Film essays

Misjudging Mockingjay: Why it pays to think twice.

Something around here had changed since last time... Katniss just knew it.
Something around here had changed since last time… Katniss just knew it.

I’m not usually one for end of year ‘top 10 films’ lists (mostly because a lot of very good films tend not to come from Hollywood and I’ll likely still be discovering some of them a year from now), but if I had been then The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part 1 would have been a shocking late entry on my list for 2014.

Shocking, because only a few weeks ago I gave it a humble 6/ 10 in my rather negative review of a film I now consider one of the most underrated of the past year. What constituted such a drastic change of mind? Well, over the festive period I saw the film for a second time with a different audience, and I found myself… somewhat more open-minded, shall we say, compared to my first time around. Sometimes that second viewing can be so much more important than the first, both for forming a more objective critical opinion and to discover possible strengths you may have originally missed or unintentionally glossed over.

In the case of Mockingjay I did overlook some of its strengths due to certain feelings I bore going into it. These two predominant feelings came through in my review, and were as follows:

1 – This is, of course, the first part of a film that I felt (and subsequently argued) should not have been split apart. On some level I still feel this way, though I have backtracked upon learning the second part of Mockingjay will actually have considerably more action than the first. What this means is; these two parts could be much more like Tarantino’s Kill Bill (within reason, of course) than I first gave it credit for, and that’s something I’m interested to see when the time comes. However, this is not really the point.

My point is, whether I felt Mockingjay should have been split in two or not, this feeling should not have had such an influence on my objective review of the standalone part 1. After all, most people involved in the making of this film would have had little to no say on the decision to do it in two parts; in the end they had to work with what they were given. I should have judged this movie on its own merit, regardless of whatever questionable decisions I felt the studio executives imposed in an attempt to boost their profit margins. Granted, the decision to split Mockingjay in two did have a certain impact on the film creatively – but not to the extent I had previously made out and, as I have already hinted at, I no longer think this business decision will turn out to be a wholly negative artistic one. So from that point of view at least, I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt currently.

2 – I made the point in my review that The Hunger Games would not have been such a resounding success among young adult audiences in the West if they had been equally aware of what is generally considered its Japanese equivalent, Battle Royale (Fukasaku, 2000). While this is indeed a valid point worth making, again it should have no real effect on my overall critical opinion of The Hunger Games trilogy in their own right (I should perhaps save it for an essay in which I’ll compare the two, which may yet be coming soon). I still admit a certain preference for Fukasaku’s cool action thriller, though I couldn’t have expected author Suzanne Collins’ young adult American series to match it or even be comparable to it; Collins herself claimed never to have heard of the Japanese film before people started comparing her story to it, and one can’t deny they carry distinctly different themes, each relevant to their own culture. Closer inspection on any level shows that The Hunger Games deserves more respect than to be simply labeled a Battle Royale clone.

All well and good, you may say, but when am I going to get to the part where I talk about what was actually so good with this particular film? What’s the real reason I’ve changed my tune? In my review I did give Mockingjay credit for its themes, political subtext and great performances by its primary cast. Though to stop there, at merely ‘giving it credit’ for select parts of what is actually a very accomplished whole, was itself an injustice to the film.

The biggest problem with my review was not its contents, in fact, but rather what I left out of it. I didn’t mention director Francis Lawrence and the frankly excellent job he did in directing the film, nor the accomplished soundtrack that included the song ‘yellow flicker beat’, which was nominated for Best Original Song at the Golden Globe awards.

While I don’t want to go so far as to re-write an entire review, I will highlight something to look out for if – or should I say when – you too end up seeing the film for a second time. That is, again, the directing: there are numerous moments where Lawrence seems to be leading his audience in one direction before surprising them with something else. One particular scene towards the end, when Katniss comes face to face with Peeta again, highlights this to great effect.

This was not just a consequence of good writing; it takes equally good, if not better directing to adequately pull off on screen what may have sounded great on paper. Lawrence perfectly executes so many of Mockingjay’s dramatic sequences, though of course his job is made easier by the talented ensemble surrounding him.

Those who go into it directly off the backs of the previous two films, perhaps expecting something similar to those, will no doubt feel initially underwhelmed. This does, after all, go in a very different direction from its rather more simple predecessors. True, it may seem light on action. But it makes up for that in almost every other area.

In the end my only real problem with this movie remains its own false ending; those final shots could, I think, have been executed differently. Though I am glad to have seen and enjoyed this film again. It has been useful in humbling me to an extent; a reminder that we don’t always get everything right first time around, and first impressions can be awfully fickle.

Granted, seeing a film more than once is not always possible, practical or even preferable in some cases. The next review I plan to post is of Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, a film that has had a fairly limited theatrical release in the UK and therefore one that I probably won’t see again until I can get my hands on a hard copy DVD or Blu-ray. Furthermore, unlike a professional critic, I have to pay money for every film I watch, and while I’m not complaining as I enjoy cinema trips as much as anyone else, this means I’m usually less willing to pay twice (let alone once) for a film that I may not consider good enough to warrant it. Indeed I sometimes feel they aren’t worth my precious time, never mind my money.

Mockingjay part 1 may have been an example of such a case had I not been subtly coerced into going to see it again, whereupon I gave it that second chance and was pleasantly surprised. I’m reminded also of when I liked Inception (2010) better second time around; of how I like Dr Strangelove (1964) better each time I see it; of how my enthusiasm for Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2009) was tempered slightly when I spoilt myself on multiple viewings.

This is not a promise from me to see every film twice before reviewing it. Nor will I be revisiting all of my other former reviews. I don’t have any immediate plans to re-invest my time and money on Interstellar, for example, so it won’t be getting the same treatment quite yet (and please, no-one force me to sit through The Battle of the Five Armies again).

But it is a gentle reminder to all those who are sometimes quick to criticize without first examining your reasons for it. Are these reasons objectively informed? Do you allow for the possibility that you may be wrong? And once you suspect that you are, would you be willing to stand up and admit as much? Or simply twist things around to fit your original opinion? Most of all, do you like how I’ve tried to compensate for Mockingjay part 1’s unsatisfying conclusion by attempting to come up with a deep philosophical one of my own?

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One thought on “Misjudging Mockingjay: Why it pays to think twice.

  1. Leaving to one side the issue of Mockingjay, I agree that some films improve with every viewing. For me, Vertigo is a good example. Others become less impressive, for instance Crash (2005 – not the Cronenberg film).

    I loved The Battle of the Five Armies, by the way. And yes, I have seen it twice.

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