Overall, The Hunger Games saga will likely endure as a franchise that set a high bar among its YA contemporaries by adding substance to its genre trappings, and never shying away from the harsher aspects of its dystopian setting and plot. However, its closing chapter, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, shows the dangers of splitting the final book, and takes what should have been a race to the finish as one that’s now limping to reach feature length, cut-off from the richness of the world’s complexity, and dragged down by a slew of epilogues. Although the set pieces remain exhilarating and the timely subtext can sting, especially with the material’s disdain for politicians, Mockingjay – Part 2 is more of a harried survivor than a triumphant victor.
Picking up right where Part 1 let off (remove the title cards and Mockingjay would be a four-hour movie), Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is now eager to get into the field and kill President Snow (Donald Sutherland), both as an act of revenge for turning Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) into a sleeper agent tasked to kill her, and to end the war once and for all. District 13 leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) reluctantly allows Katniss to go into the safest parts of the battle so that she doesn’t lose her key piece of propaganda, but Katniss soon realizes there’s a much larger game being played even as she tries to stay focused on eliminating Snow while also holding out hope that Peeta will regain his senses.
I rewatched Part 1 a couple days before seeing Part 2, and it’s tough to say if Lionsgate should have kept Mockingjay as one movie or if the studio’s greed hurt the film’s quality (it certainly won’t hurt it’s box office returns). On the one hand, Part 1 improved on a repeat viewing, and you can appreciate that there’s room for a scene like “The Hanging Tree” and other little moments that make up the rebellion. And yet if the studio had gone for a single, three-hour film, it could have gotten the best of both worlds because Part 2 never has the pacing it needs to be its own story or feel like a worthy climax. Unlike cinema’s most successful split novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 is a non-stop action film that’s the culmination of seven movies. Mockingjay – Part 2 may have action, but it doesn’t know how to dole it out and what to do with the time in between.
I’ve come to the conclusion that my least favorite thing about The Hunger Games is the actual games, or more specifically, the arena. The arena creates limitations, and it removes us from the war and conflict engulfing Panem. Katniss and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) have a conversation about the place of citizens in warzones is far more captivating than Katniss and her camera crew of mostly one-dimensional characters trying to evade “pods” (traps laid throughout the Capitol to hinder progress to President Snow’s mansion).
In a single film, Part 2 could have been the break-neck action careening towards a devastating finish, and when director Francis Lawrence gets to show his action chops, he puts together some riveting material, especially one scene that has Katniss and her crew fighting off sewer monsters. But because the film is paced so languidly, there’s no sense of urgency. Katniss wants to assassinate Snow, but it’s like the rest of the war has stopped and her team is taking long, frequent breaks to figure out their next move.
If these breaks added more to character development, they could be forgiven, but it seems like The Hunger Games has run out of things to say, so we’re stuck sorting out the Peeta-Katniss-Gale non-love triangle that should have been ditched by now, and we lose sight of the larger conflict. The camera is now firmly on Katniss, and the best scenes of the series thus far—where the unnamed people of the districts rose up to fight back—are mostly gone.
It’s not until the climax (but before the endless string of epilogues that almost makes Return of the King’s conclusion feel abrupt) that the war and all of its complexities become clear, but in an effort to show Katniss’ simplistic view of “Kill Snow, Save the World” is flawed, the movie resorts to an equally facile belief that “All Politicians Are Evil”. Granted, that’s a reflection of our reality (and really, it’s a harsher evaluation; polls show frustration with incompetence and intransigence rather than malice from our leaders), and Suzanne Collins’ novel springs from the belief that only Eisenhower figures like Commander Paylor (Patina Miller) and savvy media manipulators like Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) can give us the best shot of not killing ourselves.
Lawrence’s direction is enough to keep the film captivating even through its weakest stretches, but it lacks the propulsion of the previous entries, and it’s for things that are beyond his control. He didn’t choose to split Mockingjay into two parts, and he didn’t write the book, which is the weakest of Collins’ novels. He’s done his best to keep his eye on the larger ideas the story presents, and those ideas will give Hunger Games the lasting influence its YA contemporaries sorely lack.
This has been a successful, thoughtful franchise that has remained surprising for three of its four entries. Unfortunately, even the Mockingjay isn’t stronger than Hollywood accounting, and Part 2 may offer some thrilling action and powerful moments, especially near the end, but like Katniss, we’re absolutely weary from this battle, and it’s a good thing that this war has come to an end.