REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 137 minutes | Release Date: November 20th, 2015 (USA)
Studio: Lionsgate
Director(s): Francis Lawrence
Writer(s): Peter Craig & Danny Strong / Suzanne Collins (novel Mockingjay)

“They chose you”

With The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 officially in the books I’m confident in saying Suzanne Collins‘ dystopic trilogy will hold up as one of the most successfully faithful cinematic adaptations ever. And a big part of that is the decision to make it into four movies because, as anyone who’s read the novels knows, Mockingjay is a dense work with little fat where its political and emotional intrigue are concerned. Any issues stem from Lionsgate’s misguided choice of putting a full year’s wait in between its halves—a conscious, avoidable momentum killer. Kill Bill, The Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions, and even Back to the Future Part II/III all knew “to be continued” meant six months at most because time’s of the essence when the first installment has no ending.

It’s a blatant money-grab all but forcing fans to spend on Part 1 in theaters as well as on home video since a refresher is crucial to catching your bearings come Part 2. To begin this film with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) battered and bruised is to pick things up as though we just left off—a maneuver that only works if you factor in how Collins’ book was a carefully composed whole comprised of a dramatic arc meant to carry straight through without stopping. The studio can’t blame critics or audience members for feeling underwhelmed after the first’s conclusion arrives right before the climax or overwhelmed that the second is nothing but. Together they comprise a four-star resonate finale, but separate they’re incomplete episodes of three-star entertainment.

Luckily for director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong, entertainment can be enough for a phenomenon such as The Hunger Games. Not only that, but most—like me—did buy Part 1 to watch directly before leaving for the sequel. I wonder then if making a four-hour epic would have been feasible despite the weaker bottom-line? Toss in an intermission and make it a must-see theatrical event rather than a point of contention tainting the experience by getting fleeced for extra cash. I know it’s a moot point now, but it’s something the studios should rethink with so many properties currently following this formula. The time will inevitably come when people decide to wait for both to hit DVD so they can marathon at home.

This second half of Mockingjay is where everything comes to a head whether it be Katniss’ relationships with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her position as a broken-souled leader fighting so her friends and family can survive, or the tense stand-off she has been waging opposite Panem’s oppressor President Snow (Donald Sutherland). This is where we discover how alike she and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) truly are due to devastating origins and a moral repugnancy towards what The Capital had done to the Districts and them as carefully manicured heroes meant to bend to its will. Love is shown in all its messiness and sacrifice proves more than a potential threat as characters you’ve invested in perish to ensure an authentic depiction of war beyond Hollywood cliché.

We pick up after a deranged Peeta—brainwashed by Snow’s scientists into believing Katniss was the enemy—almost kills the Mockingjay with his bare hands. The rules of engagement have been tossed aside. If things weren’t personal before, they are now. So Katniss does what she’s always done, namely ignoring her superior’s (Julianne Moore‘s District 13 President Coin) orders to stow away on a cargo ship headed for the frontlines. If this is the end she’s going to make sure she’s putting herself at risk because she’s nothing if not a leader by example. Staying home to recuperate while others die inside a fight she ignited isn’t in her blood. And one could argue that death is her goal; the only sure-fire escape from life’s pain and destruction.

Even so, Coin and Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) find a way to wrestle control by sending Katniss’ camera crew (Natalie Dormer‘s Cressida, Elden Henson‘s Pollux, and Wes Chatham‘s Castor), military bodyguard (Mahershala Ali‘s Boggs), and equally-damaged/angry compatriot Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) to keep an eye out. Despite being a regiment with the most recognizable faces and rarified skills, however, they’re to take a backseat in the fight by traveling a few miles behind to clear “pods” (Capital game-makers’ random traps containing fire, bullets, oil, etc.). Hardly a cakewalk, the stakes quickly rise as the first body falls. Add a semi-cured Peeta to the mix and survival becomes a game of chance with what appears to be a President on either side more interested in Katniss’ head than peace.

What results is an action-packed sci-fi adventure containing more computer effects than the previous three entries combined that never hits the brake. We’re on the ground with guns and bow drawn for the duration as Mutts attack in sewers (a very effective horror sequence) and white armor-clad Peacekeepers rage in the streets. And through it all we start to see the cracks in Katniss’ steely façade with every step forward. Her eyes open to how war has affected Gale and Peeta; how the mounting body count has hardened one and warped the other until she finds herself quite literally alone on a vendetta she hopes will destroy her along with Snow. Always the unlikely martyr willing to die so others can live, Katniss’ health becomes proof she’s failed.

Democracy and freedom have been the goals from the beginning and this battle has rendered both afterthoughts of power. Trust becomes a tough commodity as identities disintegrate and morality disappears. It’s dictatorship versus utilitarianism where the soldiers are made into pawns on a game board rather than human beings. It’s impossible not to wonder whether anything has changed from Day One besides the number of “tributes” rising to include every able-bodied citizen young and old, the cameras still rolling. The only person with the people on her mind is Katniss, yet she’s still unsure about the responsibility that entails. Selfish, bratty, and vindictive, her arrow holds the future of an entire world on its tip if she can cut through the lies and deceit to know what’s right.

Lawrence is up to the task as always as her character breaks down alongside everything else. Continuously pushed and pulled, not a single second since she volunteered to take her sister Prim’s (Willow Shields) place in the Games has been her own. Circumstances forced her into action, guilt into being brave. And while she probably doesn’t deserve it, those like Boggs, Effie (Elizabeth Banks), and even wild-eyed Johanna (Jena Malone) give Katniss their trust not because of a symbol but because of who she is. The fact so many great actors gravitated to the material and so much of the original text remained intact is a testament to Collins deftly entering the zeitgeist without sacrificing true human complexity. The Hunger Games trilogy is universal and our spirit relentless.

[1] Cressida (Natalie Dormer, left) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, right) in THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 2. Photo Credit: Murray Close
[2] Jena Malone stars as ‘Johanna Mason’ in THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 2. Photo Credit: Murray Close
[3] Julianne Moore stars as ‘President Coin’ in THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 2. Photo Credit: Murray Close

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