'Mockingjay - Part 2' completes the series' transformation into a more thoughtful consideration of politics and rebellion
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 Lionsgate
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenplay: Peter Craig and Danny Strong, based on the novel Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Mahershala Ali, Jena Malone and Philip Seymour Hoffman
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 17 minutes
November 20, 2015
(out of four)
When you get to the final installment of a movie series - at least one that has told a serialized, continuing story rather than episodic entries - you tend, almost as a requirement, to judge it differently. It's no longer just an opinion of an individual film but a postmortem on the series as a whole. For the first time we have a complete story to examine. To some extent, even the earlier entries are now back on the table. (It's not quite the same as a TV series - because ultimately any movie needs to stand on its own, while most series can afford a few clunker episodes - but it's in the same ballpark.)
In this respect, The Hunger Games series (and its concluding chapter in particular) makes for a fascinating case study. There have been so many bold intentions and squandered ambitions; so many positives and so many missteps. Mockingjay - Part 2 has the primary role of continuing and bringing into focus the elements introduced in last year's narrative-shifting Part 1, but it ends up serving more as a corrective (intentional or not) for the failures of the original film. The biggest fault of 2012's The Hunger Games was its refusal to engage the moral complexities built into its core premise, instead opting for a toothless, good-guys-vs.-bad-guys action movie. Subsequent entries have all gone conceptually deeper to one degree or another, but not until this final sequel has the difference been so meaningful.
The most potent strengths of Mockingjay directly contrast - if not deliberately refute - the fatal flaws of the original. The black-and-white morality the first movie tried to impose on itself has all but evaporated. This makes for not only a more morally complex environment but a more politically interesting one. Beyond just the Games, beyond the kill-or-be-killed reality that strips even the most noble characters of their innocence, the central conflict itself - the heroes and the corrupt system they're fighting against - has been drastically redefined by the time push comes to shove in Mockingjay. As the film divorces itself from cut-and-dried notions of victory and virtue, its attitude reflects a weariness with the whole endeavor. The toll taken, the lives lost.
In a sense, it feels like the filmmakers are deliberately pushing back against the expected patterns built into the rebellion narrative. There is a concerted effort not to provide the catharsis we've been expecting or even hoping for. Director Francis Lawrence, who has helmed each of the last three installments, flavors what triumphant moments the finale has with a sense of melancholy, if not outright grief. This is a story that easily could have gone the way of idealism, and I confess I expected as much (based on the history of tentpole filmmaking, if nothing else). Instead, it knowingly slides into grey territory.
This is reflected in the way the series' main concept expands even as alliances and ideologies get muddled. At this point in the story, strict order has been lost. The Games, at least as Panem has known them for so long, are effectively over. They've now bled over into society as a whole; the arena is everywhere, as exemplified by a terrific action setpiece during which Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her military and political allies find themselves in the midst of a booby-trapped Capitol and having to fight their way out of it.
There were certainly hints that this movie was going in a more complicated direction. After all, last year's Mockingjay - Part 1 turned the people's wartime hero into a propaganda mouthpiece (albeit only begrudgingly on her part), and did so presumably as part of the noble cause - a noble cause that we've begun to suspect may not be entirely as noble as its most strident advocates would like us to believe.
As suggested earlier, there's an intriguing political wisdom in play here in terms of the way it considers revolution (philosophically, militarily, emotionally). It directly examines the theatre of it and the power structure that it necessitates - and all the corrupting influences therein. Mockingjay isn't saying anything radical about oligarchy, or showing us anything about the politics of rebellion or social upheaval that we don't already know. But it is unusual in its context. Popcorn dystopias aimed at teens bear little responsibility to be fully grounded in the realities of human nature. No matter the horrors that may unfold (usually as bloodlessly as possible), we expect and accept a definitively uplifting result. More importantly, we expect the stakes to remain the same. The villain is the villain, the goal is the goal.
For all the faults and frustrations I've had at times with the Hunger Games franchise, it's impressively unsatisfied with those expectations. The objectives so clearly established in the first movie or two have been drastically transformed by the fourth film. The realities of the situation have been altered; the adversaries are less clear; the endgame gets more and more cloudy. There's something to be said for a climactic blockbuster that feels as downbeat as this one does.
I can't say The Hunger Games is a wholly successful franchise - far from it. But I can't accuse it of playing it safe, either. At least not anymore. A movie like this one, with the thoughtfulness and cynicism that drive it even against its more happier, more digestible possibilities, has real value. In a climate of largely homogenized blockbuster cinema, a movie that takes the chances that both parts of Mockingjay have, with varying degrees of success, is worth something.