I was dismissive about The Hunger Games as a film. Here we go again with everything wanting to capitalize on Twilight’s success, with young adult novels about forbidden love under strange circumstances being given cinematic life. Didn’t mean I had to like it. Well, as chance would have it, I didn’t like the first Hunger Games movie very much; the film’s shaky-cam, overly melodramatic aesthetic combined with what I perceived to be as a rip-off of a better government-mandated kids-against-kids movie called Battle Royale (yes, I’m aware it was a manga before it was made into a film) made me shrug it off as something I didn’t need to watch.
However, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire made me sit up and take great notice. Filmed with more restraint, making spectacular use of IMAX cameras, and having a more compelling, richer story helped make this film one of the most memorable of 2013. Maybe the first film was a merely a primer for its sequels, introducing the world and ways of Panem to the uninitiated; looking back, it definitely helped me stomach some of the more groan-inducing moments of Catching Fire (of which, thankfully, there were few).
And yet, the Star Trek Movie Curse strikes, with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 being almost a nondescript precursor to the brutal, emotional catharsis released in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. Following that supertrendy thing where audiences are milked for their last dollars by splitting the last novel in a series into two films (thanks, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), we had to sit through two hours of posturing and chess moves before finally arriving to what’s great about Mockingjay: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) taking President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) on face-to-face in the story’s climax.
Now that you’ve read those first three paragraphs, you know exactly what it’s like to have to wait to get to the good stuff, and there’s a lot of it to be found in Mockingjay: Part 2. It’s the kind of film that the Grandfather from The Princess Bride would describe as being full of “Fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love…” But not so much with the fancy swordplay and the swooning romance. This is, after all, dystopia to end all dystopias, where the poor are exceptionally poor, the rich vomit food they’ve just eaten so they can go back and have more, and government-funded killing is put on as a spectator sport.
At one point in the film, after receiving orders from military superiors, former Hunger Games victor Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) whispers to Katniss, “Welcome to the 76th Hunger Games,” echoing similar statements in the first two films. Why not? Katniss is heading into the Capitol with a small unit of soldiers (and a propaganda – excuse me – “propo” film crew to capture exciting moments) and they’re going to be facing challenges very similar to those found in the arena – traps (which include hot tar and barbed wire), mutts (short for “muttations,” these things which look like a cross between the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth and an Isz from “The Maxx”), and the Capitol soldiers, armed to the teeth with superior weaponry.
The heart of the Hunger Games novels and films is Katniss’ journey from peasant girl to wartime hero, with a serious underpinning of doubt about the whole thing. It’s not like she wanted to be used as someone’s punchline or rallying cry; she just wants to survive, along with her family and friends, including former boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and trumped-up love Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). In the third film, there was some serious Twilight-esque hopping back and forth between the two, which I couldn’t stand at all. Now, with her focus solely on entering the Capitol and attaining her objective, both Gale and Peeta are merely aides-de-camp in her desperate attempt to end tyranny and terror.
Swirling around her are traps equal to anything the Gamemakers could throw at her. One takes the form of a scheming Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), the president of the rebellion intent on replacing Snow as President of Panem; however, her machinations paint her to be just as bad as (and in once instance worse than) Snow, so what exactly is Katniss fighting for? Moore plays her with a slippery sheen befitting her character, who manages to weasel her way in and out of every situation, always using others’ accomplishments to demonstrate a semblance of power to the unknowing masses and turning every advantage, good or bad, into a win for her.
The other is a damaged Peeta, tortured and corrupted by Snow and his people in the third film, the deadly consequences of which are shown briefly at the end of Mockingjay Part 1; Mockingjay Part 2 sees him broken and confused, yet a raging force when provoked, especially when it comes to Katniss’ survival. He’s been brainwashed to ensure she dies, the ultimate perversion of their love that was so celebrated in the 74th and 75th Hunger Games by everyone in the Capitol and beyond. Peeta has been assigned to Katniss’ unit by none other than President Coin, so we know exactly what Coin thinks of Katniss and what she wants done with her. People don’t matter to Coin; they’re only pawns to be sacrificed in her lust-for-power endgame.
However, there’s one more hand at work, pulling the strings and making all the right suggestions and moves: Plutarch Heavensbee, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final role (he died before completing all of his scenes for Part 2). Although he’s given a smaller role in this installment, we can see how much his influence affects everyone, from Coin on down. Much like he did for President Snow in Catching Fire, he once again manipulates behind the scenes to achieve his own desired ends, which thankfully coincide with everyone else’s – a free Panem. Hoffman plays it just as he did in the previous two films, cunningly sly and understated, and leaving us with words you can almost hear him speaking.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is a cathartic blowout of a final film, with layers of conflict and betrayal culminating in one final showdown between Katniss and Snow, leaving those of us who haven’t read the novels on edge as to how this cinematic universe’s last hours are going to play out. Director Francis Lawrence, helmer of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and the two Mockingjay films, wrests every bit of tension and suspense out of Katniss’ venture into the war-torn Capitol, with the tunnel scenes being some of the best-edited and acted sequences in any of the Hunger Games films to date. All of the Hunger Games films have been a little cold, leaving the viewer at arm’s length for a sense of detachment; this time, Lawrence brings us straight into the battle with no hesitation, with no lines drawn between observer and participant. He doesn’t shy away from the violence, nor does he try to make anything “safe for viewers under 12,” as the first film’s director Gary Ross is said to have pledged.
Filmed, edited, and locked well before the attacks in Paris on 11/13/15, Mockingjay Part 2 accidentally comes off being startlingly timely in its commentary upon refugees and guerrilla war, with several instances bringing to mind the trouble we’re seeing in our real-life newscasts and the rhetoric coming out of the mouths of the daily talking heads on our TV screens. But it’s all to serve a point: to expose life when society depends on slaves and freedom comes at a premium… and the slaves have had enough. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is an exemplary closer to a thrilling tetralogy of films, a monster of a slam-bang finish more than worthy of your movie theater attendance this weekend.