At long last, the 1853 book series that was turned into a beloved but unfinished 1970s film series has reached its long-forgotten conclusion! That’s how long it’s felt since this franchise started, anyway.
It began with The Hunger Games, which brought Battle Royale to the West, adding shaky-cam and subtracting sex. It escalated in Catching Fire, in which the adult characters had to bring their A-game because the Games themselves no longer mattered. In Mockingjay Part 1 it paid homage to Wag the Dog, went behind the scenes at a post-apocalyptic marketing firm, and basically felt like one of those all-talk episodes of The Walking Dead where the stunt crew takes a week off while the characters sit around exchanging feelings so their eventual, horrible deaths will mean something.
And now, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is here to wrap up the character arcs for anyone who didn’t read the books, to finish adapting the remaining 213 pages of the 390-page novel that concluded the original trilogy. Closure is here for one and all, especially for DVD fans waiting to buy the eventual Hunger Games Quadrilogy set for cheap on some future Black Friday.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Archer supreme Katniss Everdeen decides the war and the series have dragged on for far too long. She lies, sneaks, and steals her way toward a simple, direct plan: kill President Snow, save the world. In between dealing with Peeta’s brainwashing trauma, Gale’s increasingly diligent dedication to hardcore soldiering, and a Rebel Alliance leader with a heart of ice, Katniss and her surviving supporters travel to the Capitol and spend over half the movie maze-running from Point A to Point B. That’s virtually it.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The old gang is largely back! The Katniss/Peeta/Gale love triangle is front and center, along with the warring figureheads, Julianne Moore’s District 13 President Coin and Donald Sutherland’s PanEm President Snow at his downright creepiest and most chillingly honest. Still accompanying Our Heroes are Sam Claflin’s backup hero Finnick, Natalie Dormer’s documentarian Cressida, and House of Cards‘ Mahershala Ali as commanding officer Boggs (watch for him in the future as a villain in Netflix’s Marvel’s Luke Cage).
Promoted to noticeably greater visibility is one of Cressida’s crewpeople, the silent ex-Avox Pollux, who found greater fame between films as Foggy Nelson in Marvel’s Daredevil. His brother Castor is Wes Chatham, who might or might not find his own fortune soon as costar of the upcoming Syfy series The Expanse.
Haymitch, sister Prim, Effie Trinket, Jeffrey Wright’s Beetee, and Finnick’s lady-love Annie get two or three scenes each. So does Jena Malone as the mentally unfiltered Johanna, but she wins every single moment and brings more life to the movie than most of the cast combined. Mama Everdeen (Paula Malcomson, now better employed on Ray Donovan) and an uncharacteristically sullen Caesar Flickerman each get a single chance to say hi.
The late Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up for five scenes in all, two of them silent, at least one of those arranged posthumously, plus a sixth scene in name only that had to be carried across the finish line by another teammate.
Newly along for the ride: character actor Omid Abtahi, whom I’ve seen in multiple things over the years (e.g., Argo), most recently a season-1 episode of NBC’s Revolution; Madam Secretary‘s Patina Miller in a key soldiering role; and Michelle Forbes (Ensign Ro from Star Trek: the Next Generation) as a spare officer deserving more screen time. Meanwhile in the perfunctory diplomacy scenes, watch for a key meeting with Game of Thrones‘ Gwen Christie, one of our newest Star Wars characters.
You know a film has a massive budget when it can afford payroll for this many recognizable actors.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Part 2 tries to compensate for the paucity of action scenes in Part 1, most effectively in a fear-fraught sewer battle against video game mutants. The inanimate booby traps sabotaging every other Capitol block are sufficiently loud but lack the personality of your average Indiana Jones killer snare. Vehicles crash, guns fire, arrows fly, faceless henchmen fall over a lot, and favorite characters die. Returning director Francis Lawrence makes sure all those boxes are crossed off on the Big-Budget Blockbuster master checklist.
Not until the final half-hour does Part 2 get to the meat of the matter — i.e, not every revolution is an improvement over the previous regime. Life has more than two sides, and too often the enemy of your enemy is not your friend. Every dictatorship had to start somewhere, sometimes picking right up where the previous tyranny left off.
Nitpicking? Anyone hoping for a final steel-cage match between a rage-fueled Katniss and a heavily armed Snow will walk away disappointed. Part 2 sticks faithfully to the text, all the way through the horrifying end of the Capitol quest, the tumultuous consequences that follow, the fateful decision that changes the world just one more time, and the low-key ending that didn’t feel remotely Hollywood when I read it 3½ years ago. Events don’t crescendo so much as they move in logical order from one to the next with zero intent of ordering them by size from smallest to grandest. As a result, past a certain point in the film, there’s no sense of build-up or release. Such a progression works much better in print than it does acted out.
Another drawback in the film series in general: since the books are told first-person from Katniss’ perspective — often cynical, sometimes numb, always distrusting — readers have a better sense of what she’s thinking even when she’s barely moving or doing anything interesting on the outside. Her inner turmoil and outer brevity are the narrative, through which glimpses of the other characters provide skewed hints as to what’s really going on around her. The Mockingjay movies are so careful to replicate Katniss’ moods and actions (or lack thereof) onscreen, but almost none of her words. It often leaves Jennifer Lawrence with naught to do but glower and storm around the sets a lot. And because virtually everything and everyone disappoint her sooner or later, that’s a lot of opportunity for nuance-free glowering. Her few moments of full DEFCON 1 rage are a welcome change of pace from her otherwise dour Punisher vendetta.
So what’s to like? On the other hand, Part 2 may be remembered someday as the one where Peeta got to show off. Josh Hutcherson, child star no more, digs deep and lashes out hard as a severe PTSD sufferer no longer in control of his own mind, both figuratively and literally. He’s fighting to stop himself from murdering Katniss, he’s struggling to remember who he really is, and he’s forcing himself to push through the agony into that former reality where he’s the “nice guy”. The internet has apparently declared it uncool to say anything nice about Peeta, but it’s good to see how far Hutcherson has come in the ten years since Zathura.
Beyond the standout performances by Hutcherson, Malone, and perennial winner Sutherland, Mockingjay Part 2 feels like an obligatory season finale but not an essential film. I wouldn’t call it a bad film, or refuse to sit through it a second time, as I’m scheduled to do for family after the holidays. It’s always nice to complete a set, of course, and Part 2 sure does that.
I do wish they had digressed more from the source material and brought more surprises to the party, even if it meant irking millions of us book fans. Modify or skip what works in print but falters in film; elaborate on the aspects that work better in live performance or through effects than they do in text. If every book henceforth must be considered an unalterable holy template when upconverted into an identical, rote screenplay…well, I hate to imagine a timeline in which a Future Me who’s impatient about redundancy stops asking, “Should I see the movie first or read the book first?” and instead asks every time, “Which one should I do, the movie or the book?”
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2‘s end credits, but accounting geeks may be interested in the section listing various municipalities that provided tax credits to the production. The star location is Georgia, which the credits lovingly name-check right after the Cast and well before the fifty-two visual effects houses, complete with the official Georgia tourism logo and a giant-sized peach that I suspect might be a genetically modified product from an evil PanEm farm.