So, why did Mockingjay, the final installment of The Hunger Games, need to be split into two movies? Last fall’s pokily paced Part 1 didn’t answer the question, and now here is Part 2, a disappointing movie that’s terribly padded and all too lacking in urgency. The split-a-movie-in-half technique has worked in franchises past (see the last two Harry Potters), but with The Hunger Games there seems to have been no reason to bisect this story other than to honor the studio accounting truism that four Hunger Games films are better than three. Taken in totality, Mockingjay is a curious beast: a five-hour, all-too-faithful adaptation of the weakest novel in Suzanne Collins’ book trilogy, with plenty of time given to iffy love triangles, weak plot logic, clumsy world-building and anti-climaxes. Up until now, the films have been triumphs over their novel counterparts, and there was plenty of room here to improve Collins’ lumpy finale, but this opportunity has not been seized.
That’s unfortunate, because Mockingjay is a narrative that admirably wants to be about something. It’s a meditation on the differences between symbols, heroes and martyrs. It adds some welcome grown-up realpolitik to the series’ recipe of acidic media satire. It’s key narrative trajectory, that of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) discarding her role as the rebellion’s public mouthpiece and joining with a squad of soldiers on a fabricated suicide mission to assassinate fascist President Snow (Donald Sutherland, delightfully evil) is nicely fatalistic. The story cleverly conceives the trek to the Capitol as a series of futuristic IEDs that work like deadly, diabolical booby traps–the hunger games all over again, in other words. When Mockingjay remembers to have action sequences, like during a virtuoso set piece in a sewer tunnel populated by murderous mutants, it really does a good job. And the plot deliberately dares to conclude a story of rebellion with knowing and cynical dissatisfaction.
But Mockingjay is also too much an unremittingly dour movie that muscles Katniss out of her own story by making her passive and emotionally hollow. The point here is that Katniss is becoming a mere propaganda tool of an untrustworthy dissident movement, and the only agency she secures for herself is through deceptions that have fatal repercussions for those around her. But so much of Mockingjay is about an emotionally distant Katniss being told things after the fact, and of having reactions so muted they sometimes ultimately fail to register. If the previous movies were about a person wrestling with becoming a symbol, then Part 2 is about a symbol who has forgotten how to be human. It possesses a mostly unengaging air, made worse by flat staging (especially in a ludicrously signposted climax).
It doesn’t help that the series’ lively MVPs (Elizabeth Banks as the pretentious Effie Trinket, Stanley Tucci as the oily TV journalist Caesar, etc) are given mere bit parts, and the untimely death of principal actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman is awkwardly worked around. Indeed, the most important side roles here are the two sides of her prerequisite Young Adult Fiction love triangle, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Gale is a brooding nonentity, while Peeta, even in the brainwashed state that he was found in at the end of Mockingjay I, lacks all manner of charisma. Lawrence is arguably one of the best actresses of her generation, and in a way that’s the problem: she and the franchise’s directors (Gary Ross for the first, Francis Lawrence for all others since) have successfully created such a capable and forceful heroine (stronger than the book Katniss) that it defies all reason she would settle for either of these dullards. She doesn’t seem to need them. This matters most during the unconvincing denouement, which tries to touch the poetic, and it doesn’t work.
For such an important franchise that the Hunger Games turned out to be (and it still runs circles around the Maze Runners and Divergents of the world), it’s a shame this one fizzles as much as it does. Katniss Everdeen may be the girl on fire, but she deserved an ending that’s more than a pile of wet leaves.