The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Opens November 20
It’s probably dirty pool to bring up what an ad campaign says about a movie, but bear with me for a moment: ads for the second part of Mockingjay, the final film in the Hunger Games quadrilogy (an appropriately made-up word for a thing that usually shouldn’t exist), suggest that “nothing can prepare you” for the way it ends, a tagline equal parts 50s hucksterism and current-day Buzzfeed headline. In fact, several things can prepare you for the way the Hunger Games saga ends, most notably the Hunger Games books, specifically Mockingjay, the back half of which serves as the basis for this film (tickets to the first half sold separately, a year ago). But on a pure narrative level, yeah, the way this series wraps up has some unexpected turns, particularly in the way it asks what might happen to a revolutionary catalyst and propaganda symbol after the first shots are fired.
Beyond plot, though, viewers of Mockingjay Part 2 should be entirely prepared for the end if they’ve seen Mockingjay Part 1, because this well-made, fairly intelligent, and often engaging movie suffers from the exact same problem that its predecessor did: It’s half a movie, pumped up rather than streamlined in a dual act of misguided text-faithfulness and fiscal aggression. The second half could have overcome these problems, but the odds were not in its favor.
Most frustrating, director Francis Lawrence reaches above his journeyman station with these movies. He has the confidence, for example, to begin a blockbuster finale to a blockbuster series with a quiet shot of Katniss Everdeen’s, which is to say Jennifer Lawrence’s, face. She’s just been attacked by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her cohort in the barbaric Hunger Games and subsequent revolution; he was captured by the Capitol and brainwashed in the previous installment. Now he’s been rescued, but something in his brain tells him he needs to kill the girl he loves (some of his experiment-fueled ranting sounds a little like the language of a bitter, spurned nerd lashing out against the popular girl he crushes on). Speaking with a doctor about her injuries, Lawrence regains her voice slowly, sounding bruised and hoarse as she practices reciting her name. Though these movies have opportunity for big action sequences, they rarely blast off with one, and indeed, much of Mockingjay Part Two is mournful and talky.
The refreshing quiet, though, sometimes turns somnolent; there are lots of shots of Gale (Hemsworth the Lesser) looking at Katniss as she looks away, lost in thought. Katniss is groomed to be the face of a revolution against the cruel Capitol, led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland); she’s more interested in fighting than symbolizing the hope of the fractured country. I understand her concern, because in this telling, Katniss herself sometimes feels more symbolic than personal. At least she has Jennifer Lawrence bringing her to life; the other characters are not so lucky, which is not to say the supporting actors aren’t up to it (though Hemsworth remains steadfast in his dullness)—just that they aren’t afforded the same attention as Katniss. Lawrence and his screenwriters fail to tease out personal moments from the supporting players, beyond some stray moments with Peeta, or Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), the reformed guru of Hunger Games participants, and maybe a moment or two with Katniss’s mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). But there are plenty of other characters lurking around as Katniss goes on a protracted mission to invade the Capitol and maybe kill Snow; the movie can’t afford to cut any of them, lest it reveal that this isn’t really much story for a full movie. So instead they all stand around in the shadows, coming most alive during the few action sequences, like a nasty and exciting battle in the Capitol sewers with zombie-like “mutts” popping out everywhere. Lawrence shoots this stuff well, and he continues his recurring following shots of Lawrence, along with the tradition of composing shots that get cut off just a little too soon to really burn in.
When it gets to its final stretch—the one that nothing except books or Wikipedia or other movies can prepare you for—Mockingjay Part 2 is well-prepared for what might strike non-fans (or even some actual fans) as anticlimax; this isn’t a series that ends with a big kaboom, and the movies have spent enough in this world to slow down and live in the aftermath of revolution. It might be more effective, though, if the movie also didn’t start a little slow. And have some slow moments in the middle, moments that would pop more if they weren’t so filled with characters standing around taking turns speaking. Make it more about Peeta, make it more about Katniss’s sister Prim, make it more about Julianne Moore’s imperious replacement leader Coin; make it about something more than making sure as many book characters as possible turn up.
But really, Mockingjay Part 2 gets off to a slow start because the start already happened last time around; it’s a victim of the new middling process, where narratives have to be extended at least one unit beyond their source material. As good as both parts of the Mockingjay movie are, they would have been better together, as one (say) 150-minute film, rather than two movies that run well over four hours put together. There are obvious cuts to make: characters who don’t stand out from the crowded cast, scenes where Katniss wakes up dazed in a hospital bed. But Lawrence’s generally solid filmmaking can’t make any of those slices when there are two movies to fill. (I suppose the screenplay could have gone in the other direction, elaboration further on the spare writing of author Suzanne Collins, but even the best YA adaptations are curiously cautious about adding new material that fans won’t already know, despite the very real surprise and delight it could offer to those fans.) The best material from both Mockingjay movies could have been culled into the best of the series. Instead, the films end with potentially redundant part two Catching Fire holding that honor—maybe because there, at least the middling came already built-in.