Mockingjay Rebellion: New "Hunger Games" is a mirror image of our world
One of the great functions of popular art is its ability to record the moods, dreams and nightmares of its time and place. The latest installment of "The Hunger Games" films, "Mockingjay Part 1," is a perfect example of this. It is not only a superb entertainment, but like all great dystopian fiction, it is a mirror image of the modern world. In the tradition of much lesser recent franchises like "Twilight," this is the first half of the series's grand finale. It is a more mature, assured and moving film than its predecessors. Gone are the plotlines of young, attractive characters surviving a lethal game for the entertainment of the bad guys, to the side is cast the cheesy teen love triangle. In this edition Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself at the forefront of a bloody revolution against the oligarchical Capitol that rules over the world of Panem. She is now part of the underground army forming beneath the soil of Panem, led by president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
The film picks up right where the last one, "Catching Fire," left off as three of Katniss's comrades are in the clutches of the Capitol and the masses are growing restless. Inspired by her public defiance during the last hunger games, strikes and riots have broken out in the various "Districts" of Panem. As civil war breaks out, Katniss goes from celebrity to rebel leader, and as a result faces the consequences of what waging war means.
Among the recent Blockbusters "Mockingjay- Part 1" is cut from a different cloth. A running theme this summer and fall appeared to be buddies, especially in mega hits like "Guardians Of The Galaxy" and "Big Hero 6." These were entertaining, light-hearted fantasies, "Mockingjay- Part 1" is like a reminder that mainstream, popcorn movies can be engaging, yet still resonate with the unrest and uncertainty we see everywhere.
In his groundbreaking book, "From Caligari To Hitler: A Psychological Study Of The German Film," critic Siegfried Kracauer demonstrated how German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s was like a large tapestry of the national, German mindset after World War I and right before the Nazis came to power. In particular sci-fi movies like Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" were visually dazzling, but they expressed the inner thoughts of a society losing its faith in modernism, authority or the assurances of the upper class that everything would get better soon.
In this tradition "The Hunger Games" joins films like "Children Of Men" and "Snowpiercer" that touch on the prevailing sense that old social structures are starting to crack and streets begin to boil, as in the Middle East, Mexico, Hong Kong or Ferguson. It is no surprise that "Mockingjay- Part 1" has been banned in Thailand. This happened after student protesters used the film's famous three finger salute as a sign of protest against the current, coup-installed military regime. Such is the power of cinema.
While all three "Hunger Games" films are well-directed, "Mockingjay- Part 1" is driven by images of particular power. Director Francis Lawrence provides scenes of great scope, sometimes without dialogue, where the images say everything. In one visceral moment a crowd of ragged District inhabitants march in the rain, at night, towards a vast dam that generates electricity for the Capitol. Their mission is to blow it up. Guards in armor appear and mow down the crowd with gunfire as others struggle to complete the mission. The scene is framed by the song "The Hanging Tree," a rootsy ballad sung by Lawrence. The editing and choreography merit comparisons to the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein in works like "Strike" or "October." It is a moment of real, human effect.
But the power of these images also resides in their resonance. The scene by the dam is eerily familiar to the scenes on the news of crowds being mowed down by the military regime in Egypt, or recently in Mexico where citizens have been clashing with armed police over the disappearance of 43 activist students. There is a gruesome moment where Katniss walks through a District reduced to rubble by government war planes, and she finds herself stepping on skulls and bones scattered all around. This struck a particular chord as I have been reading reports and accounts with similar experiences in Gaza and Syria.
There is another scene where the series's main villain, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), addresses the Districts in a satellite-transmitted speech. His dialogue, calling for obedience for the greater good, describing the Capitol as a heart fed by the Districts, sounds not too disconnected from Hosni Mubarak's speech in 2011 trying to quell the rioting Egyptian people, or Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent speeches addressing a growing Palestinian rebellion in Jerusalem. It is a brilliant touch by the filmmakers, and "Hunger Games" novelist Suzanne Collins, to give Snow the title of "President." Because, as seen in Egypt and Mexico, democratic titles are used often to veil repressive orders. The narrative of "The Hunger Games" doesn't even try to offer a watered-down, Gandhian solution. The world of "Mockingjay- Part 1" is one where violent resistance is to oppression is both justified and almost inevitable.
In addition to political relevance, "Mockingjay- Part 1"continues the "Hunger Games" tradition of borrowing from classical history, giving its settings and narrative a richer depth than most, current action films. The world of the Capitol, with its aristocratic fashion, looks almost like a cross between "Blade Runner" and the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Names like Plutarch evoke the Roman world. A scene where Katniss slowly stalks a deer in the woods, bow and arrow in hand, brings to mind the Greek huntress goddess Artemis.
Jennifer Lawrence gives the kind of tough, low key performance that works for this kind of film where a cool-headed character hides a raging fire inside. But one of the refreshing aspects of this "Hunger Games" was how the story focused intently on her, leaving most of the males as background.
If we can't elect a woman president yet in this country, we can at least start delivering intelligent, strong action heroines with stories that resonate. Katniss has love interests, but they are based on natural feelings (and plot requirements), not the necessity of having a male hero save or even protect her. Frankly her male counterparts are pretty vapid and stale, and I say this as a guy who recently got slammed for "trying to be a hero." There is a smart sense of gender egalitarianism in "The Hunger Games" that stands out in a world where action films are usually driven by jerk males (although women adore them).
But films, above almost anything, need to be entertaining, and "Mockingjay- Part 1" more than succeeds. Go see it because it's worth the ticket price, go see it because it's well-made and never boring, go see it because it's a good story worth your popcorn-munching time, but also play close attention what it offers between the lines.