As I complained vehemently after the release of Mockingjay, Part 1 last year, there was absolutely no narrative, aesthetic, or even reasonable excuse for splitting the final book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy into two films. The first one was too long and virtually nothing happened. This second one is, surprise, too long: three times it seems to be coming to an end and three times it just keeps going and going. A decent editor could have made a single really fine two-hour film of these two bloated monstrosities, but making a fine film was not the goal of the franchise’s producers. Making a fine pile of money was, and this final installment in the series will certainly help with that goal: I attended on a Thursday night, where a very large theater was completely full, mostly of the YA audience the original books and the film franchise are targeting.
The film opens with a close-up on Jennifer Lawrence, apparently just returning to consciousness, with an alarmingly bruised, discolored neck, being coached to croak out the words “My name is Katniss Everdeen.” No explanation is given as to why she is in this state: the audience is expected to recall the end of part one, from a year ago, when her erstwhile lover Peeta, brainwashed by the tyrannical President Snow, had tried to strangle her. There are a lot of things we are expected to remember in this film, so unless you are an afficianado, you ought to watch part one again before heading for the theater for part two, or some things will just confuse you. Of course, if it had been one movie, you wouldn’t be confused, but I repeat myself.
One of the first faces we see in this opening scene is that of Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the former “gamemaker” Plutarch, now close adviser to the rebel leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). There is no question that the shock of seeing the tragically deceased actor is intended by the filmmakers: This last of the Hunger Games films is the darkest and bleakest of the franchise, and this close-up of Hoffman, who died while filming the movie, sets the stage for the sense of loss that pervades the film.
Katniss, who spends most of the movie in a brooding state of PTSD, argues early in the film with her other boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) over tactics being employed by Coin (and by Gale in following her), in their war against the capital: Set off an explosion that kills or wounds a small group of people in order to lure a larger group in to aid them, then set off a bigger bomb to kill everyone. It is essentially the way terrorists work, and though it could not possibly have been anticipated, it makes the film uncannily topical after recent terror attacks. It is, of course, precisely what one would expect from the treacherous President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and so calls into question the wisdom of following the rebel president Coin—and in this, the film is also ironically relevant: What do you gain when you become no different than what you are fighting against? Would France still be France, would America still be America, if they adopted responses that undercut their own democratic values? Katniss’s reaction is one of disgust and horror, though Gale’s attitude is that these things are necessary in war.
Katniss ultimately decides that this war is in fact not the answer. There is only one enemy, and that is Snow, and so, sneaking off (against the express orders of President Coin), she joins the rebel troops about to attack the capital, planning to break off by herself and assassinate President Snow in his mansion. But Coin has other ideas, and hopes to continue to use Katniss for her propaganda value (it will be even more effective if Katniss becomes a martyr—and will also eliminate a possible political rival after the revolution). Katniss is put into a company that includes, among others, Gale, former Hunger Games victor Finnick (Sam Claflin), the untrustworthy and psychologically damaged Peeta, and videographer Cressida (Natalie Dormer), who shoots footage of the company to send back to Coin for propaganda purposes. Katniss’s chief role in the attack on the capital, it seems, is to be the media face of the rebellion, and with her high-profile companions to lure capital troops away from the real invaders.
Thus begins a very long and essentially pointless journey through the booby-trapped streets of the capital city, in which “pods” have been planted by the capital’s gamemakers in what is essentially a live video game. In part this is an aspect of the Hunger Games franchise’s continuing pervasive critique of contemporary media culture, but at the same time it is an exploitation of that same culture, since part of the draw of the movie for some of the YA crowd is precisely that sensation of the video-game morphing into real life. Then when pretty much everything possible has been wrung out of that concept, the company must travel underground through old subway tunnels where they hope to be undetected. But after what seems about two hours of this creeping along in the shadowy tunnels, the company is attacked in the dark by reptilian creatures that we only catch flashes of in the flickering light—a scene that looks a whole lot like something out of Aliens. What these “mutts” were I had no idea—they may have been explained in Mockingjay part one, but alas, that was not part of this movie (I refer you to my opening tirade).
There are some exciting aspects to the action sequences in this almost interminable part of the movie, but the lack of context and the lack of serious editing takes a good deal away from the overall effect. There are deaths that take place here, but they have no emotional impact because, frankly, the film hadn’t given me any chance to care about the characters. That part, where I was supposed to develop some familiarity and sympathy for these characters, was probably in part one.
As you’d expect, Katniss does get her chance to break away and try to get to Snow, but there will be no spoilers from me. I will say that there are a number of surprises or intended surprises in the film’s last half hour, not all of which are completely predictable. The final scene of the film, though it delighted the large group of YA girls among whom we were seated in that crowded theater, and will no doubt satisfy the great majority of the franchise’s loyal fans, felt far too optimistic to me, after such a grim last chapter of this trilogy-stretched-to-absurd-length-tetralogy.
I wish this film had been better. Its high powered all-star cast that features Hoffman, Sutherland, and Moore, Woody Harrelson as Haymitch and Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, is underused, with none of these larger-than-life Hollywood names employed for anything that amounts to more than a cameo in this movie. Instead, it’s Jennifer Lawrence who carries the film, as she has carried the whole franchise, and she does it with heart and with intellect. The part of Katniss is not, of course, as complex as some of Lawrence’s other characters, for whom she has deservedly been nominated for three Academy Awards, but she is an iconic, mythic character, and playing her has earned Lawrence a personal fortune, according to Forbes magazine, of some $52 million—more than any other woman in Hollywood, and a personal fortune that should give her the opportunity to choose any roles that interest her in the future.
But as for this film, while it has thematic elements that are topical and meaningful, and action scenes that grab and hold your attention, and while it will almost certainly not disappoint Katniss’s many devotees, it just isn’t that well-made a film. There is also, for me, the nagging disconnect that the underlying theme of the books—a dystopian society created and controlled by the manipulation of media—is reflected apparently without intentional irony by the very medium through which the film narrative is told: When rebel commander Paylor (Patina Miller) vows “If we die, let it be for a cause, not a spectacle,” she says it right before the franchise’s ultimate spectacle. I’m giving this one two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson.