REVIEW: 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2' badly needs its first half
Whenever a major movie series comes to an end, it’s common to see reviews that proclaim the final film as a “satisfying conclusion” or “fitting goodbye”. There’s something about reaching the end of a story that grants some built-in goodwill among viewers and critics; a kind of catharsis in the tradition of Greek drama. It’s as though the film in question can do no wrong - because we finally see how everything plays out, we think more highly of it.
Is that really a good idea? In the case of blockbuster franchises, I’m not so sure. Think about some of the big series-ending films of the past decade: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (back when we thought it was the last Star Wars film) or even The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn. If you check on RottenTomatoes, the final entries tend to have significantly higher scores than their immediate predecessors.
So here we are in 2015, and the Hunger Games series is the latest to reach the end. Like Harry Potter and Twilight, it’s based on a beloved book series (though it’s worth noting that the series is more in league with Potter’s quality than Twilight). And like many bestselling books adapted into movies, the producers have seen fit to split the final book across two films. Their reasons for doing it are perfectly understandable from a profit-driving point of view, but how should moviegoers react to the films that result? Does Mockingjay - Part 2 deserve more love simply because it caps off the story?
It all comes down to the way you watch movies. In my case, I look at them like distinct units. Bluntly, a film is a film - no matter if you add a Part 17 subtitle or package it up under a banner like The Divergent Series: Incessant or The Twilight Saga: General Anesthetic. So if a film gets released that doesn’t resemble a complete film, I get kind of annoyed (can you tell?).
That’s exactly what we get with Mockingjay - Part 2. For all the things the series gets right - its strong casting, weighty themes, sharp production design - the split structure just feels wrong. I have a hard time forgiving a film that assumes I’m so much of a fan that after a year since Part 1, I remember all the characters, mythology and story progression and can jump right back in. If I wanted an arc that serialized, I’d have preferred to watch The Hunger Games as a Netflix Original - at least we’d have the benefit of a “Previously on…” segment to help us catch up.
Nevertheless, the opening of Mockingjay - Part 2 drops us right into the scene directly after the ending of Part 1: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is recovering from a surprise attack by her friend Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who has been brutally brainwashed by the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland). In spite of this, Katniss is called on once again to lead the fight against Snow and help the rebels in the districts of Panem form a democratic government.
Even though Katniss is barely 18 years old, she must struggle with the responsibility to not only be the face of a movement, but to decide how the new world order she’s pressing for will operate. She’s desperate to keep the cycle of violence from continuing under a new leader, and has to hope that all the friends she’s lost over the years have died for a reason. Having relayed all that, perhaps pointing out the serious tone in the series was an understatement.
On a production level, this scenario is presented in the polished style we’ve come to expect from the film series. Gone are the days of director Gary Ross’ misguided shaky-cam style from the first film. Instead, Francis Lawrence, who’s helmed these movies since the second installment Catching Fire, approaches the story confidently. He even allows himself to build up the tension more than I’m used to seeing in the series: a scene involving the heroes being ambushed by a pack of mutants in a sewer is one of the spookier, more carefully planned sequences in the whole franchise.
No matter how effective that scene is, it ends up getting lost in the grind of the rest of the movie. It’s a side effect of the story being split: since we’ve lost the rising action that’s largely confined to Part 1, the bulk of Part 2 feels like one long third act. The film queues up chase scenes one after the other, separated by conversations between characters meant to deliver exposition or comment on the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and their District 12 comrade Gale (Liam Hemsworth). By the end, I ended up relating a little too well to the exhaustion of the characters. Like them, I felt like I’d just been through a war, and I’d only been sitting in a theatre seat for a couple of hours.
The only problem with questioning a final installment in a highly anticipated series is that it’s of limited use to long-time fans of the franchise. You can hardly expect someone to avoid Mockingjay - Part 2 if they’ve been watching faithfully all this time.
The hope, though, is that highlighting the pitfalls of two-part filmmaking inspires fans and new viewers alike to be less passive in their viewing habits. If The Hunger Games could be better represented as a serialized TV show, maybe it should have been done that way from the start. And whereas that might have been a tall order in 2012 when the movie series began, the “peak TV” climate we now find ourselves in is an example of how bold the industry can be with its storytelling, and how we can avoid unbalanced releases like Mockingjay.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 gets two stars out of four.
What did you think of the final Hunger Games film? Was I too harsh in my critique of two-part finales? Is this really the end of the series, or may we soon see a shared universe in the style of Marvel or Harry Potter? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!