A Fried Peeta with No Meat, Extra Onions, and Light on The Sauce
The Hunger Games Part 3: Part One (also known as Mockingjay) is a commercial masquerading as a movie about a girl filming a commercial. Luckily, this is part of a teen-targeted mega-franchise, meaning writers Peter Craig, Danny Strong, and Suzanne Collins (adapting half of the widely disliked third novel in her YA trilogy) provide plenty of call-backs to the second film--for those of us who had trouble staying awake during it.
We catch up with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a reluctant revolutionary torn from her home who joins the fight against an all-powerful, evil Empire.* She and her platonic friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) align with an army of rebels and plot the rescue of Katniss' true love, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)--who's been kidnapped by the empire and kept like a trophy in its ruler's fortified palace. Among their crew is a hairy, non-verbal giant, a temperamental priss who's always complaining about being stuck in a grimy war zone, and a sarcastic sidekick who struggles to be taken seriously because he's stuck in a can (one that's filled with booze). In the end, a team of rebels infiltrates the empire's command center, which we see inter-cut with its leader lecturing a wide-eyed Katniss on the dangers of underestimating the depths of his insidiousness.
And, yes, Katniss yells, "It's a trap!"
I know, I know. I'm not supposed to compare everything to Star Wars, but director Francis Lawrence spent so much time not giving me anything new to hang my hat on that I had little choice but to document patterns and pray for the end credits. And the repetitiveness doesn't end with the Return of the Jedi plot structure. No, Mockingjay contains precisely three series of events, which are bookended with material from the previous two chapters and recycled four times over two hours:
Opening Bookend: Katniss walks through her home town of District 12 and is yanked away by a group she doesn't trust in order to engage in a life-or-death struggle. They outfit her with cool weapons and designer clothes, and set her loose with a group of strangers--people who might have been characters in Collins' novel, but here are relegated to being "those other guys" from the Jordan-era Bulls.
Setup 1: Katniss slowly approaches a ridge/rounds a corner. She discovers something horrifying as the music swells. In close-up, Jennifer Lawrence reigns supreme as the master of modern-day, single-tear cry-acting.
Setup 2: A group of rebels advertise their whereabouts while plotting ill-conceived attacks against the Empire. They must deal with the consequences in subsequent suspense-free action scenes (setting down a helicarrier next to a hospital full of wounded rebels; setting off explosives in the woods; blowing up a dam; and hunkering down in a highly populated, subterranean military base that's somehow miles deep, completely self-sufficient, and totally secret).
Setup 3: Katniss whines about being the reluctant hero to the point where even the movie starts to give up on her. The rebels need her to film a series of viral videos that will stir the Empire's subjects to action, but she's such a "regular girl who just wants to be left alone" that she can only register emotion after nearly getting blown up. Eventually, the head of the military base, President Coin (played by Julianne Moore and whom, I'm sure, we'll learn has two sides), calls for Katniss' friends to take center stage.
Closing Bookend: Katniss and the rebels make a desperate attempt to save their friends while bringing down the system. It doesn't work, of course (Lionsgate has a release schedule to consider, remember), and Katniss ends up in a cold, metal room with the rebels for Mockingjay's big third-act revelation. She gets hit on the head and wakes up for a second revelation, which becomes the cliffhanging hook into the next movie.
The Hunger Games films are ostensibly about defying convention and not accepting the daily garbage heaped upon us by an oppressive, uncaring system. I'm betting the target audience understands this on a narrative level, but has no real desire to step beyond it. How else to explain their lining up in droves to see the exact same formula played out every half-decade? From Harry Potter to Twilight to The Hunger Games (and the wannabe spin-offs, like The Mortal Instruments and Divergent**), this is Doritos filmmaking at its most flagrant ("Try new Lava Hot Doritos! They're waaay hotter than Fire Hot! And just wait 'til you get a load of Sriracha Meltdown!").
These films' legitimacy was built on pedigree more than quality. Anchored by a huge, devoted readership, a genuinely talented lead actress, and a second film that was objectively better-directed than the first, The Hunger Games is officially a juggernaut. Never mind the fact that Lawrence isn't allowed to use a tenth of her abilities as Katniss--playing instead a downbeat cypher onto whom tweens might project their own insecurities in the fight against lousy, rules-making adults (see also Kristen Stewart and pre-post-Potter Daniel Radcliffe). Never mind that the new material in Catching Fire and Mockingjay could have been combined into the opening half-hour of a single sequel that would also have encompassed the third book.
Granted, I haven't read the books in their entirety. As a veteran of bad movie franchises, I can see the possible outcomes and none of them are interesting. But the studios aren't interested in interesting; they want eyeballs, asses, and taste buds (and eventually downloads). Just as fans celebrated Harry Potter for taking seven movies to graduate and allowed sparkling vampires five movies to wind up almost exactly where they were at the beginning of the first, the legions of Mockingjays will, I'm sure, reward Lionsgate for dragging out the finale for another year. In the meantime, someone, somewhere is gearing up whatever series will make the next generation of kids turn up their noses at The Hunger Games.
*They call it The Capitol, but they're not fooling anyone.
**Which, in my estimation, is better than The Hunger Games by virtue of slightly tweaked character dynamics and a genuine mystery at the end of the first film.