Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire, the Mother of Rebellion, the Mockingjay, admits in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 that she is but a slave to the dictatorial President of Panem (played to chilly perfection by Donald Sutherland). Pitted against those she has no desire to fight in what has brewed up into an all-out civil war, she with more nicknames than Daenerys Targaryen is but still a pawn in the battle between warring factions. Her burden as torch bearer of a revolution was as predetermined as Prim’s name being reaped from a turnstile. So too is The Hunger Games (the films) enslaved to Suzanne Collins‘ cheaper narrative instincts and predestined by the closing chapters of her best-selling novels. But just as Collins’ books have their hero, the Lionsgate franchise have their own saving graces in the frankly splendid set design, a remarkably top-shelf cast, a vivid, wonderfully realized sense of imagination and the series finest action set pieces to date.
I remember reading the three Hunger Games book in a weekend during my last semester of college. I positively plowed through them, stopping only to complain to anyone in my vicinity about the overbearing romantic triangle angle at its center. Unless Katniss and cohorts became last minute polygamists, the archer-cum-revolutionary would have to choose between literal bread-maker Peeta and hot boi Gale. That that became the defining twist of the series – the choice between two dudes – was an obvious turn-off for this reader, especially seeing how it was breaded in such an engaging world of political disquiet that necessitated ritual sacrifices doubling as entertainment.
And this is first and foremost what Francis Lawrence, and Gary Ross before him, got right in their telling of Katniss’ story. They pivoted the focus away from the post-Stephanie Meyer echo chamber – ‘Twilight’’s influences on ‘The Hunger Games’ are suspiciously forthright – to tell the much more engaging, unique aspects of Panem and its uneasy populace. Like with the Harry Potter films, the world felt lived in and alive, often decadently so. The marble towers and manicured populace of the Capital contrasted with the dirty faces of District 12 to tell its own story of social injustice and economic inequality. The lavish tribute parties that Katniss and Peta attended only served to exacerbate the discord between the haves and the have-nots of this not-so-far-flung dystopia. Its message of hierarchical worth wrung especially true to audiences upon the books release, as Collins’ book was thematically aided by its timely release alongside the financial crises of 2008.
Seven years later, with the economy slowly but surely on the rise and another presidential battle heating up between the increasingly antagonistic two parties, the final installment bears even more interesting parallels to our current societal goings-ons. I’ll forego comparing Julianne Moore’s President Alma Coin to Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton (I’ll let someone else write that article) but between recent events of terror and the ensuing politicalization of that violence, The Hunger Games seems to happen upon timeliness and relevance like anosmic pigs to truffles.
This time around, Katniss and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) send themselves on a thinly-veiled suicide mission to assassinate Snow once and for all, against the wishes of Coin. She is, in all senses of the word, a jihadist. So too is she a celebrity. Katniss finds herself in the tricky situation where she has become more important as a political figurine than as a flesh and blood individual. Every play she makes is transmorgified into an ideology at the scheming hands of Coin and Phillip Seymour-Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee (RIP).
Fitted with an outfit of true blue soldiers but relegated on a PR quest to create broadcast-worthy propaganda, Katniss finds herself surrounded by Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), Boggs (Mahershala Ali), Cressida (Natalie Dormer), Pollux (Elden Hensen) and newcomer Lieutenant Jackson (Michelle Forbes). Another wrench is thrown into her prepared presidential hit when Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) arrives on the scene, still brainwashed from his Snow sessions and intent on slaying his former crush. According to Coin, he’s still ripe for some close-ups. Cue Dubyah’s iconic preemptive “Mission Accomplished” banner.
And though many were put off by the slow-moving, highly legislative, almost introspective nature of the first part of this two-hander, there’s payoff here that’s necessitated by the slower strokes of that segment’s carefully footing. Take for instance the political landscape of Mockingjay 2. Whereas the first two installments of the series propagated a world as boldly oppositional as Yoda and The Emperor, this finale has turned that simple truism of good and evil on its head.
In a stroke of savvy storytelling, Lawrence dispenses with the trite absolutism that populates (and dominates) young adult franchises. The lines between good and evil are blurry at best, even invisible in some situations. One character falls by the way side of the story because even he can’t be sure of the choices he made. As Katniss could attest – in true Kantian fashion – it’s your actions, not their results, that matters most.Surely Sutherland’s Snow is as close a living example to absolute power corrupting absolutely the franchise has, although here, backed up against a wall, we see him more as a man of tradition; a defunct political dinosaur living out his last days of a dying era. Gone are the absolutes of black and white, replaced by all-encompassing shades of gray. Cinematographer Jo Willem‘s apocalyptic scenery is but the carpet to match the story’s melancholy, dubious drapes.
Even our heroine suffers from a mix of PTSD and survivor’s guilt. Katniss is uncertain about her place, hazy about her hero status and the victim of betrayal at the most bone-wrenching of levels. She has no idea who to trust and has seen her closest ally turned into her assassin. Even the war in which Katniss has become an symbol looks more and more like a coup than a revolution every day. In what can only be described as the film’s finale, events turn similarly hazy, and fade to gray. Uncertainty prevails.
Lawrence has helped evolve the scale of the set pieces, moving so far beyond the close quarters handicam fisticuffs of the first installment to grand wide-shots brimming with spectacle. A series of scenes that start in an outdoor makeshift arena and shift underground are superb. The second act of Mockingjay – Part 2 is so brisk and breathless that I would be hard pressed to find a single fault. That more characters meet their end in bloodshed than one might expect lends it some added emotional gravitas but Lawrence and his editors make occasional missteps when offing the series regulars. Which brings us squarely to the problematic third act.
For all the steam that Mockingjay 2 has built up going into the assassination of Snow, the final moments suffer the Return of the King curse. That is, it just can’t seem to end. A tie-everything-together epilogue is the last straw on an already shaky cart. But, at the end of the day, the blood-pumping spectacle and the cast’s extensive might prove enough load-bearing support to hold up this bloated tail section.
The Hunger Games wraps up more as you expect it would than it necessarily should but that shouldn’t catch you off-guard unless you haven’t been paying attention. Katniss mates up. Justice is served. Lives are lost. It’s satisfying, but in a perfunctory manner. In a “this is how fantasies end” kind of way. In the long run, Collins’ story is paid almost a disproportionate amount of respect and the film suffers for it. But we should never forget just how far this little series came, even in the face of mediocre source material. And for that alone, the odds will be ever in its favor.
CONCLUSION: A fitting end to an almost always satisfying franchise, ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2′ features some of the series’ absolute best moments amidst an admittedly slow gallop to the finish line. That it is absolutely deferential to Suzanne Collins’ book may prove its greatest flaw.