Feature film

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2 Review: For Love, and For Sequential Storytelling

Monday, November 30, 2015 Rob Samuelson

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Peter Craig, Danny Strong, Suzanne Collins
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore
Rating: Three and a half stars out of five
Available in theaters now.

The Hunger Games series, on its surface, reflects the cultural fears of a society bombarded with tracking and surveillance from every corner. Institutions that were already powerful only seem to grow exponentially, and stories like those of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) serve as reminders that we should not allow such power grabs to occur. But those themes represent negativity in the literal sense. They are about preventing and/or taking away something. “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” in this case a totalitarian governing system trying to somehow gain more totality and being pushed back against by a citizenry, led by a teenager with a superhuman level of calmness, that has had enough.

Those themes and plot machinations are powerful in themselves, but they are not what makes the Hunger Games movies, including this final installment, Mockingjay – Part 2, special in an aspirational sense. If these films were merely about government overreach, the brutality and cunning greed of the powerful, and the tolls exacted by physical and emotional trauma, they would be, at best, distanced and academic, and at worst, propaganda for the paranoid. They would only be about the removal of something, a punishment of those in power for their hubris and cruelty. They would offer nothing to build on, nothing to latch onto besides base self-preservation.

But the series goes further than that, and thanks to the heavy lifting of the earlier entries, Mockingjay – Part 2 gets to use as a shorthand the themes that make this saga resonate: the various types of love a person can have for others, and the ways those loves can motivate one to react with a semblance of grace to a world of hostile stimuli. This time out, the grand gestures of the earlier films – “I volunteer as tribute” and numerous other sacrifices made to protect the friends and families of various characters – are subtext, largely unspoken but understood by the protagonist and her immediate support group.

There exists romantic love, between Katniss and her lifelong friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and between Katniss and Josh Hutcherson's Peeta, with whom she has shared experiences nobody but the two of them can understand. There are degrees to which these loves differ, of course. But beneath the battered, traumatized stress of the civil war they find themselves embroiled in, there are hints of “butterflies in the stomach” happiness one finds with their partners. Finding a partner, however, is not the driving force of Katniss's heart, though, for her little sister, Primrose (Willow Shields) and mother (Paula Malcomson) are there to form a symbiotic relationship of give-and-take nurturing. When the hollowness takes over – having an actress of Lawrence's quality here really helps sell this, as you can see the longing for peace take over behind her eyes during quiet moments – for them, the others take over in measured, usually silent ways. Wordless hugs and concerned glances are the currency of reassurance in the Everdeen clan, and these are the things that will ring true for those watching the Hunger Games films for years to come.

Unfortunately, Mockingjay – Part 2 suffers from the same broken quality its predecessor did, more as a function of commerce than storytelling necessity. Both of these films feel arbitrarily stretched and chopped up in order to extend the series's moneymaking capability by another entry. This throws a wrench into the plans of the rising and falling action that naturally take place if they were created as a single movie. The first Mockingjay had the hook of exploring the importance of propaganda to both sides of a conflict, but the second lacks that juicy quality. In its place is fairly straightforward action that pays off the buildup of the previous films admirably, but it is missing the setup within itself to be a wholly satisfying individual story.

Director Francis Lawrence's attention to pacing within action set pieces, which was such a treat in the saga's second movie, Catching Fire, leaves a little to be desired. The death of a critical character comes perilously close to going unnoticed among a rapid-fire series of deaths by subterranean mutants' hands – the mutants' character designs are a nice shoutout to Neil Marshall's The Descent, though. The most important, gut-wrenching death of any Hunger Games film, though, is even closer to being wiped away by too-quick editing. If ever there were a moment to hold and really take an audience's breath away, this is the time. However, it's gone in the blink of an eye so the film can move onto the revenge sequence triggered by it – although the steady fatalism of the revenge is a subdued in a satisfactory way.

But Mockingjay – Part 2's saving grace is tied in with its faults. The longform storytelling of a series allows for the previous movies to act as prologue, meaning this one does not necessarily need to do all the heavy lifting on its own. Viewed as a singular piece of moviemaking, it's slightly deficient, but as part of a four-picture whole, its form is something to behold. The tension between those urges – single serving vs. prolonged arc – could probably be played more deftly, but the payoff of Mockingjay – Part 2 is strong enough to still be a success.

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