Silver Screen: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II *1/2
The Hunger Games series lumbers to a close with the halting, unsatisfying Mockingjay Part II— which, if you’re keeping track, is actually part two of part three. It’s every bit as disjointed as it sounds, and therein lies the problem.
When last we abruptly left Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) at the ablated end of Mockingjay Part I, she was living in the relative safety of the secretive District Thirteen, disconcerted by her new role making propaganda videos at the behest of revolutionary leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). In those final moments, she was reunited with her kinda-boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) only to be savagely attacked by him. Turns out Peeta was brainwashed by the tyrannical forces in the Capitol, led by the delightfully nefarious President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
In the underwhelming climax, Katniss diverges from Coin’s plan to turn her into a mouthpiece. Instead she hitches a ride with a group of soldiers heading toward the Capitol for a final assault. That sounds exciting enough, but it mostly involves Katniss leading a group of second-tier characters through an implausibly booby-trapped city, then into a dingy sewer setting. Long-stretches of grim-faced moping are interrupted by fleeting bursts of semi-incomprehensible fighting until at last Katniss is prepared to storm the Presidential Palace. Just as the movie begins to achieve some modicum of momentum, the action is stopped short yet again to make way for a stuttering series of false endings that would make Peter Jackson twiddle his thumbs in frustration.
What a dull way to conclude a blockbuster franchise. The screenwriters follow author Suzanne Collins’s original text with the radical fidelity of Biblical literalists, rendering their translation more of a dry transcription. Collins does ponder some interesting themes here, and she resists a fairytale ending. Bringing down an evil empire might be much easier than replacing it with a superior system. The moral murk of the finale is laudable, but it’s more conceptually interesting than compelling in its execution.
The Hunger Games films turn out to be something of a missed opportunity. The first film took its time introducing its dystopian world, and director Gary Ross proved competent but uninspiring with the sci-fi exploits when the brutal games started in earnest. Director Francis Lawrence brought a keener sense of action and a more developed aesthetic to the second installment, Catching Fire. But any improvements he made were hobbled by the craven, purely financial decision to chop the finale into two parts. Mockingjay lacked an actual Hunger Games event to lend the story a natural structure, and splitting it into two mismatched parts doomed it.
This blundering is the legacy of Harry Potter, which not only instigated Hollywood’s obsession with young-adult fiction, but pioneered the calculated franchise extension. The penultimate Potter film was a snooze too, but was redeemed by a thrilling finale and supported by six previous installments of varying but mostly high quality.
The Hunger Games, on the other hand, is one-and-a-half good movies spread across eight-plus hours of running time. It wasted time fussing over a love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and the barely present Gale (Liam Hemsworth) that ultimately withered into something superfluous and mostly inconsequential. The longer the movies rambled on, the more they lost touch with their most interesting characters— Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman, Jeffrey Wright’s Beetee, Jena Malone’s Johanna, Sam Claflin’s Finnick. The filmmakers elegantly work around Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic absence, but the other gaps are their own creation.
The Hunger Games films won’t endure like the Harry Potter series. They’re too dour and joyless, with a stingy payoff. Their legacy will be twofold.
First (alas), they gave rise to the proliferation of godawful dystopian teen sci-fi like the ghastly Divergent and Maze Runner franchises.
Second, they made a movie star out of Jennifer Lawrence. That would have happened eventually anyway, but The Hunger Games did provide a platform for her to play a strong but deeply conflicted heroine. Ultimately she elevated the material until it couldn’t keep up with her any longer. The challenge might have seemed overwhelming at first, but by the time the second Mockingjay movie rolled out, she was clearly the superior force. Now, like Katniss, she’s finally free. That’s something to get excited about.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.