Review: ‘Mockingjay — Part 1’ a glum setup for ‘Hunger Games’ finale |

Review: ‘Mockingjay — Part 1’ a glum setup for ‘Hunger Games’ finale

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore star in 'The Hunger Games — Mockingjay Part 1'
Jennifer Lawrence stars in 'The Hunger Games — Mockingjay Part 1'

Dark and hazy, relentlessly glum and dull, “The Hunger Games — Mockingjay Part 1” is the first film in this sci-fi series to refuse to even attempt to stand on its own.

If you haven’t seen the previous films, good luck picking up on what the story is or who those people are off camera that onscreen characters mention.

And if you know the book, you know they’ve saved the climactic action — much of the action — for “Part 2.”

That said, “Part 1” is an interesting change in tone and approach. The Austrian Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend,” “Gotham”) directs with more concern for smoky underground atmosphere than for exposition, more interest in telling the audience what they want to hear than letting them feel it for themselves.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is traumatized by the bloodshed of the previous “Games,” and by the loss of her beloved Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). The revolt she inspired against the Capitol has spirited her away in their vast underground fortress. That’s where her other childhood beau Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is at her side, and old colleagues like Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and the daft fashion plate Effie (Elizabeth Banks) might be some comfort.

But the powers that be — President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and cunning propaganda chief Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — have big plans for her. She is the Mockingjay, the symbolic “face of the revolution.” They want her to do some heroic posing for the cameras, to get the other bombed and embattled districts where labor is enslaved to do the Capitol’s work to join in the rebellion.

And all Katniss wants is Peeta. He survived the last “Games” and is now turning up on TV, urging the rebels to give up on behalf of Panem President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

So, it’s a video war, with Katniss coached and made-up and pitted against a frail and haunted Peeta, both of them guided by marketers or straight coercion into staying on message.

The humor is more overt here, but so is the melodrama. Every move and counter-move is arch and built around a ticking clock — doors about to close, bombs about to explode.

The underground facility scenes have a smoky quality, as if poor lighting was not enough. The ventilation isn’t up to the job. And what do all those people down there do to survive, aside from wearing jumpsuits?

Lawrence strains to find real emotions to play here. Her undying love for Peeta seems more unreal than ever. And Moore is entirely too stiff to be a compelling leader of rebels. But Hoffman, after a rough opening scene, reminds us of the shock of his death, bringing a quiet urgency to a supporting role any number of actors could have played, all of them with less shading.

It’s not a bad film. But it is, from first scene to last, just a tedious good-looking setup for what one might hope would be a more lively, and, perhaps, better lit and ventilated, finale.

Roger Moore reviews movies for Tribune News Service.

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