I thought The Hunger Games books read like a single epic 1155-page novel in nine acts, escalating from a tale of one girl's survival to war story detailing the overthrow of a tyrannical government. There was a broad arc to the proceedings though the final two chapters are absolute crap that read like amateur fanfic tacked on at the last second because the author was writer's blocked and they had to make a predetermined release data. (They'd better be fixing this for the movie.) But in splitting the last third into to two the flow is broken.
So what do we have? It opens shortly after the ending of Catching Fire with a nightmare-stricken Katniss Everdeen (J.Law) recovering in District 13, the previously thought destroyed area whose rebellion prompted the Hunger Games to remind the serfs that the Capitol was running the show. (Unfortunately, most of the back story about how and why D13 was spared has been cut as if they were pressed for time.) We're introduced to President Coin (Julianne Moore), the leader of D13, who is reluctant to accept Plutarch Heavensbee's (Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his last performance as he ODed while shooting) advice that Katniss be used as a propaganda symbol in videos. (It's a bit of a pip to see three Best Actor/Actress winners in the frame when they first meet.)
Hopelessly stiff and unconvincing before the camera inside a studio, it's decided to send Katniss into the field to appear before the people in order of capturing honest emotional moments. They get their wish when a visit to a makeshift hospital after a bombing run prompts a 2nd Capitol attack killing the wounded and Katniss' impassioned message to President Snow (Donald Sutherland, evil as always) that "If we burn, you burn with us." As the video spreads, the rebellion starts in earnest.
Throughout, though, interviews with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) with Caesar Flickerman (a subdued Stanley Tucci) are beaming out indicated he's either gone native in the Capitol or being forced to chide Katniss. This leads to a rescue mission to get him and the other survivors of the Quarter Quell and the cliffhanger conclusion.
Unlike the other movies so far, there's not much action in Mockingjay - Part 1 with the trailer moment shooting down of the planes happening in the first half of the movie and a geographically improbable rebel attack (seriously, why are walkways there?) later. Most of the movie is Katniss crying and having nightmares and there are redundant scenes of returning to the smoldering ruins of District 12 which was annihilated for real after the end of the Quarter Quell. They really could've trimmed it down to 90 minutes of a three-hour movie, but again, money.
The performances are uniformly good, especially Elizabeth Banks' miserable Effie Trinket, trapped underground in D13 with no makeup and pretty things, and Natalie Dormer as the video director capturing Katniss in the field sporting a mock-copied hairstyle with one side shaved. The half-assed handling of the books' clumsy love triangle pads things out as Gale (Liam "brother of Thor" Hemsworth) darkly glowers around, but whatever. There are little moments between Katniss and the others which show the benefit of casting AAA-grade actors in what could've been tossed off as trifling pulp.
If it bothered you that Catching Fire, the middle chapter of The Hunger Games trilogy, was like The Empire Strikes Back in that it sorta didn't have an ending, then you're really going to dislike how Mockingjay - Part 1 ends on a beat more suited for a serialized television series like Arrow where a shocking revelation in the last moment teases the viewer to tune in next week. Separated by a year, this just doesn't make for satisfying movie watching though, but because it allows studios to double their money, we're not going to see this trend end anytime soon.
Score: 6/10. Rent the Blu-ray a week before The Hunger Games Colon Mockingjay Dash Part 2 comes out.