Will the odds ever be in The Hunger Games franchise's favor?
All signs point to yes, given that the first two movies grossed more than $1.5 billion. The third chapter, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, arrives in theaters Friday and features returning stars Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin, Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Josh Hutcherson, Jennifer Lawrence, Willow Shields, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci and Jeffrey Wright.
Director Francis Lawrence's film also introduces a few new characters, played by Natalie Dormer, Julianne Moore and Evan Ross.
In addition to being a hit at the box office, The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire premiered to rave reviews. Did its follow-up—the third of four movies—meet or exceed expectations?
Here's what critics have to say about The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1:
• Variety's Justin Chang understands why Lionsgate split the third and final book into two parts, but doesn't feel it was necessary. He writes, "Like the novel, the screenplay...ably conjoins elements of political thriller, combat movie and mass-media satire, weaving a dense network of unsteady alliances, secret conspiracies, ratings-minded power plays and the always-knotty entanglements of love and war." He appreciates the movie's "fleeting moments of levity," particularly because he argues that it "never shakes off a safe-and-steady, by-the-book feel, or an unfortunate tendency to spell out the obvious."
• Like many critics, Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty argues that "the biggest problem with the new Hunger Games movie is right there in the title: Part 1. Mockingjay, the final installment in Suzanne Collins' best-selling YA trilogy, wasn't conceived in two parts." According to him, the film studio was "looking to double down and milk every last dime out of its blockbuster franchise" à la Harry Potter. "Mockingjay—Part 1 is like a term paper with the margins enlarged and the font size jacked up to reach the assigned number of pages," Nashawaty writes. He argues that Lawrence's character, once "brainy and badass," has "become passive" in the third movie. "While the series' first two films captured the grandeur of the outdoors during the kill-or-be-killed competitions, Mockingjay is mostly bound to the bleak and claustrophobic bowels of a bunker. It suffocates the film," Nashawaty opines. "And when the story finally does manage to get interesting toward the end, it just screeches to a halt and cuts off, leaving fans wriggling on the hook for a finale they won't get to see for another 12 months."
• The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy likens the movie to "an overgrown and bloated trailer for a film yet to come." Like Nashawaty, he argues that the "blockbuster trilogy wasn't naturally designed to be broken down into two segments." Overall, McCarthy was disappointed. "Unfortunately, Mockingjay — Part 1 has all the personality of an industrial film. There's not a drop of insolence, insubordination or insurrection running through its veins; it feels like a manufactured product through and through, ironic and sad given its revolutionary theme," he writes.
• According to Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson, "The series has lost much of its sense of weird, dark invention, all the crazy verve of the Games replaced with the bleak practicalities of war. If that doesn't sound like any fun, well, you're right. It isn't. But that doesn't mean it's bad!" Lawson praises the director for finding "enough meat" in the first half of Collins' last book "to nearly sustain a full movie, a feat that Bill Condon couldn't pull off with [The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1]." He also argues that "Katniss gets a bit lost in all the insurrection," because in the books, readers "get to spend a lot of time inside her conflicted mind, as she agonizes over being the figurehead of the rebellion, which further endangers her beloved, captive Peeta...In the book we get to know the inner Katniss, hard to like as she may be, and so her personal stake in all this mess seems, well, fair. But in movie form, when all this real struggle is being waged around Katniss, good and brave people dying because of what she inspired, all her worries about Peeta seem like, well, the petulant whining of a selfish kid." He thinks it "borders on tedious at times" and "could be worse," but adds, "It's still just a preamble to the big show."
• "Jennifer Lawrence reveals greater depth and emotional layers as rebel leader Katniss, and is bolstered by powerhouse supporting performances," USA Today's Claudia Puig raves. She also believes that Moore plays "District 13 President Alma Coin with just the right blend of stern authority and humanity." She also appreciates the darker theme. "This is not post-apocalyptic fantasy," Puig writes. "It feels much more like a war movie than the previous films and has a timeliness lacking in the others."
• Us Weekly's Mara Reinstein calls the film "forgettable" and "devoid of tension." Still, she writes, "The heart-stopping last 10 minutes—more like a tease—do offer tantalizing promise of a magnificent grand finale in 2015."
• Will people still flock to theaters to see what Katniss and her crew are up to in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1? "Hundreds of millions of people will go see it in the same way reluctant Catholics used to attend Sunday Mass: under threat of the mortal sin of having to confess you skipped it," Time's Richard Corliss jokes. In all seriousness, he feels the film was muddled by Katniss' love triangle. "Does anyone care about Peeta, or find him attractive?" he wonders. "He's the Ron Weasley of the series: he gets points for callow valor and sympathy for his run of bad luck, but he remains a pasty, earnest bore." He notes that the film "springs to life around the 80-minute mark," though as a whole, it feels like " a placeholder for the finale, Mockingjay – Part 2, which is expected to hit theaters on Nov. 25, 2015."
• The Chicago Times' Richard Phillips gives the movie a more positive review than his peers. "The film works...They got the casting so very right with this ongoing project, from Jennifer Lawrence (a crier, but also a fighter, and a fiercely talented performer) on down." Unlike its predecessors, he argues, "This isn't a movie, or a set of characters, built on bloodlust or the enjoyment of anonymous kills. Katniss remains a marvelous shot with a bow and arrow but she's just a young woman trying to keep what's left of her family together, and rescue the baker boy Peeta (Hutcherson) from the clutches of Snow (Sutherland)." While not every scene is "dynamic or remarkable," Phillips writes that it's "easy to appreciate how Collins' world (a bit thin on the page, but irresistible to millions) has been realized on screen."
• "Mockingjay – Part 1 is still very much a Hunger Games movie, yes, but it calls to mind smart political comedies like Wag the Dog and Tanner '88 as well," The Wrap's Alonso Duralde writes. "Mockingjay – Part 1 might not be as consistently thrilling as Catching Fire," he writes, "[but] it's the movie equivalent of a page-turner, consistently suspenseful and filled with surprises and illuminating character moments."
• The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday opines that the movie is a "dutiful, glumly atmospheric placeholder [that] feels like a long, extended inhale." Still, she can't deny the leading lady's talent. "Perhaps the cleverest feat of the Hunger Games epic has been to marry so seamlessly the shallow values of our own image-driven culture, the virtues of fashion at its most self- expressive, classic anti-authoritarian political ideals and the irresistible, ungovernable force that is female adolescence," she says. "Lawrence's Katniss is the perfect foil for all four, her raw-boned beauty, strength and steady focus just as compelling, at their most unadorned, as when they're tricked out for maximum stage presence."
• "Franchises get rebooted, but they don't normally get rebooted halfway through their run. Without the Hunger Games themselves the film lacks a solid structure," The Guardian's Henry Barnes writes. "Katniss spends much of the film finding her strength after the abduction of her boyfriend, Peeta. The rebels admire her anger and defiance. They're probably not so keen on her boy-centric fretting." Overall, he writes, "Part 1 is a likable preamble, a moment to let the flames die down before adding more fuel."
• "Readers of Suzanne Collins' dystopian trilogy know that the story is dour and despairing. Still, this adaptation fails to get a grip on the muted, murky proceedings," The New York Daily News' Joe Neumaier writes. "While it's refreshing to not have more arena-set bloodletting in the futuristic, fascistic U.S. known as Panem, what's replaced it is dull speechifying and people staring at giant screens, when they aren't staring at rubble." Neumaier also notes the "serious lack of action," saying he could overlook it "if the script were as smart as in the previous films." Still, he writes, "Just when the film threatens to succumb to sameness, [Jennifer Lawrence] draws us in with the power of her personality. Always magnetic, she gives Katniss a sparky soulfulness even when Mockingjay – Part 1 feels like it's winging it."
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is in theaters Friday.