With every passing year, movie franchises rise and fall like the winter wheat (or children in an annual death match). Yet from the beginning, the Hunger Games phenomenon has been different for those who cared to notice.
Despite featuring all the trappings of any number of recent Young Adult fictions, and perhaps just a pinch of Japanese cinema, this saga has carved out a fiercely unique place in the pop culture pantheon. Now, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 cements it.
The second half of the Hunger Games’ finale concludes its legend unlike any other fragmented literary adaptation to date: it’s wholly satisfying and lingers with life after the final frame. Then again that is likely just a reflection in the eternal flames emanating from Jennifer Lawrence’s unwavering stare, which has long conjured a special life into Katniss Everdeen. Still, it’s only in this particular film’s final moments, as director Francis Lawrence lays all of Suzanne Collins’ cards on the table, that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 justifies its elongated numeral title—and throws the gauntlet down hard in the realm of blockbuster entertainment for the holiday season.
The movie, as you might expect, picks up moments after the first Mockingjay’s ending. Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) has just been saved from the Capitol’s clutches by the rebels of Panem’s District 13. And for their trouble, a brainwashed Peeta has lashed out, trying to slaughter his once and future unrequited love in Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire. Understandably shaken by this uncontrollable betrayal, Katniss is thirsty for the blood of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and anyone else who stands in her way.
However, her incredibly disciplined (and political) resistance, led by a deliciously utilitarian Julianne Moore as President Alma Coin, has zero interest in Katniss’ adolescent vendettas or romantic traumas. Coin wants to win a war, and Katniss is the best piece of propaganda (or “propo”) currently available. It is for this very reason that Katniss sneaks away from District 13 and heads for the frontline on the outskirts of the Capitol. There, she will join her other would-be, frustrated lover, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and his squadron of young heroic badasses, including fan favorite Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin).
But even in the decidedly inglorious baptism of war, Katniss finds herself still a pawn in both Snow and Coin’s games. She’s the menacing sigil of rebellion that must bleed for the former, and a prop/potential martyr for the latter. Hence, there’s also soon an added flock of publicists and personal interest items in Katniss’ squad, including Cressida (Natalie Dormer) and, quite dangerously, the still volatile Peeta. If Katniss really wants to reach Snow and end the cycle of violence that has engulfed a nation, the Girl on Fire will have to finally catch her own spark—the cameras be damned.
Where The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 excels is in developing the tactile strands that were the best aspects of an otherwise leisured third installment—it blurs the lines of good and evil, rebels and tyrants, and war and peace. But since Katniss is now dropped into an actual warzone for what Gale cheekily dubs the “76th Hunger Games,” the immediacy of Collins’ themes and ideas are massaged out to devastating, emotional effect.
In contrast to any other mass marketed or teen-hyped event film, Hunger Games is brutal in its approximation of war and the ugliness of its fatal embrace. Here is a war of attrition between the morally repugnant Capitol, spearheaded by Sutherland as a supremely wonderful embodiment of restrained decadence, and the almost equally foggy ethics of Coin, Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and even Katniss’ own now untrustworthy generation.
Finally in adulthood, Miss Everdeen discovers herself alienated by the increasingly hawkish Gale and the psychologically shattered Peeta. Once the casualties really start piling up by the film’s third act, the entire Hunger Games franchise comes full circle for a girl who just wanted to survive. She has indeed survived, but in the rubble of urban warfare, very little else has, including perhaps her soul.
To realize this combat of block-by-block, inch-by-inch brutality, director Francis Lawrence is unleashed after the much more visually limited (read: dull) Mockingjay – Part 1. While nothing in the film matches the majesty of the IMAX photography from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the lavish set-pieces this time around recall their cinematic duties toward great action sequences.
Particular standouts include the inventive uses found in urban booby traps designed by the Capitol’s Game Makers. My favorites are a seeping puddle of oil that upon impact with human flesh unleashes violent, thrashing chains that cause a Clive Barker styled demise—kind of like an “instant Hellraiser”—and then some sewer-dwelling zombie beasts that are a better adaptation of the Resident Evil video games than anything ever released with Milla Jovovich.
All of these are creative spectacles that artfully distract from the uncomfortable allegories they represent, including on-the-nose allusions to American foreign policy and the seemingly never ending cycle of death it propagates (at least from Collins’ vantage point).
Aspirations like these from a YA franchise continue to surprise, as well as once more overshadow the ever-standard formulae surrounding the central love triangle. But even in that department, this film has ambitions for a clean break from the familiar groundwork trodden by Twilight, Divergent, and even to a lesser degree, Harry Potter.
In this film, it becomes evident that Katniss’ affections for Peeta, Gale, and their shared hill of beans mean little in comparison to the grand sweep of their world’s politics. Feeling more responsible and indebted to one (Peeta) and increasingly disturbed by the other (Gale), the filmmakers reach for an unexpectedly earnest and faintly pensive denouement to Katniss’ love life. In fact, it might be too downbeat for the film’s target teen audience, yet like the whole series, therein lies its hidden exhilaration.
All three parties are serviceable with Hutcherson particularly stepping up more than he has ever had to in the past as the severely damaged “nice guy,” but this is Lawrence’s show; the boys are just a necessary affectation.
Indeed, after four films Jennifer Lawrence fits as snugly into her Katniss persona as any of the character’s skintight armor. We’ve watched each have a meteoric rise of popularity within the film’s universe, as well as our own. But while Katniss’ enduring imprint may forever reside in the first two films, and a certain three-fingered salute, this is inarguably Lawrence’s best performance of the bunch.
With the nuanced grays of adulthood settling into Miss Everdeen’s dimming eyes, there is a depth of feeling besides resentment and anger forming there. To be sure, those Katniss trademarks remain, especially in a third act confrontation where she threatens to immolate a once trusted colleague with a homicidal gaze. But there is a maturity as well that Lawrence has only now dared to introduce to her big screen alter-ego.
It’s that marked level of growth from simple satire of our pop culture appetites in the inaugural Hunger Games to this sprawling epic of subversion and ambiguity that really causes the series to sing. Even after the hype has long dissipated in the years to come, I imagine that birdcall, and the purr of Katniss’ bowstring, will continue to echo in our collective memory. The odds are ever in its favor.