Over the first two Hunger Games films, we've watched coal miner's daughter Katniss Everdeen become the pawn, then the pest, of the Capitol, whose President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has enslaved the adults of the 12 poorer Districts and annually commanded that they together sacrifice 24 of their children to likely death in public combat. Now in Mockingjay, the third film (with a final to come), Katniss has ascended to the face of the Districts' violent insurrection, and in turn, director Francis Lawrence keeps his camera close to star Jennifer Lawrence's sad eyes as she strides through the rubble Katniss has triggered. Many have died in her name, yet Mockingjay only occasionally shows us the corpses, charred wraiths whose exposed rib cages look like mouths screaming for liberty.
Katniss has never been a big-picture thinker. She's fought only for her family and friends. Freedom is an afterthought. So director Lawrence is right to pan away from the dead to where the franchise's real war has always raged: Katniss' conscience.
The last film ended with the shock-and-awe twist of Katniss' rescue from the Hunger Games arena by a rebel group from the supposedly extinct District 13, which the Capitol had purportedly bombed into oblivion two generations ago. Since then, the survivors have lived underground, plotting their revenge. "War never stopped for us," says Colonel Boggs (Mahershala Ali). In fact, it's all District 13 has ever known. In peace, they built bombs. In war, they stockpiled them. Culturally, to the more agrarian Districts, they're as foreign as the Capitol. Inside a massive subterranean missile silo, District 13ers live like sacrificial cogs in a dangerous machine. Their leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore, her red locks dyed granite gray), speaks in a monotone and wears the same plain jumpsuits as everyone else. "You know what could use a revolution?" sniffs Capitol glamor queen Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). "That hair."
President Coin doesn't have the personality to stir citizens to war. She can't even convince Katniss, who has every reason to fight — the Capitol has captured her on-again crush Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and is forcing him to go on TV and beg the rebels to make peace with President Snow. To rescue him, Katniss must agree to be Coin's weapon of mass propaganda, a role she's served inadvertently for two films and must now do knowing the brutal human cost.
Mockingjay is where author Suzanne Collins' books go from solid to superlative. Like J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, the novels have a self-congratulatory intelligence: Neither author can resist naming minor characters like she's trying to earn extra credit for Latin 101. But Hunger Games is by far the smarter franchise. Collins doesn't simply divide people into good, evil, and good disguised as evil. This is a story about ethical compromise where the heroine is willing to kill, and it asks its audience to recognize that even her allies are a bit rotten — and to accept that maybe that's half-OK.
Because Mockingjay has been divvied up into two segments, this film is all about the buildup to war. Next year's installment will have most of the action — here the battle is waged on TV. If you break the script down into plot points, it sounds a little silly: The narrative thrust is simply Katniss shooting several pro-revolution commercials. But it works because we're fascinated by media fights — thousands occur online every day. Despite the dystopian setting, a story beat where a lullaby that Katniss casually sings on camera ripples onward to become the chant of four dozen civilians marching toward their own massacre feels like both high-concept tragedy and the next evolution of #AlexFromTarget. Turns out when Collins wrote Mockingjay in 2010, she was predicting not only America in two centuries but also the accidental overnight internet instafame that was just four years away.
Yet the film's fixation on narrow-minded Katniss means we still aren't given a chance onscreen to explore Collins' elaborate world. Katniss keeps the film human — here, even when elevated to an icon, she looks away embarrassed when the District 13 crowd applauds her latest ad. Jennifer Lawrence can say more with a chagrined side-eye than most actresses could with a page-long speech. Still, sometimes the attention the film itself lavishes on her feels absurd. Director Lawrence can't even let fellow Hunger Games arena survivor Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) confess that a pimping President Snow forced the winners into prostitution — a revelation that should make people rally around this survivor too — without splicing in Katniss ignoring him to watch a special-ops mission on a monitor.
"Miss Everdeen, this revolution is about everyone," President Coin snipes. Can you blame a girl for getting confused?