film was dedicated, merely trying his best); and the military commander Boggs (a sort of wonderfully affectless Mahershala Ali, Remy Danton on Netflix's House of Cards). They all need Katniss to be the face of the resistance. They understand how her actions have mobilized the continent, how the image of her face transmits power and hope. Their plan is to make propaganda films, with the help of up-and-coming director Cressida (Game of Thrones' Natalie Dormer, sporting half a head of hair) to wage a PR campaign against the capital, whose operatives counterattack on the airwaves with a brainwashed Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).
There are one or two brief, harried scenes of action here, but for the most part these stunted, damaged refugees weep into each others' arms and sit glumly in the dirt and offer sage counsel on the order of "it takes ten times longer to pull yourself back together than it does to fall apart."
The central issue with the movie is neither its absent action nor its directionlessness, but instead its shitty characters. This was a major downer in the book, too. The people we have come to know and maybe get a kick out of have all fundamentally mutated:
The brusque drunkard Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) has been forced into a tame sobriety by a District 13 whose vision of democracy is as much without personality as the Capital's is without justice. Haymitch now supports the weepy Katniss with hugs and positive reinforcement. The hunky tomcat Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is now quote unquote "in pain," pouting and pining and enduring his martyrdom with monologues about genocide, squatting just so among the tableaus of wreckage, gazing out at the charred and still-smoking skeletons of, e.g., District 12. Effie Trinket is eyebrowless. Cinna is dead. Peeta, heretofore a portrait of tenderness, is seen only on screens, bruised and malarial and communicating, much like Katniss, mostly through tears.
It's telling perhaps, that the movie's two coolest moments are short scenes of violent protest in districts we've never seen before and will never see again.
The fact that this is a two-hour autonomous film instead of a 30-minute first act is the grandest insult of all, a corporate tactic which impugns the real-life studio execs in the same way the Capital is impugned (and assaulted) by the Panem rebels in the series. The leadership is oppressive! The leadership is merciless! The leadership is all-powerful, reaping the rewards while we are taxed for trash.