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'Mockingjay Part 1' and the Curse of the Two-Part Finale

08/12/2014 17:07 GMT | Updated 07/02/2015 10:59 GMT

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Picture: Lionsgate Films

Mockingjay Part 1 has finally landed. Though 'landed' is a bit of a strong word for a movie that never really takes off. Just like Katniss' costume, the movie displays some impressive wings, but ultimately is unable to fly.

The main issue lies with the 'stepping stone' nature of this instalment, which gives us a tantalising glimpse of the smouldering revolution, but stops just short of lighting the spark, leaving us with a rather disappointing 'to be continued'.

The open-ended finale is not necessarily a problem per se. Catching Fire is a good example of a story delivering a satisfying ending whilst still finishing on a cliff-hanger. This is because the main plot-line we've been following all along - the Quarter Quell Games - has been resolved. The war rages on, but the battle is over. The problem arises when the cliff-hanger becomes the only tool on which the continuation of the franchise hinges. That is, when the desire to watch the next chapter is replaced with the need to watch it. And this is never more obvious than in the recent trend of splitting the last book of a series into two movies.

The studios' argument is that this creates a better viewing experience by letting the story 'breathe'. Of course. Because audiences just love to watch stories that don't end. We all go to the movies thinking, I really hope this story will have an unsatisfying ending cynically concocted to milk me of my ticket money for the next movie.

I'm a practically minded person, so I don't begrudge movie studios for squeezing every penny out of a successful franchise. If the last instalment was split into two stories, I wouldn't mind one bit. But instead, we find ourselves watching a run up and then - one year later - we get the jump.

Mockingjay Part 1 is an interesting example of this. Overall, the film is actually not bad, benefiting from strong performances and confident direction. And the writers picked a good point to split the story. Without spoiling it, the moment is pivotal and sets off the beginning of the end. They even built it around a set piece that wasn't in the book, so as to make the ending more climatic. But they failed to clearly establish this as the main objective of the story. Instead, it is thrust upon us quite abruptly, with little build up, so that ultimately we are not invested in it at all. It didn't feel to me like the organic conclusion of what we had been watching for an hour and a half. One minute we're immersed in the propaganda war, mourning the dead and dodging the Capitols' aerial attacks. And the next we're in the middle of a rescue mission. How did these two elements come together? The answer is, they didn't.

Mockingjay Part 1 has been criticised for not having enough action, but I don't think that's the real issue. When you break them down, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire were not big on action either, the actual Games only taking a small portion of running time. And yet, it didn't matter, since we knew from the beginning that they were coming, and our journey there was a crescendo towards the big pay-off. In Mockingjay Part 1, the thrust of the main story is unclear and the movie goes from scene to scene, from set piece to set piece, from vignette to vignette, until at some point it stops. There's no arc. It's an interesting - and solidly produced - build up to a story. But it's not a story.

So far, of all the films in The Hunger Games franchise, Mockingjay Part 1 is proving to be the weakest, both in terms of critical reception and box office performance. The movie has grossed $123m in its opening week-end, and though I wouldn't dream to call this a bad result, it's still 22% lower than Catching Fire and fell short of projections. Lionsgate's shares fell by 5% after the results were announced and its executives must find themselves in the rather absurd situation of scoring the highest opening of the year and still having to monitor numbers with a certain apprehension.

Of course a juggernaut like The Hunger Games can confidently shrug this off. Spooked market reaction aside, the movie is likely to end up with a worldwide gross of 800 million dollars. So the 2-part strategy has clearly paid off. Whether or not it can be rolled out to any other franchise is more debatable. Already Divergent fans have reacted negatively on social media to the news that the last book will be split into two movies. Will this be the turning point when the strategy backfires? Or will fans tag along for the extra instalment? How will the saga of the 2-part finales end?

There's nothing to do but wait and see. Don't you just hate it when that happens?

If you want to read my review of Mockingjay Part 1 in which I promise to only moan a little about the story and talk about other aspects of the movie as well, click here.

This article was originally published on Live For Films on the 8-Dec-2014