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5 Reasons Why "Mockingjay - Part 1" Is The Darkest "Hunger Games" Movie Yet

The whole fight-to-the-death aspect of the first two Hunger Games films wasn't exactly light, but in the franchise's latest installment, which is out in theaters Nov. 21, things gets even more grim.

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1. There's no more room for games.

Murray Close/Lionsgate

By the start of Mockingjay - Part 1 — which was directed by Francis Lawrence and covers roughly the first half of the final book in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy — the Games are over. Having been plucked out of the Quarter Quell arena by the rebel forces at the end of Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has been thrown into the escalating struggle between the Capitol and the holdouts of District 13, which wasn't destroyed after all. What's grimmer than a televised tournament in which children fight to the death? Full-out warfare, including Katniss' hometown of District 12 being bombed to oblivion.

The Games, ghoulish as they were, provided a surreal pop focus to the previous two films in the Hunger Games franchise. Watching Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) struggle to make it through without becoming monsters, all the while playing up their parts as Panem's sweethearts, was exciting as well as horrific. There were rules to the Games, albeit ones that kept changing, and they were dressed up in pomp and ceremony in a way that was egregious but also darkly funny. Mockingjay - Part 1 may be even more pointed in its commentary about how media symbols are used, but without the poisoned candy of the Games, what's left is the bleakness that's always been underlying the story.

2. The Rebellion has its own problems.

Murray Close/Lionsgate

The Rebellion may want to take down the Capitol and the malevolent President Snow (Donald Sutherland), but they're not quite the good guys. They live a tense existence into which Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss' mother (Paula Malcomson), Katniss' sister Prim (Willow Shields), and even Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) have been integrated with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Dressed in uniforms and abiding by a military-like protocol, they stockpile weapons in the underground bunker into which they've retreated. In the name of being battle-ready, they're living as regulated a life as that in the Districts.

The head of the Rebellion, the steely President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), had Katniss rescued for a reason, and it wasn't out of kindness. Coin wants her for essentially the same reasons that the Capitol wanted its tributes — she's a symbol to motivate the masses; only in this case, she's going to be used to push the Districts into outright war. Katniss is an eternally reluctant hero with understandable doubts about Coin and all people in power, but she agrees to be the face of the Rebellion in exchange for their promise to extract Peeta and the other hostages being held in the Capitol. She is, once again, playing a part, acting as the earnest figurehead of a regime that may not be trustworthy.

3. The death count skyrockets.

Murray Close/Lionsgate

In the first two films, the Games may have guaranteed the death of most of its participants, but they were still a controlled pageantry of "peace" — a ritual sacrifice of children that was a way for the Capitol to flaunt its dominance and make the Districts fight among themselves in the name of patriotism. But smaller protests building into outright warfare means more than 24 children are at risk, and Mockingjay - Part 1 doesn't skimp on the terrible costs of going up against a better-armed power. There are executions, bombings, and imagery like a field of charred human bones.

Katniss is in a position of rallying people to rise up for a cause she's only partially committed to, and yet being such a public part of the Rebellion means that, to her horror, death naturally follows in her wake. Lawrence has always been able to make Katniss' appeal as clear as it is unknowing, but she's particularly strong here in showing how much trauma Karniss is carrying with her, and how uncertain she is of the right thing to do.

4. Peeta is a pawn in the propaganda war.

Murray Close/Lionsgate

From the moment he was pulled into play-acting a romance with Katniss that he thought was real in the first film, Peeta's never exactly been in charge. But he's become an even more high-profile hostage for the Capitol in Mockingjay - Part 1, delivering undermining messages that the Girl on Fire's been tricked and is just causing more destruction by working with the agitators.

Katniss advises people to join the fight in propaganda videos shot by her new director, Cressida (Natalie Dormer). Peeta becomes her unwilling PR opponent in scripted interviews with Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) in which, gaunt and stressed but dressed like he's headed to a party, Peeta recites the Capitol's agenda. He's a prisoner and is being used, but, the movie makes clear, so is Katniss, who poses in front of a green-screened battle for Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) until they realize it's her unaffectedness that's her best quality. She's sent out into the field like a reality TV star — like a celebrity — while Cressida and her crew follow, documenting her and using her like a commodity, the footage cut into snippets that are broadcast through the Districts.

5. There's no happy ending.

Murray Close/Lionsgate

Actually, there's really no ending at all.

Mockingjay - Part 1 is the most grown-up and thematically ambitious installment of the Hunger Game series so far, showcasing how media is used to signal heroes and villains and how that affects people, even ones that should know better.

But it's also the movie in which the least stuff happens. In the trendy chopping of the final book into two sections, Lionsgate's extending their hit franchise for another year and giving the narrative more space to build, but it's also made a film without a climax, one that feels like a lot of intriguing set-up for a payoff that won't arrive until November 2015. For all of its strong scenes, Mockingjay - Part 1 ends on a moment that's undeniably anticlimactic. It's nice not to have to say good-bye to Katniss Everdeen quite yet, but it's hard not to think, when the credits roll, that her story would have been better served with one big finale rather than a two-parter.