Film Review: ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2’

The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2
Courtesy of Lionsgate

The fun and games grow darker still as Suzanne Collins' dystopian sci-fi series reaches its grim conclusion.

What started as a game culminates in deadly serious terms with a full-scale overthrow of the system itself in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2,” which counters the meager helpings offered by most teen-driven entertainment with one of the heartiest character arcs ever afforded a young female protagonist. After being forced to hunt other innocent children for sport, Katniss Everdeen rallies her fellow rebels to rise up against the Capitol, and that’s not even the most revolutionary thing about this fourth and final installment in Suzanne Collins’ dystopian adventure series, which continues to implicate its own fan base in the bloodlust even as it kills off many of their favorite characters. Though domestic B.O. dipped some 20% for the previous feature, this ultra-dark, deliberately paced climax should recover somewhat even as it ventures down bleaker channels still, paying off the gamble of having stayed true to its source.

Katniss may be 17 years old as “The Hunger Games” reaches its long-awaited finale, but in the hands of director Francis Lawrence (who took the reins from Gary Ross after the first film), the series has veered far from the realm of traditional young-adult entertainment. For all intents and purposes, “Mockingjay” is a war movie, albeit one starring an iconic, athletic Joan of Arc-like heroine (once again played by Jennifer Lawrence) and featuring battle scenes that feel suspiciously like extensions of previous Hunger Games — those arena death matches where sadistic dictator Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland, that master of the menacing grin) unleashed high-tech and bioengineered weapons, which have since been tucked away into booby-trapped “pods” all over the Capitol streets.

Though these inventive challenges make for an entertaining Capture the Flag-style obstacle course, Collins (who once again earns an “adaptation” credit) and returning screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong are clearly more concerned with the mass-media manipulation of combat footage than the are in what actually transpires in the trenches. Modern warfare, Collins suggests, is literally a “show of force,” complete with all the theatricality that implies, and her dystopian Oz will ultimately be ruled by the showman — or woman, since Snow’s worthiest rival is Alma Coin (a severe if somewhat less interesting Julianne Moore) — with the most compelling narrative to share over the airwaves.

Needless to say, it would be unwise for anyone not yet versed in the series’ mythology to jump in at this late stage, as “Mockingjay — Part 2” is no mere sequel, but the finale of an ambitious narrative in which the tragedy of each fatality relies on connections established in previous films. While hardly unique to “The Hunger Games,” this cumulative-storytelling approach feels perfectly consistent with sophisticated, serialized TV and film franchises (“Harry Potter” in particular) that respect viewers’ ability to track multiple individuals and intrigues over a span of years — which is to say, there’s no “Previously in Panem … ” catch-up sequence to situate newcomers here.

That said, director Lawrence does allow enough room for audiences to process what’s unfolding before them, working at a classical pace that’s become increasingly rare among breakneck modern blockbusters. One could argue that “Mockingjay” didn’t really merit being split in two (and surely a single three-hour movie could be made of it), but we benefit from the fact that the film has been given room to breathe, which allows for subtle character moments — including a nice bonding scene between Katniss and standoffish fellow victor Johanna (Jena Malone) that substitutes for their having been roommates in the book — and the gradual building of suspense during the actual siege in the Capitol.

For those who don’t clearly remember all that has come before, the film opens immediately after Katniss has been reunited with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who spent nearly the entirety of “Part 1” under Snow’s control, tortured and “highjacked” (brainwashed with tracker-jacker venom) into hating Katniss, only to end the film rescued and returned to District 13. But in what state? Or to echo Peeta’s distress in his own words, borrowing a line that may as well apply to the entire media-managed revolution: “Real or not real?”

Such questions hover over nearly everything in “Part 2,” where what remains of Katniss and Peeta’s always ambiguous romance becomes still more complex, now that the purity of his love has been cast in doubt. In the past, Peeta’s feelings for her were always sincere, whereas Katniss was the one who performed her part exclusively for the cameras’ benefit, guarding her heart for childhood sweetheart Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Now, Katniss fears that Peeta has been programmed to assassinate her, but also discovers that Gale isn’t the man she once believed, but rather a ruthless battle strategist willing to sacrifice innocent lives in his attacks on District 2 and the Capitol.

From the very outset of the series, Katniss has been faced with difficult moral questions. Nearly always, she acted out of a naive sense of what was right, starting with her decision to take younger sister Prim’s place in the Hunger Games. In the intervening time, she has gained an audience with Panem’s top power mongers, her cynicism steadily growing as she comes to recognize how such individuals operate. By this point, Coin is as much a figure of suspicion as Snow, and Katniss disobeys her orders (to function as rebel-alliance cheerleader in “propos,” or propaganda spots, directed against the Capitol) and decides to hunt Snow down herself — an easier choice to understand than the pic’s subversive final twist, which spectacularly re-establishes Katniss’ defiant individuality.

As demonstrated in an early scene, when a P.O.W. from District 2 holds her at gunpoint and demands one good reason he shouldn’t pull the trigger, Katniss considers her life no more valuable than those around her, refusing to buy into her own mythology. Though she has allies — and indeed reteams with a squad of familiar faces, including Gale, newly wed Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and former bodyguard Boggs (Mahershala Ali) for the Capitol assault — Katniss’ latest moral dilemmas leave her feeling more alone than ever. Like little Frodo Baggins, crushed and corrupted by his heavy burden over the course of three films, she’s not the same person she was when her adventure began.

Similarly, Jennifer Lawrence isn’t the same actress, having grown from the hardy yet resourceful child of “Winter’s Bone” to the assertive adult seen in “American Hustle.” That evolution serves her character well, and Lawrence (the director) engineers the film to replicate the effect of Collins’ first-person narration. We experience much of “Mockingjay” from a relatively subjective point of view, either seeing things over her shoulder or processing how the resulting emotions register on her face, which the actress controls with a subtlety befitting the widescreen pic’s Imax proportions.

That same subtlety doesn’t necessarily extend to James Newton Howard’s score, which fluctuates from soap-opera-style piano accents to full-blown action-movie bombast (with a lovely Celtic wedding ballad on the occasion of Finnick’s marriage). Even so, Howard’s music becomes downright vital during the film’s most claustrophobic sequence, as Katniss’ squad comes face-to-face with a herd of ferocious mutants in the Capitol’s underground sewer system, resulting in a “mutt” attack more intense than any of the demon or zombie nastiness the helmer conjured in “Constantine” or “I Am Legend.”

All three of his “Hunger Games” assignments benefit from the world-building talents the director developed on those earlier sci-fi thrillers, and here, he delivers the most complete evocation of Panem yet — although some may be disappointed to see the battle for District 2 reduced to a CGI firebombing glimpsed over Katniss’ shoulder. The film makes up for that with impressive Capitol action, building the city above and below ground through a combination of heavy-concrete German locations and digital trickery, best showcased in a terrific set piece in which Katniss and her crew work out personal differences amid a rising tide of black oil.

The nasty liquid swallows a few of her friends, while others die in even more horrifying ways later on, but there’s no fun left in killing, either for Katniss or her fans. In fact, some of the deaths are downright devastating, underscoring how much more profound Collins’ political critique has become by this stage. Just think: It was Katniss’ instinct to protect Prim (Willow Shields) that drew her into the center of Snow’s madness, and by the end, she’s in a position to take revenge upon the evil president, while her younger sister has joined the front lines.

The one death no one could have foreseen, that of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, adds welcome resonance to his scenes as gamemaster Plutarch Heavensbee, while leaving him sorely missing from a crucial emotional moment in which Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch arrives with a letter containing the character’s final words. Though the script adheres to Collins’ novel, everything that follows feels extraneous, with a succession of endings straining the patience somewhat. While the series remarkably managed to sustain its cast and credibility across four increasingly ambitious features, Francis Lawrence doesn’t quite recognize when it’s game over.

Film Review: 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2'

Reviewed at Metropolitan Filmexport screening room, Paris, Nov. 2, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 135 MIN.

Production

A Lionsgate release and presentation of a Color Force/Lionsgate production. Produced by Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik. Executive producer, Suzanne Collins. Co-producers, Henning Molfenter, Charlie Woeboken, Christoph Fisser.

Crew

Directed by Francis Lawrence. Screenplay, Peter Craig, Danny Strong, based on the novel “Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins; adaptation, Collins. Camera (color, widescreen), Jo Willems; editor, Jennifer Vecchiarello; music, James Newton Howard; music supervisor, Alexandra Patsavas; production designer, Philip Messina; supervising art director, Dan Webster; art directors, Andrew Max Cahn, Priscilla Elliott, Lauren Polizzi; set decorator, Larry Dias; costume designers, Kurt and Bart; sound (Dolby Atmos), Jose Antonio Garcia; sound designer, Jeremy Peirson; supervising sound editors/re-recording mixers, Skip Lievsay, Peirson; special effects coordinator, Steve Cremin; visual effects producer, Walter Garcia; visual effects coordinators, Victor F. Medel, Ainslie Thomas, Patrick Thomas O’Rourke, Robbie Janda; visual effects, Double Negative, Weta Digital Ltd., MPC, the Embassy Visual Effects, Cantina Creative, Lola VFX, Skulley Effects, Exceptional Minds; special makeup effects/prosthetics, Glenn Hetrick’s Optic Nerve; supervising stunt coordinator, R.A. Rondell; stunt coordinators, Sam Hargrave, Ralph Haeger, Philippe Guegan; fight coordinator, Hargrave; associate producers, Cameron MacConomy, Jeffrey Harlacker; assistant director, Christopher Surgent; second unit director, Charles Gibson; second unit camera, Josh Bleibtreu; casting, Debra Zane.

With

Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Mahershala Ali, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Paula Malcomson, Stanley Tucci, Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Elden Henson, Wes Chatham, Eugenie Bondurant.

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  1. Annie says:

    The movie was very faithful to the book and that was good, but I was hoping for more grief in the end. In the books, weeks go by after the revolution ends and Katniss goes home, but here it was rushed, we didn’t see Katniss grief, except for the part where she yells at the cat.

  2. Lissell Paredes says:

    “…and featuring battle scenes that feel suspiciously like extensions of previous Hunger Games…”

    This is why I hate critics, especially those who haven’t read the books and complain about stupid things. That was the point. That it felt like another Hunger Games. Snow is a sadistic mfer and that was his way if punishing Katniss.

    Same w/ Mockingjay 1. Some critic had the nerve to complain about the fact that the movie didn’t feel complete and it felt like the setup for something else… Uh… Yeah that’s exactly what it was. Seriously if you’re going to criticize a movie that is based off of a book, bother reading the damn book.

  3. heyheyheyehyy says:

    THIS FILM IS GOING TO BE AMAZING!!!! :D With books like those, no way even the worst director could go wrong. Though Francis Lawrence is a fantastic director. Hence, I think this movie’s gonna be just as great as the others! :D Cannot wait :D :D #TEAMKATNISS #TEAMLAWRencE! x

  4. john says:

    Hunger Games is a great series of films. This last one is going to be a smash hit.

  5. Otaku says:

    You guys are complaining about “Spoilers”… Really??? I would hardly label any of the text of this article as a spoiler. Let me give you another thing to think about, and I haven’t even seen this movie yet.. but Katniss and her cause will win in the end. Peeta will recover from his “mental breakdown” and everybody will sing and dance in the joy of overthrowing the old government. Oh boy!

    If you guys can’t figure out a standard plot-line and just enjoy the movie.. any movie for what it is.. Entertainment.., Then there is seriously something wrong with you that maybe trying to live in the real world for a change will restore your values of what is really important to be complaining about.

  6. Tara says:

    “Welcome”…. REALLY?!?!??

    “The one death no one could have foreseen, that of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, adds welcome resonance to his scenes as gamemaster”

  7. Micah says:

    Although I’m a huge fan of the books and the previous movies, I wasn’t excited for this movie until I read your review. Now I can’t wait.

  8. CelluloidFan35mm says:

    I may sit this one out and wait until the Blu-Ray to try to finish it out.
    Though I have not read any of the books, I gave the series a fair shot as a filmgoer but I felt that it was all lackluster but stuck it out hoping for improvement.
    I disliked the first film.
    Catching Fire I enjoyed from a technical standpoint. It was better directed, had better cinematography, a much larger scale and exciting acting from the supporting actors, especially from the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland and Elizabeth Banks (I’m sorry but Jennifer Lawrence’s acting in my eyes has never truly impressed or moved me. ) but didn’t get any better narrative wise.
    Mockingjay Part One actually felt like half a movie and had no business being split in half IMO so at this point, I may just tap out of this one.
    I understood its themes and what it was all about but was never truly entertained.

    • Corinne says:

      “(I’m sorry but Jennifer Lawrence’s acting in my eyes has never truly impressed or moved me. ) ”

      I agree 100%. I’ll skip this one too. As far as dystopian/futurustic movies go, I’ll take 100 times Fury Road, Ex-machina and Scorch trials above any of the hunger games franchise. the books are decent but Jennifer failed to portray convincingly a birracial, survivol teen like Katniss.

    • Cindylover1969 says:

      “I’m sorry but Jennifer Lawrence’s acting in my eyes has never truly impressed or moved me.”

      You fail forever.

      “Mockingjay Part One actually felt like half a movie”

      Possibly because it was, you tedious person.

  9. William says:

    Loved the other 3 movies, can’t wait to see this one! Have to say though, I have never read a review with so many ‘spoilers.’ Kinda wish I had missed this review.

    • Kathleen says:

      Don’t worry if you haven’t read the books…they still left the big stuff out.

      • William says:

        Thanks, haven’t read the books, and with that in mind I would much rather not know the ‘outcome’ of various scenes beforehand!

  10. Contessa46 says:

    Love the Hunger Games series and li forward to MJ2–

  11. Tom says:

    Great review, thank god it has decent base reviews so far – I’d hate for it be received as Mockingjay Part 1 was. I for one am pleased that the book was split into 2 films as a) we get an extra HG movie and b) it creates more character development.

    Just a note for the future, especially with movies like this. This review contains a few spoilers about the film… Might be wise to warn fans about this!

  12. LOL says:

    Sounds like a crap film.

    • Jake Saavedra says:

      This troll doesn’t understand the themes of this franchise. Don’t waste exposing your empty, filthy mindset without looking at it properly. Talk if you’ve already seen it. If not, then just shut the hell up.

      We’re all entitled to give our opinions about everything, but please learn to filter your thoughts. You sound like an uneducated man. My goodness.

    • b says:

      Crap? Just like your comments.

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