I’ve had an interesting relationship with The Hunger Games film series. The first (and titular) entry caught my attention for bringing Suzanne Collins’ dystopian world to such initially vibrant life, but director Gary Ross’ shaky camerawork kept me from lauding the film too heavily. Francis Lawrence took up the directing reigns afterward, and crafted Catching Fire into a film whose gripping action and emotional narrative vastly improved upon its source. I swooned, and believed that these adaptations could do no wrong.
Mockingjay – Part 1 was a heartbreaker. Its drearily circular story left me frustrated, and not just because the film lacked a climax. The movie felt like an overt cash-in, a two-hour advertisement promising a revolution that never arrived. When I walked out of the theater I felt cheated, and soon afterward wrote a scathing review to fully express my scorn. I considered myself finished with the series.
After my breakup with The Hunger Games, I took time to see many different types of movies. I enjoyed unique stories and made some good memories, learned lessons after certain bad viewing experiences, and even felt moments of genuine inspiration. One year later, I felt like a different kind of moviegoer—a little more aware of what I do and don’t like in cinema.
When The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 opened in theaters, I knew that I needed to see it, if for nothing else, to get some closure on my feelings toward the franchise. I’m glad that I did. Mockingjay – Part 2 is a make-up movie, a bittersweet but ultimately satisfying conclusion to an intense series.
Francis Lawrence takes some time to regain his more triumphant directorial footing, and I don’t blame him. Mockingjay – Part 2 begins immediately where Part 1 left off: in the stifling caverns of District 13. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has just survived a brainwashed Peeta’s (Josh Hutcherson) attempt to strangle her. The camera focuses on her graphically bruised neck as she wheezes her voice back with a nurse’s help.
When the Mockingjay can speak again, she traipses around the compound and talks sporadically to District 13’s President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Head Gamemaker-turned-rebel Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in a looping fashion similar to that which dragged down Mockingjay – Part 1. Thankfully, Part 2 quickly gets Katniss out of this dismal district and onto more important things. She travels with the rebels to encourage District 2 to turn against the Capitol, then volunteers to assassinate President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
Mockingjay – Part 2 packs an extensive amount of violence into its PG-13 rating, which perhaps is to be expected from the finale to a post-apocalyptic story. When Katniss and her team infiltrate the Capitol in pursuit of Snow’s mansion, they dodge obstacles called “pods”—deathtraps that take various forms including giant automated machine guns, fireballs and a bizarre black goo that chases and impales anyone it catches. The graphic images feel justified rather than gratuitous.
Lawrence noticeably heightens the stakes, and his commitment to the carnage and calamity of war—albeit framed distinctly through a YA lens—kept me constantly engaged. He also juggles clashing tones rather well; the film transitions seamlessly between progressively bleaker scenes, but still maintains a thread of hope that I could hold onto. Dialogue weaves in hopeful platitudes amid wearier sentiments from the revolutionaries, and cinematographer Jo Willems’ camerawork offers a sense of intimacy amid the chaos.
One notable sequence takes place after Finnick’s (Sam Claflin) wedding to Annie (Stef Dawson), a fellow Hunger Games victor. Katniss joins her sister, Prim (Willow Shields) at the after-party. Lawrence spins the camera around them, slowly pulling into a tighter shot as they switch from dancing to tightly embracing one another, their smiles vanishing behind expressions of pure fear. The sequence devastated me—it succinctly demonstrated the emotional toll the Games and their aftermath have taken on these siblings.
Katniss has been pushed to her breaking point and she’s out for blood, but the film subtly and intriguingly comments on how the audience, in-universe and out, is conditioned to idolize figures like her. In one scene, she speaks to Johanna (Jena Malone), a gruff fellow victor, about her status as a symbol. Johanna calls Katniss “hard to swallow,” so Katniss tells her, “You should’ve been the Mockingjay.” Johanna rejects this. “Nobody likes me,” she says.
The film seems to suggest that Katniss’ revolutionary brand is successful because, despite its barbed nature, it’s still the easiest to stomach. No matter who she alienates, she remains the face that people can rally behind because her image exceeds her. In the film’s view, Katniss’ wounded persona and unwavering pursuit of justice make her the most marketable Mockingjay. She can sell the revolution.
Jennifer Lawrence delivers another commendable lead performance, and Julianne Moore is magnetically frightening as the increasingly pragmatic President Coin, but I am ecstatic to dole my more specific praise on Josh Hutcherson. Mockingjay – Part 2 finally gives the actor something to do, and he bites down hard on the nuances of his role. Hutcherson imbues Peeta with deep pathos – he sinks into the character’s recovering headspace, maintains a careful, stilted cadence when he speaks, and brings genuine feeling to his once emotionally vacant character.
This film complicates Peeta. He’s no longer the flatly helpful sidekick-cum-love interest from the first three movies. Peeta is tortured: he’s struggling to work through the moral and cerebral damage that the Capitol wrought on him in order to rebuild his grip on reality. His arc focuses on his desperate fight to deprogram himself and discern between true and twisted memories. His character forms a large part of the film’s emotional center.
I’m happy to note that Mockingjay – Part 2 wears its themes just as proudly on its sleeve as its predecessors did. The movie critiques the inherent harms in a capitalistic society (at least as heavily as a blockbuster franchise-ender can) by simultaneously emphasizing the intimate and large-scale havoc that President Snow—and anyone in a similar position of power—causes. Both the film’s heartstring-pulling and markedly graphic moments occur as smaller pieces of a cumulative consummation. The uprising that we were promised in Part 1 finally bursts into life.
Francis Lawrence evidently understands his past mistakes, balancing his own vision with adherence to the source material. I couldn’t help but smile during some of the film’s final scenes, which borrowed dialogue directly from the novel. These moments let Collins’ work speak for itself to tremendous effect, and moved me in a way I hadn’t expected.
In that sense, Mockingjay – Part 2 rekindled a flame that I had begun to think was lost. It made me reflect on how I’ve grown with the series, and how my feelings about it have changed. My view was skeptical going in, but the movie made me recognize that I can still enjoy this genre. That said, I’m not totally sure if The Hunger Games films and I are meant for each other, but it’s nice to be able to move forward on good terms.
Movie Verdict: Win
This article was published in its original form in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on November 30, 2015.