Review: 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1' is only half awesome

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” is only half awesome because it is only half a movie. Suzanne Collins’ final book in the trilogy has been segmented into two films, massacring the momentum the previous films had delicately built.

The popularity of “The Hunger Games” has spawned a number of dystopian film adaptations from young adult novels like “Divergent” and “The Giver,” but “The Hunger Games” films are still the reigning champions thanks to Jennifer Lawrence’s fantastic performance, director Francis Lawrence and writers Danny Strong and Peter Craig’s nimble balancing of character and plot.

“Mockingjay, Part 1” picks up shortly after the close of “Catching Fire.” The games are over and war has started. Katniss is recovering in the secret rebel camp in District 13. Her home -- District 12 -- has been scorched by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the other districts may soon see a similar fate. Her arena partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is now a prisoner and propaganda pawn for The Capitol. Under pressure by rebel leaders President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to be the face of the rebellion and unite the districts, Katniss faces the life-changing decision of retreating into solitude with her childhood pal Gale (Liam Hemsworth) or saving all of Panem. Obviously, it would be a short film if she retreated to solitude.

This is definitely the most mature of the “Hunger Games” films. While the first two films dealt with kids killing kids, “Mockingjay” elevates the violence to mass genocide; entire districts and populations are annihilated and a hospital filled with innocent civilians is bombed and destroyed. And then there are those public executions. Charming. This is targeted for young adults, but this might be one of the most violent young adult films ever made.

Jennifer Lawrence is again at her best as Katniss Everdeen. Lawrence has not really left the spotlight since the first “Hunger Games” film debuted in 2012 and she has shown incredible range over the past few years, but Katniss is her best character. She struggles with PTSD, wrestles with the thought of becoming a public hero or stay in hiding. She is angry, bitter and depressed and Lawrence certainly has the gift of pulling all of those off perfectly. For a massive genre film, it’s unique to have such a layered, compelling character usually reserved for adult dramas.

But greed has done more harm than good to this series. The current Hollywood trend (thanks for nothing “Harry Potter”) is to split films and TV shows into parts, which seriously harms story flow and momentum. We have seen this with the final “Potter” films, “Twilight,” “The Hobbit.” Even “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” unnecessarily split their final seasons up over a two year period. It’s frustrating for the viewer. It hurts the story. But sure, it makes some people very, very rich and that will always trump what’s best for the audience. For “Mockingjay,” the first 45 minutes is slow and repetitious before building to a fantastic mid-story climax – then just ends on a cliffhanger that’s not entirely enticing. This could be condensed considerably with little lost while fitting the entire story into a powerful single film.

Even though “Mockingjay, Part 1” is an incomplete movie, it features some dynamic, hair-raising scenes: the nail-biting rescue mission to free Peeta from the Capitol is one. Another -- which is one of the best sequences in the entire franchise -- features Katniss singing a lullaby ("The Hanging Tree") to her team. Composer James Newton Howard wonderfully builds her simple melody into a full-scale call for action, uniting the rebels as they attack a dam that provides power to the Capitol.  A very cool sequence.

There’s some new blood in the cast this round. Julianne Moore is the stoic president of District 13. There was more of a contentious relationship between Coin and Katniss in the book which is almost non-existent here, which is disappointing because Moore versus Lawrence could have been good scene-chewing fun.  Natalie Dormer (“Game of Thrones”) is a Capitol deserter-turned rebel propaganda director and Jeffrey Wright (“Casino Royale”) is the rebel’s tech guru. The cast is rounded out by strong performances by returning champions Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, and Stanley Tucci.

“Mockingjay, Part 1” could have been the best of the franchise if it was a complete film, but the segmentation has really done a disservice to the audience and Suzanne Collins’ story. That said, the completion of this excellent series next November can’t come soon enough.

Lionsgate. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 2 hours and 5 minutes.