What I have come to refer to as "straddle releasing"—splitting a film into multiple parts under the pretense of maximum fan service but really in the pursuit of maximum dough—can work. When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out in two installments, it allowed the first the room for a low-key, forty five minute-long interlude that played more like a mumblecore romance than the conclusion to a slam-bang fantasy epic. It was a weird, mostly reviled artistic decision that I welcomed, as it set up the stakes between the characters even impossibly higher than they already were.
The bad news: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I does not make good use of its partioning. Like most other straddle films, it instead resorts to padding and incident to justify its existence. The first fifteen minutes of the film are its worst, setting up nothing that is not rehashed later—and more compellingly—as the story progresses. We see admittedly cool-looking but pointless action sequences that rise out of the story's major events, yet are unacknowledged outside the context of their self-contained scenes. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is psychologically ground down by repeated viewings of her swiftly fading love interest, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), but the scenes play so similarly that they become irrelevant. This is too-big-to-fail budget filmmaking at its laziest and most desperate.
The good news: this story is just too good at its strongest points to completely dismiss. The casting of the rogue's gallery of supporting characters is so spot-on that the film jolts to life once it allows them some space to dazzle us. Lawrence peels back her tough, badass exterior to reveal the young girl under the icon of rebellion that Katniss still is. She cries more than we have ever seen, not just out of fear for Peeta, but also from her evident PTSD induced by the Games. And the story finally builds to a climax that we will inevitably return to the theater to experience.
That story picks up right where the superlative Catching Fire left off. Katniss, having spoiled the Quarter Quell with a well-placed arrow to the force field, has been recruited by the literally underground resistance, led by President Coin (Julianne Moore, septic and icy) and the Games designer Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman, deliciously sardonic). They want the battered Katniss to be their Mockingjay, the spokeswoman of the rebellion against President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his decadent Capitol. After a visit to the rubble of her home district and the senseless murders of hundreds of innocents at the hands of Snow, Katniss agrees, completely willing to snarl for the camera, for the purpose of rousing her fellow 99 percenters. But her confidence and drive is waylaid by Peeta, who has been kidnapped by Snow and is evidently being tortured, for the purpose of drawing Katniss out and throwing her off her game. The war is reaching its breaking point, and something's gotta give.
If you're not on board by now, then Mockingjay is uninterested in initiating anyone new. And in a better world where straddle movies don't exist, this could have been the unmitigated success we were all hoping for. As it is, this film is a handsomely produced yet disappointing interlude. Let's hope that the finale trims some fat as it sprints toward its conclusion.