Penultimate ‘Hunger Games’ features geopolitical undertones

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It could have gone all wrong for the clunkily titled “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1.” When Lionsgate Entertainment announced it would be released in two parts, many fans worried that stretching Suzanne Collins’ already short narrative would reduce the film to a cumbersome exercise in fan exploitation. Yet miraculously, the penultimate “Hunger Games” proves to be smarter, darker and ultimately refreshing.

The first two films were mirrors of each other: both chock full of combat, flying arrows and “whom will she choose” tension. A reductionist might even say that they were typical action movies draped in teen flair. But “Mockingjay, Part 1” goes far beyond its forebears’ familiar territory. It’s not about Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) choosing between Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) or about teenagers fighting to the death in an enclosed arena. Rather, the penultimate film trades action for reaction, following Katniss’ psychological struggle as she copes with the complexities and casualties of Panem’s civil war.

When we last left Katniss in “Catching Fire,” she had been rescued from the Quarter Quell and transported to the rogue District 13. The third installment picks up shortly thereafter, with the rebellion against the Capitol in its beginning stages. Katniss is safe, but mentally unstable. Two trips to the Hunger Games and Peeta’s continued absence has left her with haunting flashbacks, survivor’s guilt and a distinct apathy toward the war effort. She’s certainly not what District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) had in mind when she heard Katniss would be “the face of the revolution.”

But Katniss comes around. In exchange for a rescue mission to save Peeta, she agrees to star in District 13’s short propaganda films, designed to rouse the other districts from their fatalistic obedience toward the Capitol. Initially, the videos turn out pathetically manufactured and hardly motivational, but when Katniss sees the ruins of her former District 12, her spark reignites. “If we burn, you burn with us!” she warns the Capitol’s President Snow (Donald Sutherland) through the proxy of a camera lens.

Her new emblematic role comes at a price. Snow begins producing propos of his own, featuring a bruised and beaten Peeta as the leading man. Katniss soon learns: The Hunger Games may be over, but the mind games have just begun.

In the end, “Mockingjay, Part 1” raises more questions than it answers, largely due to its unnecessary design as a two-parter. But director Francis Lawrence — no relation to Jennifer — works with what material he has, lending a harsher, gloomier tonality to the film. What is the cost of war? What is freedom worth? By occasionally moving his camera away from Lawrence and onto the browbeaten denizens of the outlying districts, he’s able to broach these questions with a haunting realism absent from the other two films.

Things become ominously meta in those few but powerful scenes. Former roadways are turned to mass graves. Hospitals full of wounded children are blown to smithereens. Masked militias kill brave uprisers for spreading information. The geopolitical references embedded in the film are potent, reminiscent of real events that have occurred since the release of the second film.

If fans find the movie unpleasing, it’s probably for that reason. The main demographic for these films are  — for the most part — teens and tweens perhaps too young to understand the weightiness of the political commentary. They just want to see Katniss and Peeta — or, as the Interwebs have so graciously dubbed their union, “Peeniss” — pair off. They just want to see Katniss and Gale — arguably more appetizing couple name “Kale” — have their hotly anticipated kiss.

But “Mockingjay, Part 1” bellows a more resonant tune that forgoes the trivialities of teen love triangles. In true heroine form, Katniss must subjugate her own personal wants for the greater good. Meanwhile, audiences must trade an escapist action flick for a sophisticated but no less enjoyable drama. But ultimately, it is the film’s sharp political commentary that keeps the “girl on fire’s” story from burning out.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” is running at UA Berkeley 7.

Contact Gillian Edevane at [email protected].