THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 1 (PG13)
123 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***
The story: In the first of the two-part movie finale that caps the Hunger Games trilogy of young-adult novels, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is now part of the rebel force living deep underground in District 13, along with her family, childhood friend and soldier Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). She works under the guidance of President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is in the hands of tyrant President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who exploits his status as a tribute in propaganda broadcasts.
It has all been building up to this.
Finally, the chess pieces set in motion in the first two movies are now in full play - murky motives and allegiances are now transparent and a proper war can now break out between the rebels and forces of the Capitol under President Snow. Katniss (Lawrence) is now a fully realised leader of the rebellion.
Let the epic struggle of good and evil begin, let loose the dogs of war.
Well, not quite.
While this film is well-crafted, its status as the preamble to the real finale leaks through at frequent intervals.
As in so many works with two-part finales, time-fillers abound - characters have troubling dream sequences that foreshadow the final showdown (coming next year, at the same ticket price), cats go missing at moments of extreme danger and lives must be risked to save the moggies, Katniss must go on long hikes through bombed-out zones and in forests to prepare her mind, and doubts are raised about the motives of a couple of key characters.
The film hits more than a few slow points (and low points, such as when Katniss and company run through bomb-shelter doors which they shut very slowly while a voice screams a countdown to inform them, and the audience, how much tension to feel).
Secondary players, such as Plutarch (Hoffman, who filmed all his scenes for Part 1 before his death this year), Coin (Moore) and Hawthorne (Hemsworth), as in previous films in the series, are not so much characters as human props for the Katniss character, placed there to guide her journey.
Director Francis Lawrence, who helmed the previous instalment (Catching Fire, 2013), has yet to lick the problem of how to give them a life outside of their scenes with Katniss.
Thankfully, the bagginess of the non-plot advancing scenes stop just short of overwhelming the whole story.
And things do get strange. There is wobbly grasp of how radio jamming works, for example, and how bombs destroy concrete bunkers, but the movie's very capable veteran cast just manage to make it all hang together.