Hunger Games, based on the first of Suzanne Collins's three taut novels, was a bracing dystopian drama, hypnotically terrifying in its assured depiction of a society that used children for blood sport. It was a feat that the first sequel, Catching Fire, largely repeated—it lacked the initial installment's spark but compensated with craft. The third movie, continuing an artistically dubious but commercially inviolable studio practice, covered roughly half of Collins's final book, Mockingjay; it struggled to infuse energy into relatively lifeless material, but it nevertheless had its virtues, with strong performances from a phenomenal cast and an electric final 20 minutes.
And now we've come to the end with Mockingjay, Part 2, which ought to bring the franchise to a
bold and powerful conclusion. Instead, this fourth and final film feels
woefully inert, not only lacking in excitement and intrigue, but also
missing the reliable filmmaking competence that suffused the prior
entries. It's as if the director, Francis Lawrence, who has helmed each
of the three sequels (the original was made by the enigmatic Gary Ross),
simply became too exhausted with the labor of transmuting Collins's
terse prose into moving pictures. The most damning thing about Mockingjay 2
isn't that it's bad—it's that it feels so tired. The franchise may have
its faults, but it galvanized a legion of teenagers with its punchy
themes and robust storytelling. It deserved better than to go out with
such a pitiful whimper.
If I take issue with the ending of Mockingjay 2, I can't quarrel with its beginning, as it
doesn't really have one. This is one of the few benefits of the
bifurcated approach—because the first half of the movie has already
taken place, Lawrence is liberated from the typical requirement of
exposition and can immediately get down to business. In this case, that
involves considering the reaction of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer
Lawrence, still hard at work), who is in turn stymied by the behavior of
Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her sorta lover who is now obsessed with
killing her. Peeta spent most of Part 1 locked up in the Capitol,
the embodiment of autocratic rule; although he was eventually rescued
and brought to District 13, the center of the rebellion, his mind
appears to have been reprogrammed. Where he once looked at Katniss with
adoration, now his eyes show only hatred.
At least, that's the idea; the execution is another matter. Mockingjay 2
has plenty of problems—sluggish pacing, sloppy writing, anemic
action—but its most crippling flaw is its bungling of Peeta. The theory
is that he is a constant threat, a sleeper agent at war with himself.
Yet Lawrence never comes close to articulating Peeta's perpetual
struggle. For most of the movie, he seems like his normal decent self,
only to occasionally say something really mean or do something really
dangerous. This may make him unpredictable, but it doesn't render him
interesting, just random. For the central conflict of Mockingjay 2 to work, we need to be able to discern Peeta's
emotional turmoil, even when the character himself is confounded.
Instead, we're stuck watching an intermittently homicidal mope.
Hutcherson is a fine actor, but he can't hope to convey Peeta's inner
torment when Lawrence fails to understand it himself.
Like most of Mockingjay 2, this is an intriguing idea that goes
nowhere. There is certainly a discussion to be had about the politics of
warfare, of the cost of sending soldiers to die for a cause. But while
the novel grapples with this concept, adding resonance to a fairly thin
story, the movie simply feints at it, then moves on. Similarly, the film
never satisfactorily delves into the shadowy nature of Coin's strategy;
as a result, a climactic scene, however nicely staged, is robbed of its
purported power. It is odd that such a scrupulously faithful rendering
of Collins's book (the screenplay is by Peter Craig and Danny Strong)
fails to capture its most interesting elements.
About that faithfulness: It's tempting to blame Mockingjay 2's
inadequacies on the shortcomings of Collins's novel, or on the
filmmakers' slavish adherence to their source. But the prior film
adaptations in the Hunger Games franchise all exhibited similar fidelity to the
books, and they still worked as accomplished movies. Here, however,
Lawrence's direction feels stiff, and you get the sense that you're
simply watching well-paid professionals playact their way through a
generously budgeted stage production. Some of the special effects are
surprisingly poor—a scene in which the characters flee from encroaching
oil is laughable—while the lighting is often too dark to properly
clarify the action. Even the movie's most vigorous sequence, an
underground battle against frenzied monsters (reminiscent of the
nocturnal mutants from Lawrence's I Am Legend), suffers from
frenetic camerawork and murky confusion. As fate would have it, the
film's most lasting image is accidental in its impact: At one point, the
camera depicts a crush of refugees descending en masse upon a grand
white house, seeking succor.
Philip Seymour Hoffman
in his final screen appearance; bitterly, the film generates its
sharpest sting when you realize that Woody Harrelson (also wasted) is
literally reading lines clearly meant for Hoffman's character.) Indeed,
with the exceptions of Moore, Sam Claflin (as a trident-wielding
warrior), and newcomer Michelle Forbes (as a rugged lieutenant), the
supremely talented cast struggles to communicate their characters'
intelligence, their desires, and their fears. Even Jennifer Lawrence,
the franchise's unshakable pillar, seems tired this time out, perhaps
weary from lugging that bow-and-arrow around for so long.
Throughout the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is referred to as
"the girl on fire". It's an evocative tagline, one that the first film
brought to dazzling visual life. But there is no heat to Mockingjay 2,
no sense that it is doing anything beyond dutifully serving the fans
that transformed this modest franchise into a box-office sensation.
There have undoubtedly been worse movies released this year, but maybe
none that feel quite so deflating. The final Hunger Games film isn't on fire. It's just a few dully glowing embers, waiting to be mercifully snuffed out.