This is how the Hunger Games ends, not with a bang but with a whimper. The series, which has been one of my favorites of the modern era, comes to its conclusion with what is easily the worst entry, a film that is monotonous and dismally paced. It’s a movie that has the ingredients to be good - the plot points are there - but that never has the wherewithal to come alive.
Some have complained that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 was half a movie, but I quite liked it. I’m okay with incomplete narratives, and I enjoyed the way the film was allowed to slow down and explore the fallout of Katniss’ experiences in the Hunger Games. It was a movie about characters first and foremost, and it laid bare the mechanics of modern warfare and psyops in a way that was sophisticated for a Hollywood film, let alone a YA adaptation. This wasn’t your standard kiddie movie, and it definitely wasn’t your standard blockbuster.
I enjoyed that film’s more languid pace because I assumed it allowed Part 2 to be the more hyperkinetic of the two; we had spent two-plus hours luxuriating in the first two acts of a story (the two films are based on one book, which had been sliced in half) so clearly Part 2 would be act three, an extended climax. Imagine my surprise when the first hour of Part 2 was just more of the same as Part 1 - a lot of talking, a lot of moping, a lot of Katniss making no choices whatsoever. Then in the middle of Part 2 there’s a truly thrilling action sequence in a sewer… but that’s it. The film returns to its glum slowness, and if anything further marginalizes our heroine from the story.
First things first: there may be things that could be seen as slight spoilers ahead. I don’t want to ruin the experience of the film for anyone but at the same time it’s impossible to talk about why the film doesn’t work without talking about some of the things that do not work, and many of them are at the end.
Mockingjay Part 2 is about an anticlimax. That’s part of the point. The story by Suzanne Collins isn’t about a glorious victory, but rather a hollow one, a victory that perhaps doesn’t rationalize the bloodshed that earned it. This is a story that is very ambivalent about revolution, that is exhausted by conflict. On some level a story with these themes will have anticlimactic elements to it, but I have to believe there’s a way to explore this concept that manages to be actually thrilling, even if the rug is pulled out from under us at the end.
What went wrong with Mockingjay Part 2 is fidelity to the source material. Instead of fixing what doesn’t work, the script incorporates it all. This means Katniss becomes a bizarrely passive figure, standing around in a succession of scenes at the end of the film where people explain to her what happened and who has been playing games with her all along. She doesn’t discover anything; her one moment of self-determination - leading a group into the Capitol to assassinate President Snow - is completely undercut by the events of the film. Her big scene with President Snow (Donald Sutherland at his most magnetically wicked) sees Katniss just standing there while he monologues at her. She doesn’t even pick which of the two boys she ends up with - one just shows up at the end of the movie and she stays with him!
That’s part of the film’s major problem as well; the last two films downplayed the romance angle, a smart move in a series where neither of the male romantic leads have a surfeit of charisma. But now here, at the end of all things, that business has to be dialed back up and it never feels natural or true. There are no sparks between Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, and the way Lawrence looks at Liam Hemsworth is the same way you or I would look at a very big, very dumb puppy. As these two lumps take center stage so much of the series’ political urgency slips into the background.
Lawrence herself seems beyond bored; Katniss spends a lot of the film vacant eyed and quiet, the girl on fire long since extinguished. It’s easy to see how this is a function of the story’s own exhaustion but it doesn’t play on screen as Katniss at the end of her rope but rather like the whole production has realized it’s overstayed its welcome by one motion picture. I have loved Katniss Everdeen and I have loved the way Jennifer Lawrence played her as a combination of terrified and stubbornly brave, but all that she has in Mockingjay Part 2 is weariness.
There is a big action set piece in the middle of the film, a scene where CGI monster people (director Francis Lawrence one-upping his own I Am Legend) brutally attack our ragtag group of heroes in a sequence clearly modeled on Aliens (Katniss is even holding a scifi Beeping Machine). I loved this bit, and some of the action here is exciting and vicious, but Lawrence doesn’t take his time with this stuff. The film has maybe two action scenes (three if we’re being really generous) but he rushes through them, and even though characters die - real, major characters! - there’s no time to feel the loss. Other characters are introduced only to get knocked off like cannon fodder, and it seems to me that a movie clocking in at almost two and a half hours with so little incident could have found time to flesh out these goners. Just a little. Give them a line or something.
As Mockingjay staggers to its conclusion, Katniss sidelined not just from the action but from any personal agency (and often unconscious), the movie’s final arguments - which would sound incredibly cool and devastating and ballsy if I wrote them out here - become wan checkmarks as the film trudges to the end credits. Philosophically cataclysmic things happen at the end of this movie, but they’re largely brushed aside, never given dramatic weight. The film spends ponderous time on Katniss sitting in the dark between her two boyfriends and then blithely skips past major political moments - a sin that the series had never before committed.
Those scenes of Katniss dealing with her boys - with Gale, who has become a hardened military man and with Peeta, who has become a twitchy PTSD case who could be in a psycho Vietnam vet movie from the 70s - come at the expense of the pacing of the film. Katniss leads her team through the Capitol, avoiding traps laid by the gamemasters, but rather than make this a propulsive chase through dangerous city blocks and dark sewer tunnels, Mockingjay Part 2 opts to make it a multi-day slog, with plenty of rest stops along the way. When the group rests for the third time I wondered who the fuck thought this was a good idea, giving this final run all the energy of Frodo and Sam crawling into Mordor.
I’ve been a major fan of this series since the first film, calling it ‘the science fiction film of the Occupy movement.” I’ve enjoyed each of the films more than the last, and the trajectory of quality left me hopeful for the final moments of the story. Maybe in the future, when I’ve watched both parts of Mockingjay back-to-back I’ll find the momentum in Part 2 and the pacing won’t feel clumsy and lurching, but I doubt it. The film takes its time in the least interesting moments while speeding through the drama, and no amount of marathon bingeing will fix that.
So it is as a huge fan of The Hunger Games that I must say The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is a dismal conclusion for a great series, a movie that feels as wrung out and bored as its main character. Meet the new franchise, just as disappointing as the old franchise.