This is not a rant about anything. I need to clarify that up front, because 2014 has been a horrible year for ranting. But it’s also been great year for very good things that straddle the line between how we used to define television and how we used to define movies.
Is True Detective a miniseries or an 8-hour movie? Should The Knick rank in Steven Soderbergh’s filmography? Fargo and Hannibal transformed well-trod source material into a new kind of remake—half greatest hits compilation, half concept album. Not for nothing, 2014 was also the year that Shonda Rhimes claimed Thursday for old-fashioned weekly TV, with three flavors of throwback procedural (doctor show, politics show, lawyer show) infused with soap operatics.
On the big screen, Hollywood’s embrace of aggressive franchising came up with fascinating new mutant forms of sequel-prequel-reboots. It’s become common to compare the cinematic output of Marvel Studios to television production: Kevin Feige is the showrunner; different directors serve the Marvel vision first and their own vision second; cast members sign seven-picture contracts, the new incarnation of the old TV-actor Faustian bargain. (Steady work = no freedom.) You can feel the TV-ification of cinema in small ways and large. Wasn’t Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules just a more expensive version of Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules? (I mean that as a compliment; Hercules is one of the best watch-it-on-a-plane movies released this year.) Isn’t Horrible Bosses 2 just a renegade from the parallel universe where Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day starred in a middlingly popular bro-com on Fox?
But this was also a good year for non-sequelized big swings—Interstellar, Lucy, Edge of Tomorrow, Snowpiercer, some great and some terrible but all of them aiming for something interesting. This was the year of adaptations like Gone Girl and The Fault in Our Stars. This was the year when Liam Neeson made two of the best Liam Neeson movies ever (the goofy Non-Stop and the terse A Walk Among the Tombstones) and the year Seth Rogen took the Seth Rogen persona into intriguing new territory (marriage and North Korea).
And maybe Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy were just episodes of the Marvel show, but at least they’re innovative episodes, pushing the megafranchise in new directions. Meanwhile, two very different movies tried to grapple with our modern sequel-heavy moment: Meta-sequel 22 Jump Street ate its own tail with jokes about big budgets, while mega-sequel X-Men: Days of Future Past featured everybody you ever loved from an X-Men movie—and Marsden, too!—embarking on what amounted to an in-universe reboot of the X-Men franchise. A reboot about rebooting, a sequel about sequels—and this was also the year of Too Many Cooks, a viral video that crossbreeds a couple decades of crap TV culture with a hearty dose of demi-Lynchian surreality. Is Too Many Cooks a short film? Or is it an episode for a TV show that never existed—a bottle episode, where the bottle is the size of the universe? It was a weird year, but it wasn’t boring.
Conversely, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part One is boring. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; boredom is an underrated virtue in blockbuster cinemas. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that most blockbuster filmmakers are so terrified of boredom that they deliver movies that are relentless, aggressive, and ultimately stifling. (Transformers 4 is guilty of this, but so is Interstellar.) The best thing director Francis Lawrence has brought to his Hunger Games movies is a stillness, a delicate pace. It’s there at the beginning of the Catching Fire: The opening three shots tell you everything you need to know about Katniss Everdeen, her world, her thoughts.
So many YA adaptations trend prosaic and expository. By comparison, this is myth, poetry, cinema. That same stillness is there in the opening moments of Mockingjay – Part 1, when Katniss lingers in the shadows, troubled by bad dreams; when walks down to hang out with beloved merman boytoy Finnick, who mentions casually that he really wishes everyone was dead.
What follows doesn’t quite live up to that opening. There are some good scenes, most of them involving Natalie Dormer, playing propagandist Cressida as a mixture of hip-haircut NYU-film grad and no-bull journeyman reality-TV professional. The best unbroken stretch of movie comes when Cressida and Katniss head to the ruin of District 12. They’re trying to capture genuine emotion—because they need to package that genuine emotion for a commercial, selling rebellion as a product. There’s a scene on the water where Katniss sings a cheerful little tune about a hangin’ tree; Lawrence cuts from that song to a mob of rebels singing the same song. Not to get too crazy but to get a little crazy, it’s a Sergei Eisenstein moment: The cut from the Individual to the Community, the suggestion that Revolution is the heroic action of the faceless many.
But what the hell actually happens in Mockingjay – Part 1? I saw it a couple days ago; I can’t really tell you. Half or more of the movie is Katniss hanging out in subterranea with her dynamite supporting cast, everyone sitting around a table waiting for Mockingjay 2 to start. This is the latest entry in the expanding canon of books split into multiple movies. It started with Deathly Hallows, and continued with Breaking Dawn—although Peter Jackson was planning to split The Hobbit into two movies for many years before he came up with the bold idea to split those two movies into three movies. (Sources say there will also be two Allegiant movies; sources could not confirm what Allegiant is or why anyone should care.)
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a movie is something with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Mockingjay – Part 1 has a beginning, but no middle. There are long scenes of fabulously talented actors all doing their own thing, Elizabeth Banks doing Hepburn-farce and Woody Harrelson doing druncle charm and Philip Seymour Hoffman smirkishly method-mumbling (RIP forever) and Julianne Moore giving good wig and Liam Hemsworth being present. This is fun, but it’s fun the way that a lesser episode of Parks and Recreation are fun: It’s the joy of watching a supporting cast hang out, which is very different from the joy of watching actual things happen. In Mockingjay – Part 1, all the action is abstract, distant: Jeffrey Wright appears to be single-handedly doing the revolution at his computer screen. Towards the end, the movie stages a grand rescue scene—Zero Dark Peeta—but it comes out of nowhere. That’s a common motif in Mockingjay – Part 1: Someone announces that something is about to happen, that thing happens, and then everyone moves on.
Like all artistic definitions, things immediately get hazy with the whole beginning-middle-ending thing. Defenders of book-splitting might point out that, say, Star Wars begins in media res and ends in media same, to the extent that the Empire is still the Empire and the Rebels are still rebelling. But to me, the definition of a movie—even a deep sequel, even a movie that’s explicitly setting up another movie—is that it should feel like a complete journey unto itself. There’s no journey in Mockingjay – Part 1. You could argue that Catching Fire didn’t have an ending, but it did have a journey. It’s all right there, in the fantastic final close-up. Witness denial, acceptance, righteous vengeance:
Deathly Hallows 1 feels like it has a real journey, in part because it’s the smallest-scale of the Harry Potter movies: A three-character piece, with a heist scene in the middle. A lot of people love Deathly Hallows 2, but to me, that’s actually the least movielike of the Harry Potters, all climax and relentless catharsis and incoherent Kelly MacDonald cameos. Neither of the Breaking Dawns feel like movies, but then again, part of what I dig about the Twilights is how un-movielike they are: Nothing happens, then nothing happens, then suddenly there’s a vampire baby chewing through her mother’s womb, then nothing happens, then something happens which is immediately revealed as nothing, then it’s over.
You can feel the difference most palpably in Peter Jackson’s two Tolkien trilogies. People tend to lump The Lord of the Rings together as one gigantic movie, but the three films tell very different stories in very different ways. Fellowship is the most concise, a dudes-on-a-mission character piece about making and breaking of the titular gang of heroes. The Two Towers translated the Battle of Helm’s Deep into one of the great mini-boss arcs in franchise history. And where Two Towers is fleet-footed, Return of the King is grandly bloated. There’s too much of everything—a handy definition for most of Jackson’s post-LOTR output—but at least the too-muchness makes sense. You can’t say the same about any of the Hobbit movies. You can see all the same tricks as the first Tolkien trilogy: More romance, more psychology, more Buster Keaton-meets-Frank Frazetta action scenes. But you can never quite get past the fact that the first two Hobbit movies feel like epic distractions—hundreds of millions of dollars spent passing the time until the good stuff begins.
Maybe that’s the biggest sin of Mockingjay – Part 1: the fact that it requires you, the viewer, to understand how much good stuff is coming in the next movie. It feels a little bit like we’re watching the preproduction for a much better movie—which makes the movie’s media satire feel reflexive in the worst way. Now again, I’m not saying Mockingjay – Part 1 is bad, per se. The cast is great; the look of the movie is sharp and subdued, even if all the desolation looks samey after awhile. Maybe it was always a bad decision, on the level of pure entertainment, to split up such a bleak, melancholy little book into a two-act blockbuster epic. (I love the book Mockingjay, love it more than most people seem to, but the ideal movie adaptation would’ve been 90 minutes long, tops.)
Still, Deathly Hallows managed to do something interesting with three angsty teens on a camping trip. Couldn’t Mockingjay – Part 1 figure out something to do with futuristic class revolt? Instead, the film defaults to the least interesting contemporary franchise Uber-Arc: Hero Doesn’t Want To Be Hero, Hero Decides To Become Hero. This was the plot of Hobbit 1 and Man of Steel and, weirdly, the Iron Man sequels—but not the first Iron Man, which skips right to the actual fun part of a hero being a hero. So Mockingjay – Part 1 is a movie about a girl who is clearly the Mockingjay saying “I don’t want to be the Mockingjay!” and then everyone says “Please be the Mockingjay?” and then the Mockingjay says “Lemme think about it” and then eventually she says “Okay, I’ll be the Mockingjay!” at which point the writers high-five because that’s half the movie done now.
And maybe that’s okay? It’s easy to be cynical about franchise movies, especially when studios cynically split one movie into two to maximize profits. But I dig the Hunger Games movies. I walked out of Mockingjay – Part 1 excited to see Mockingjay 2, which maybe makes me part of the problem. Or maybe we need to figure out a new definition for whatever a thing like Mockingjay – Part 1 is. It’s not really a movie, or anyhow, it’s aims are radically different from what movies used to aim for. (Citizen Kane covers the entire sweep of a man’s life in a running time of 119 minutes, which is four minutes shorter than Mockingjay – Part 1.) Is it more accurate to describe The Hunger Games as a TV show? A show that only airs one ludicrously expensive two-hour episode per year?
I throw it out to you: Is Mockingjay – Part 1 really a movie?
Want to share your thoughts on Mockingjay – Part 1 and the evolving definition of cinema? Email me at email@example.com, and I’ll respond in Monday’s edition of the Geekly Mailbag.