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film review

Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence star in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, in which the trilogy gets very bleak.Murray Close

As the latest Hunger Games movie starts, rebel heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) wakes in a hospital bed in an underground bunker feeling sad, mad and bad. Her favourite boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is missing. Her home district has been destroyed by President Snow (Donald Sutherland). And the rebel leaders are looking at her to save the world. Her squirrel-shooting days in the forest are long behind her.

The rebel leaders, literally in the underground, include the ice-in-her-veins President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), the Machiavellian propagandist Plutarch Heavensebee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Jeffrey Wright as the gruff technology genius Beetee, which reminds us that, whatever else you may fault about Hunger Games movies, they don't stint on acting talent. The effect of so many Oscar-calibre actors speaking the generic dialogue is like watching pro ballplayers play T-ball.

Together, they are contriving to make Katniss as "the face of the revolution," a sort of Joan of Arc with warheads for arrows who can inspire the downtrodden people of Panem to rise in revolution. In the bunker, which also doubles as a studio, Heavensbee tries to direct staged video shoots where Katniss tries to sound inspiring, but comes off as shrill and forced. A true rebel, she can't fake it.

Katniss finally breaks out of her performance block when her old mentor, the newly sober Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) suggests they really need to capture her spontaneously for this to work. To that end, he proposes they put her onto the battlefield. After witnessing Capitol planes bomb a hospital, she expresses her rage, and her accompanying documentary crew nails the the moment. Voila, a viral video for the revolution.

In fact, the central conflict in the film is represented, not with weapons, but by duelling television broadcasts, which go back and forth like siblings wrestling for the remote control. Early on, Katniss learns that Peeta is alive, living in the Capitol and has apparently betrayed her. He pops up in a series of televised interviews with the campy talk show host Caesar (Stanley Tucci), urging the rebels to lay down their arms. Her confusion and pining for Peeta leaves poor Gale (Liam Hemsworth), now a rebel soldier, to pout in rejection.

At about the movie's halfway point, Lawrence, sitting on a romantic mountaintop, huskily croaks out a song called The Hanging Tree. The tune turns into a surprising revolutionary chorus and sets us up for the movie's final showdown.

But wait. And then wait again, until November, 2015, when The Hunger Games trilogy will reach its real conclusion.

Mockingjay – Part 1 is too familiar to be a genuine disappointment. We've seen this gambit before with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and Twilight Breaking Dawn: Part 1, movies that were stretched into two parts to maximize profits. If it helps, you could think of it as one movie with a year-long washroom break.

The narrative padding is mostly in the form of belaboured backroom planning and what might generously be called satire, if YA fiction is where you look for media insight. Otherwise, there's some maturity here. The child-on-child killing of the first two films has been replaced by a more familiar kinds of violence: There are montages of an ISIS-like public execution of hooded prisoners; a Zero Dark Thirty-style special ops night raid on the Capitol; a suicide raid against soldiers dressed up like Star Wars' stormtroopers.

But that makes Hunger Games 2.5 sound more politically trenchant and action-packed than it is. Truth is, Mockingjay – Part 1 looks depressing, full of rubbled landscapes and parking garage interiors and prison uniform functionality. "I'm condemned to this life of jump suits," says Effie (Elizabeth Banks), the former Capitol fashion plate who now finds herself down in the hole with the rest of the revolutionaries. Perhaps more than any other character, you feel her pain.

No doubt the grimness is calculated, or perhaps over-calculated. The first Hunger Games movie began as a rustic medieval fairy tale; the second involved an end-of-an-empire world of flamboyant decadence; and now Mockingjay immerses us in totalitarian-grey concrete walls and backroom strategy meetings.

That makes Mockingjay – Part 1 an experience to be endured, like a prison sentence, rather than enjoyed. By all means, bring on the revolution: It has to be more exciting than this.