Think back to Han Solo’s carbon freeze moment at the end of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) — perhaps the last time audiences truly cared about what might happen next to a movie character. It was the last pop-culture moment when a movie cliffhanger actually worked. Since then that plot device has been extenuated so often, simply as a means of selling the next production on a studio’s release schedule, that we have arrived at the nearly incomprehensible meaningless of Mockingjay, Part 1 (or Hunger Games 3).
In Mockingjay, intrepid, indefatigable, insipid heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) takes part in a rebellion against Capitol. Her bird-in-flight mockingjay badge has become the symbol of a dissident movement in this futuristic dystopia-yawn-fantasy. The survivalist Games themselves have been put on hold while a revolution foments, yet this franchise goes on forever — or interminably, depending upon your tolerance for the series’ jumble of literary references with malapropisms (from Suzanne Collins’ ludicrous book series), blending uninspired action F/X with blockbuster clichés.
At what point will moviegoers wake up from their consumerist hypnosis and realize the awfulness of this Hollywood conditioning? It should start with Mockingjay, a movie so dead-in-its-own-swill that the preview audience simply stared back at its poor excuse for a cliffhanger. Instead of caring whether Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) had turned evil or if Katniss’s fickle affections would ever settle on Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), the audience slowly showed a dreadful awareness: that more cinematic time-killing was to come.
Just as director Francis Lawrence has become an industry “shooter” (moving from commercials and music videos to simply shooting script pages), the making of blockbuster franchises has become increasingly unsophisticated. You can tell by Mockingjay’s repetitive narrative, the hollow-sounding dialogue and the roster of “serious” thespians punching a time clock. The parade of hacks is almost laughable. Look at all these Oscar-chasers: Lawrence, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Stanley Tucci. Can we ever again believe in these actors after such unengaged performances? Only Donald Sutherland as the deteriorating President musters hamminess; the rest are so uninspired and unaroused that they expose the franchise for the soulless, time-killing ka-ching machine that it is. The Occupy movement itself was never so cogent as the Mockingjay cast’s demonstration of corporate decadence.
That Katniss never develops an articulation of personal or political principles proves the insincerity of Collins’s concept. Mockingjay’s insincere concentration on “revolution” goes way past irony. If the dumbed-down audience had any inkling of realpolitik they might have hooted when Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee announces plans to make propaganda videos and describes them as “prop-os.” Mockingjay doesn’t even qualify as capitalist “prop-o” because Lawrence doesn’t know how to make action fun or give conviction to Katniss’s adventures. It all looks like outtakes from The Wall Runner or Snowpiercer. When Katniss stumbles upon the first in a series of post-apocalyptic vistas, the valley of skeletons image is just ho-hum genocide.
Remember when black academics and Afro-futurists took The Matrix films seriously as a parable for revolution? (Even Cornel West was given a role in the second and third Matrix installments.) Well, that was a generation of marketing ago. Since then, there has been so much counter-revolutionary control of moviegoing tastes that the political references in Mockingjay mean nothing.
After The Matrix, Marvel’s The Avengers, X-Men, Spiderman, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Twilight, and incessant TV-series binging, we’ve lost the feeling for narrative structure and impact. Mockingjay recalls that Flashdance feeling where nothing happens as a movie unspools. When Katniss sings “The Hanging Tree,” her voice has an appealing country-western twang that suggests some folk-culture remnant is buried beneath the rubble of bones and clichés. Too bad the song doesn’t relate to anything seen in the franchise — a sure sign that film and TV makers no longer care for coherence, meaning, or culture. And now a new generation is so benumbed that the boring Mockingjay doesn’t even bore them. They’re just waiting for another cliffhanger.
— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.