'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1'

The most important thing to know about The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is that you’re only going to get two thirds of a movie. Mirroring the increasing trend in popular film franchises (Harry Potter, Twilight) and TV shows (Breaking Bad, Mad Men), distributor Lionsgate has split Suzanne Collins’ final novel in her bestselling trilogy into two films. That decision feels like a pure cash-grab this time around — the book was no longer than the others, which were comfortably squeezed into standalone single movies — and you walk out of the theater vaguely unsatisfied at the lack of a third act, a release of all the tension and suspense director Francis Lawrence expertly crafts. Imagine an Olympic track and field race in which the announcer shouts “Runners on your marks … get set … come back next year!” That’s how you feel when the end credits pop up. Instead of going full-hog and sending out the series with a full-on, three-hour epic, the filmmakers have opted to squeeze every last drop from this money-minting rock.

That said, Mockingjay — Part 1 still makes for dark, grim and exciting entertainment. Picking up where Catching Fire left off, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have been separated: She’s been rescued by the rebels, led by President Coin (Julianne Moore, rocking long white hair) and her assistant Plutarch (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), who hope to use Katniss’ popularity to fuel the oppressed population to rise up against their oppressors.

Peeta, meanwhile, has been captured by the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who has brainwashed the young man into appearing on TV to convince people to obey their leaders and lay down their arms. Peeta becomes a propaganda tool, a countermove to every small victory by the uprising to capture the hearts and minds of the public. Like the novel did, Mockingjay – Part 1 eschews big action setpieces and the colorful spectacle of the previous two films for a graver tone that explores the effect of the media on the average person and how easily political messages can be manipulated to garner the intended results. Both sides are guilty of this: Initially, the rebels try to film a reluctant Katniss on a soundstage, trying to fuel a revolution via scripted lines, but she comes off fake and unconvincing. The only way to get Katniss to spark fire in the populace is to send her out on the battlefield and let her see the destruction the Capitol has wreaked on her former hometown as punishment for her behavior.

Adapted by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, Mockingjay – Part 1 could have easily become a talky and dull polemic designed to give the coming war some heft. But the actors draw you in, making you forget almost half of the film takes place in a dank, gray underground shelter. Moore, Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright help lend gravity to what could have come off as silly and trite, and Liam Hemsworth as Gale, Katniss’ boyfriend, is finally given more to do than form one leg of a romantic triangle.

Returning players Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks, as Katniss’ trainer and assistant, are no longer garish cartoons: Over the course of three films, they have become vital characters, and you’re happy to see them back. Lawrence continues to plumb depths of despair and anguish in Katniss without becoming tiresome; her transformation from a reluctant I-don’t-want-to-do-this recruit into a willing political symbol is convincing and rousing. Director Lawrence, once again proving how bad of a fit filmmaker Gary Ross was with the first, cheesy film, gives you a couple of suspenseful action setpieces, but this is more of a prelude to the storm than anything else (it’s telling that Katniss only fires one arrow in the entire film, although the shot brings down the house, causing the audience at a recent screeening to explode into applause).

There’s no point in whining about what could have been if Mockingjay hadn’t been cleaved in two: What’s done is done. But it’s a testament to how good Mockingjay – Part 1 is that the temptation for those of us who haven’t read the books to search Wikipedia to find out what happens next has never been greater. Unlike The Hobbit trilogy, the film doesn’t feel padded or drawn out (it has the shortest running time of any installment in the series, clocking in at less than two hours without end credits). The down time spent with the characters in this movie will no doubt pay off in the final installment, making the stakes count in a way they hadn’t before. What began as a clever but superficial piece of dystopian sci-fi has developed into an engrossing and grave saga that no longer feels like it was written primarily for teenagers. Even the love triangle between Katniss, Gale and Peeta, which previously felt tacked on and unnecessary, has taken on considerable importance. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 isn’t perfect, but I suspect the film will play a lot better once we get the second half of the story, and the seeds that have been planted begin to sprout. You say you want a revolution? Be careful what you wish for.

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin, Stanley Tucci, Willow Shields.

Director: Francis Lawrence.

Screenwriters: Peter Craig, Danny Strong. Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins.

A Lionsgate release. Running time: 123 minutes. Violence, disturbing war imagery, adult themes. Opens Thursday Nov. 20 at area theaters.