There are negatives at the start. First, this movie does not stand alone. They assume way too much about what the viewers would already know from watching the first two installments (do we really remember everything from last year and the year before?). Plus, they leave us hanging with the story line, because there’s a “Part Two” coming out next year. So they are not even trying to attract a walk-in audience here – just those who are already fans (or else you will have to have a lot explained to you before you go). Second negative: this movie is very dark, both literally and figuratively. Many of the scenes are shot underground where desperate rebels are hiding, all wearing black jumpsuits for solidarity; but even when we go above ground, all is rubble and smoking ruin because we’re in the middle of a civil war here. And nobody is playing nice. Third negative: you don’t shoot down a jet fighter with a bow and arrow. Actually, they have our heroine hit one fighter, which then crashes into the other, so she gets two down with one shot. Talk about stretching credulity.
All that said, for Jennifer Lawrence fans, this is the trilogy’s biggest test of her acting range. She plays Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant hero from Suzanne Collins’ smashingly successful young adult novels, who grows up in a repressive dystopian future where the dictator’s cruel regime holds an annual sporting event of fight-to-the-finish for its youthful gladiators from each district. (Yes, the Roman Empire enjoyed the same blood sport in its prime, but the leader of the Christian cross-cultural movement was a nonviolent martyr, remember?) Katniss has gained renown as the victor of one of “The Hunger Games,” but something happened to her along the way of her victory tour while drinking in the adulation of the teeming masses: She continued to feel their pain. She actually doesn’t see herself as the leader of the rebellion, and she isn’t. They have a president, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and a prime minister, Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman). Katniss, for her part, really just wants to save her little sister, Primrose (Willow Shields) and to be with her love interest, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), another Hunger Games contestant. But Peeta’s been captured by the evil dictator, who calls himself President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and Peeta has apparently been brainwashed, as well, as he appears on broadcasts urging the rebels in general, and Katniss in particular, to put down their weapons and surrender.
Of course, in a civil war, there’s violence on all sides, and usually, each side accusing the other of atrocities. The real battle is for the hearts of the people. And the charismatic Katniss possesses a Joan-of-Arc leadership capability, except that she has to be coaxed and cajoled into deciding this on her own. Eventually, she realizes that burying her head in the sand is not a viable option (or in her case, leaving her alone to hunt with her bow and arrow in the woods). The die is cast, the rebellion is in full swing and it’s too late to back down now – there are too many lives already lost and too many more still at risk. So, reluctantly, she agrees to be the face of the rebel cause: the Mockingjay who inspires the others to keep striving for their freedom. But of course, nothing significant is as simple as it appears.
In a previous generation of young adult heroes, Luke Skywalker found out the same thing when he reluctantly agreed to join forces with the rebellion. The difference there was that he encountered more humor and heart along the way, plus he was a more typical teenager, capable of both braggadocio and immaturity, both impatience and irreverence. This heroine is all grit and determination, passion without playfulness, petulance without charm. Poignant, sure, but not very uplifting. And, for the uninitiated non-fans, not really very inspiring, either.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.