Slings and arrows are replaced by propaganda videos in "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1," the first of a two-part finale in a young-adult franchise that once seemed smarter and edgier than most. In this chapter, Katniss Everdeen, the working-class rebel played by Jennifer Lawrence, mostly holsters her weapons and plays dress-up, just as the movie itself gives up any higher aspirations of offering social commentary or insight.
It's a disappointing third entry in a series that initially promised us so much. Lawrence's Katniss, a strong-willed survivor armed with a bow and arrow, looked like a new feminist icon; Panem, a downtrodden dystopia ruled by the elitist President Snow (Donald Sutherland, still deliciously evil), struck a contemporary nerve; the Hunger Games themselves, in which children killed each other for televised sport, tested the limits of the PG-13 rating. A bit of swoony nonsense in which beau-hunks Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) vie for Katniss' affections seemed like a small price to pay.
Here, Lawrence's Katniss has become The Mockingjay -- essentially the poster girl for a revolution led by President Coin (Julianne Moore) and her public relations guru, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles). The only games here are between warring propaganda machines: Katniss, trailed by a reality-television crew, shouts fiery slogans atop piles of rubble, while the seemingly traitorous Peeta toes the party line on state-run television (Stanley Tucci returns as the toadying talk-show host Caesar Flickerman).
The result is a series of long, actionless stretches that director Francis Lawrence (of the previous film) can't seem to liven up. What's more, the movie's main setting -- an underground city populated by soldier-civilians -- looks drab. Costume designer Trish Summerville, who dressed Panem's high society with kooky flair, has been replaced by the duo known as Kurt & Bart, who create some spiffy armor for Katniss along with several thousand identical jumpsuits.
If "Mockingjay, Part 1" feels Orwellian, it's because nobody in it ever wonders about the deeper truths behind the propaganda. Elizabeth Banks, returning as Effie Trinket, tells Katniss, "We will make you the best-dressed rebel in history," which seems to be the main fantasy this franchise is selling.