The last chapter in Katniss' saga is an ugly one.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
For the past five years, the Hunger Games saga has been the preeminent young-adult fiction franchise on the big screen, with Jennifer Lawrence‘s Katniss Everdeen leading the charge not just for the people of Panem, but for a new wave of female-led action blockbusters. As the series has progressed, the American-Idol glamor and spectacle of the first entries has gradually fallen away, developing into a gloomy story about loss, misery, corruption and failure. The final film in the series, The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay – Part 2, directed by Francis Lawrence, is the grimmest and most depressing of all, with icky, gut-punch character deaths at every turn and a color palette so nocturnal and dreary you’ll be starving for sunlight—whether you find the movie entertaining or not is a question of taste, but I predict wide audiences will find Katniss’ final fight too irksome to enjoy.
On one hand, it’s heartening that a movie franchise aimed at teens has such a firm grasp on the devastation of war, both in the body count it leaves behind and the extent to which it ravages the mind. Half of the cast doesn’t make it out alive, and the film takes time to make sure we feel the weight of each death. It’s the nature of the story novelist Suzanne Collins and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong have been telling over the course of the series’ four movies—to put an end to the elder upper class’ corrupt regime, in which the olds keep peace by slaughtering children under the guise of a televised arena “game,” the younger generation must sacrifice everything in the name of a better future for their own children. In-your-face as the symbolism may be, these are compelling themes Collins and the filmmakers delve into.
The burden of Mockingjay – Part 2 is that it must, in all earnestness, embody that grand sacrifice in gory detail. In other words, the movie’s directive is to make you feel like shit, and for better or worse, it does just that. It’s a suffocatingly bleak story (especially given its target audience) that starts with Katniss rehabilitating severe throat wounds inflicted (at the end of the last movie) by her once-lover, the Capitol-brainwashed Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson). Romantic, right? Despite Peeta’s newfound obsession with killing Katniss, the two of them are smooshed together by the rebels’ leader (Julianne Moore, who plays a great weaselly, two-faced politician) to join a handful of other Hunger Games champions and military randoms in a strike team whose mission is to shoot propaganda footage as the rest of the rebels storm the Capitol and take fascist President Snow (Donald Sutherland) down for good. Katniss, of course, has other plans: she wants—needs—to take Snow’s life herself.
Snow and his cohorts are well prepared for the rebel attack, turning the Capitol into a giant Hunger Games arena, lining the streets with deadly booby traps (“pods,” they call them) designed to slaughter invaders in horrifically gruesome ways. One deathtrap sees our heroes nearly drowned in a city square quickly turned into a giant pool of black ooze; another finds them in the sewers, swarmed by a horde of fangy crackhead-zombies in close quarters. These two scenes are the only action-centric high points of the movie, and they’re well done, no doubt. The claustrophobic sewer skirmish is particularly excellent; Lawrence finds fear in the dark so well that the movie goes into full-on horror mode, which is awesome. That, unfortunately, is sort of where the movie’s awesomeness ends.
Pacing is a crippling issue for Mockingjay – Part 2. It starts slow, with the rebel troops mobilizing and Katniss wallowing in despair. Then, a surge of excitement in the city square and sewers as we watch our badass heroes finally kick some ass and, for some, go down in flames (literally). But the thrills are fleeting, giving way all too soon to the rest of the movie, which is even sadder and sappier than the first act. The action is abbreviated, sorrow is bulky, and the storytelling as a whole feels janky and numb. Lawrence’s Katniss is the most iconic heroine of the past couple of decades at least, and she’s able to, on occasion, give the movie a jolt with a piercing glare or a wail of anguish. She’s a savior in that way, though the movie’s dangerously close to being beyond saving.
It’s painful to see is our last glimpse of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, again playing Moore’s right-hand advisor. In a movie this dark, this layer of meta-mourning doesn’t help the experience at all. The Hunger Games series has been, in large part, a winning endeavor. The movies are solid sci-fi adventures (Catching Fire was terrific) with more brains than your average tentpole and a measure of love-triangle indulgence that never feels trashy. Most notably, the series made a bold statement in the face of Hollywood gender inequity, proving female-led movies can rake in just as much dough as any testosterone-pumped dude-flick. The last chapter in this landmark saga is an ugly one, but not so ugly that the magnificent Lawrence won’t live to act another day. For that, we’re fortunate.