In what can only describe as an epic end to a cinematic legacy, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2″ is the final film in what has been a global phenomenon over the past decade, as moviegoers (and readers) the world over felt like they too, were citizens of the fictional Panem. Little girls now dream of being adventurous and strong like Katniss Everdeen or confident powerful fashionistas like Effie Trinket. We have watched alliances, friendships and trusts form, only to sometimes break. We have seen enemies become friends, and friends turn into enemies. We have felt each loss as fictional friends die valiantly, both in vain and in battle. The collective “Hunger Games” audience has shed countless tears and raised their own three-finger salutes to “The Mockingjay” time and time again. And many a night, girls around the world dreamed of Peeta Mellark and Gale Hawthorne. And now we must say good-bye.
To borrow from Sam Claflin’s character, Finnick Odair, “Welcome to the 76th Hunger Games”; and what a games these are, as the games have now turned into a full scale winner-take-all war and move from the arenas and bunkers into the streets of the Capitol of Panem and right up to the doorstep of President Snow with “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2″.
Picking up from the final frame of “Mockingjay – Part 1″, our heroine Katniss Everdeen (the face of the resistance as “The Mockingjay”) together with the coalition of District 13, have rescued Peeta, Annie and Johanna from the clutches of President Snow. As you may recall, Peeta was a District 12 “Hunger Games” victor along with Katniss; the two married and served as a great promotional front for The Capitol and President Snow – that is, until the uprising gained steam and Peeta and the others were captured and taken prisoner by Snow. Not one to merely stop and smell the roses, Snow employed every possible tactic of mind control to brainwash Peeta into believing Katniss is evil. And now that Peeta has been “rescued” and is in the hands of the resistance based in District 13, it remains to be seen if he can find his way back to sanity, reality and Katniss.
After a somewhat slow start, “Mockingjay – Part 2″ begins to pick up steam as the resistance gains ground in District 2 and a major battle plan designed by resistance leader Alma Coin and her right hand Plutarch Heavensbee, begins to take shape. They will attack the Capitol. But Katniss has other ideas.
Tired of being Coin’s puppet, Katniss starts to write her own script and determines to assassinate President Snow. Using Coin’s assignment of placing her in an elite squad with Gale Hawthorne (part of the Katniss-Peeta-Gale love triangle), Finnick Odair, squadron leader Boggs, some battle tried sisters, and the omnipresent video crew of Cressida, Pollux and Castor, Katniss bides her time waiting for the right moment to make her move. But adding to the mix and providing concern is a still very mentally unstable handcuffed Peeta who is along for trek.
Navigating their way through the booby-trapped streets of the Capitol, and into its underground sewers and hidden passages, the squad faces seemingly insurmountable odds – and tragic losses – but Katniss remains undeterred in her personal plan. And through it all, betrayals and truths come to light, all to horrific, and even surprising, result.
Throughout the four films we have seen Katniss motivated by love, motivated by vengeance, and manipulated, but now we actually see Katniss charting her own course, writing her own script. It’s refreshing (particularly after the histrionic blandness of Lawrence’s work in “Mockingjay – Part 1″) and allows Jennifer Lawrence the opportunity to stretch her emotional acting chops, something that is never more evident than in a climactic one-on-one opposite Donald Sutherland’s President Snow. Lawrence brings an all-seeing maturity to Katniss in this final installment that is intensely riveting and welcome.
And speaking of Sutherland, in that same climactic sequence opposite Lawrence, the power of his performance as Snow, the calm, the truth – simply brilliant. From beginning to end, Sutherland is deliciously droll, conveying an obvious personal relishing of the role.
Although beloved returning characters and cast are back for the finale, among them Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth as Peeta and Gale, respectively, and Willow Shields as Katniss’ devoted sister Primrose, one can’t help but wish to see more from Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch (although Harrelson does have one of the most emotional scenes in the film which was rewritten following the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman), Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickman, Jeffrey Wright’s Beetee and yes, Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket.
Particularly strong is Elden Henson is fabulous as the mute Pollux. With Henson’s facial expressiveness, there is no need for words and his engagement with Lawrence’s Katniss is touching. Similarly, Natalie Dormer’s filmmaker Cressida is a kick in the ass with a seriousness that anyone given knowledge of filmmakers will find a bit humorous in the character’s intensity.
Standout in the Peter Craig-Danny Strong script is the continuing strength of the female characters beyond Katniss, which serves as the foothold for the film’s most emotionally sonorant scenes, particularly when any of the girls get together. But for the work of Sutherland and Harrelson, the real strength of “Mockingjay – Part 2″ comes from the women, not the men.
As Johanna Mason, Jena Malone knocks it out of the park with humor. Malone’s satiric timing and rapier delivery elevates not only the character, but places her on equal footing with Jennifer Lawrence in her abilities. Malone gets to play with Johanna’s “madness” and does so to great aplomb. Lawrence may be the go-to action girl, but Malone is the go-to with slice and dice dialogue delivery. New to “Mockingjay – Part 2″ is the appearance of Tigris, a friend to Cressida who aids Katniss, Gale and Peeta in their most desperate moments. Under heavy make-up, Eugenie Bondurant brings a proud, yet oppressed and fearful elegance to the role. Sadly, Elizabeth Banks’ Effie takes more of a back seat in this installment, but she is still a very prominent presence in terms of emotional story beats.
For producer Nina Jacobson, Effie Trinket has always been a favorite in the franchise as Effie “humanizes the Capitol in a way. . .You don’t generally like the folks from the Capitol. They’re our enemy in the stories and the villain and they’re villainized. And yet, her experience first hand of getting to know Peeta and Katniss and becoming acquainted with the humanity of the oppressed . . .brings a perspective to what it’s like to be part of the ruling class in a way that would be very easy to be dismissive of.” While Effie has previously been expanded beyond the books, here the character is essentially returned back to author Suzanne Collins’ printed pages.
And of course, there’s Julianne Moore who does commanding controlling bitchiness of Alma Coin with such a cool confidence. Thankfully, hair and make-up this go round have eliminated the long grey straight tresses and bobbed the hair to a sleek manageable shoulder that adds an additional edge to the character and Moore’s performance.
Under Francis Lawrence’s direction, the Craig-Strong script brings the franchise full circle not only with visuals, but the emotional beats as well, leading to some defining moments of poignant emotional beauty. Key is the shift in Katniss’ perspective as she is no longer “just reacting” to circumstance, but rather taking control and writing her own narrative, so to speak. Moral dilemmas are at the forefront of character and story development which add new depth and resonant consequences. There is new sense of questioning; nothing is black and white. Sadly, as in “Mockingjay – Part 1″, much of the dialogue is again fractured and uncomfortable, quite often feeling as an after-thought to the action and images and ill-suited for some of the characters. Having said that, I applaud the team for juggling all the characters – new and old – to insure that even if only a glimpse, everyone gets to partake in this final chapter.
With the visuals of “Mockingjay – Part 2″, there is a great sense of scale and scope and grandeur, yet director Lawrence never loses sight of the intimacy of Katniss’s journey and growth and the cost of being a hero. Pacing is methodical, calculated, allowing the audience time to absorb the story and all the moving parts and plans.
Interesting progression of lighting and lensing by cinematographer Jo Willems through his work on this franchise from “Catching Fire” to “Mockingjay – Part 2″, with this final installment often feeling like individual chapters that should be serialized as opposed to being a cohesive unit. There’s no doubt that the visuals are beautiful, even the black, grey and brown hues and textures of a bombed out dystopian Capitol and especially when viewed in conjunction with the purity of a fresh-fallen snow and the vibrant greens of President Snow’s rose conservatory. Exceptional is the soft golden sunlight, colorful leaves, burnished tones of tall wheat grass set against blue skies and green grass with pops of floral color. You feel at peace. You feel hopeful. Every one of Willem’s shots strikes and emotional chord, hits the right emotional beat, but there is a permeating lack of cohesion put together. Where Willems really finds the right footing is by placing the camera either over Lawrence’s shoulder to give us Katniss’s POV or reactive shots tight on her face, as in the showdown between Katniss and Snow or Katniss and Gale. Suffice to say that this would not have been as effective even two films ago as Lawrence’s growth as an actress and maturity over the years now enables her to provide the emotional gravitas necessary to convey emotions registering on her face. Crane shots are exceptional and judiciously used.
Taking the story underground opens up an entirely new world for “Mockingjay – Part 2″ where new threats lurk and special effects and creature creation shine. Notable is the appearance of these new underground blind mutated humanoid beasts of President Snow, harkening to those created in “”The Descent” some years ago, not to mention Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” with the look of “The First Evil” and by series end, the Turok-Han ubervamps. Nice visual influence for the metaphor of evil.
Action sequences are tight and well choreographed, especially in the sewer scenes and when battling in floods of thick oil.
When it comes to the James Newton Howard’s score, however, I am a bit surprised. Feeling a bit uneven, the score is never sweeping, never feeling climactic, but for being almost bombastic in the underground scenes. Music during the final scenes of the third act are quite soft and tender, serene; something we haven’t experienced in the franchise but for scant moments here and there. Even in explosive battle moments though, the score, although present, is overshadowed by sound design reliant on pyrotechnics, hovercraft engines and screams.
One thing that ultimately stands out is a memorable statement by Alma Coin: Katniss is just a face plucked from the crowd. True enough. As we have seen throughout the franchise, alone Katniss is nothing extraordinary, but give her family, give her loved ones, give her herself, and she rises like a phoenix to extraordinary heights. And that, is the power of “The Hunger Games.”
“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2″ may not be the best film of the franchise, and it may seem a little lackluster as an ending for a franchise as epic as this, but it serves the franchise, the books and Katniss Everdeen well. This is the perfect ending for this legacy.
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong based on the book “Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Willow Shields, Jeffrey Wright, Julianne Moore, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone