The Games Come to a Quiet Close in “Mockingjay Part II”

Few film series have captured the attentions of audiences around the world like The Hunger Games has since the release of the first film in 2012. Now, Mockingjay Part II closes the series and its many plot threads through a sometimes thrilling, yet often underwhelming, action-focused finale.

Picking directly up where Mockingjay Part I ended, the finale to The Hunger Games Series sees heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) embroiled in the war to free the country of Panem from the rule of President Snow and The Capitol. In a brutal battle to reach her target, Katniss must fight her way through countless dangers while confronting her feelings for the two men in her life – childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and fellow Hunger Games winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

It should not come as a surprise that since Mockingjay Part II is the result of the source material being cleaved in half for the sake of making it into two parts, this film is far from a stand-alone. Rather, this series capper makes little to no effort at all to reestablish characters or inform the emotional context of any action happening on screen. Any feelings that a viewer has whatsoever for any character involved here is the direct result of films past, not this one. While that may work for some who are totally invested, it certainly does not do the developments here any favors. As Mockingjay Part II is wholly focused on bringing the series to a slam bang finish, most of its runtime is devoted to either the battle to take The Capitol or Katniss’ choice in her love triangle. All else withers on the vine. And when characters start being killed off, they feel strangely hollow.

Beyond striving the conclude the overarching narrative, the film also works to bring the Katniss-Gale-Peeta love triangle to a fitting conclusion by giving it more focus  than the last four movies combined. While the dynamic has been part of The Hunger Games Series from the start, it has never been the driving force behind much of the story. Quite literally, the film is structured to have every other scene be a slow-moving discussion where characters hash out their feelings for one another, which only serves to bring the narrative to a grinding halt despite the thrills brought on by the action in between these pauses.

The biggest highlights come in the form of the action sequences that inform much of the film’s second act. As Katniss and her team of both well-loved characters and sure-to-be-cannon-fodder make their way into The Capitol, they’re best by all number of traps meant to evoke The Hunger Games of the past, only this time out in the real world. Most notably, a vicious wave of boiling oil and a sewer filled with terrifying CGI creatures evoke the most emotional of responses the film can muster – that of terror. Unfortunately, the deaths inflicted by these developments are so glossed over that the result is less horror and more befuddlement. Nevertheless, these are easily some of the best bits of action in the entire series, even though there are shockingly few in the film’s more than two hour runtime.

Given the lean narrative, it’s up to Lawrence and her costars to make the most of the material at hand and, thankfully, they do for the most part. Lawrence is always excellent as Katniss, showing her to be a strong and capable, yet realistically broken, heroine that helps add complexity to the series’ storyline. However, her muted acting somewhat comes off as boredom at times here, as if she too were waiting for these films to finally be over. Nevertheless, she is still one of the main draws for the series and often helps heighten it past the shallow teen romance it could have been.

Josh Hutcherson is certainly strong, as he’s forced to deal with the aftermath of massive amounts of torture and mental reprogramming. His trauma and volatility play very real throughout the film, even when his inclusion in the main part of the narrative stretches credulity due to the outlandish circumstances of him being included in a life or death mission. Liam Hemsworth’s Gale is fine, as well. However, given a very flat and unimpressive character, there isn’t much to work with for him. In the Peeta-Gale-Katniss love triangle, the only reason that Gale’s side of the romance carries any weight is simply due to the fact that he’s a Hemsworth and isn’t actively trying to murder Katniss. Beyond that, Mockingjay Part II and the series as a whole does very little to make him and his relationship with Katniss compelling in the slightest.

Unfortunately, the focus of Part II means that most of the rest of the supporting cast is given incredibly little screentime, with most characters that have survived the previous films only popping in for a few moments. Previous scene stealers Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy and Sam Clafin as Finnick Odair have precious little to do and feel underserved by the material. It’s also clear that the untimely passing of Phillip Seymour Hoffman affected his role in this film the most, as some scenes were clearly meant to be his. Of the other main players, Julianne Moore and Donald Sutherland as saddled with characters that are largely one note in their construction, even though they put their talents to use in bringing them to life. But Natalie Dormer as Cressida, Jena Malone as Johanna, and Mahershala Ali as Boggs succeed in making their smaller parts into some of the best elements of the film, frequently injecting life and energy into the often dull proceedings. You can’t help but focus on them when so much here rarely rises above business as usual.

It’s not that there is any singular glaring issue with Mockingjay Part II; rather, there are multiple flaws within the film that lead to it being a thoroughly underwhelming affair. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a film an inextricable part of the series it is in, especially when it is the finale, director Francis Lawrence and writers Peter Craig and Danny Strong have made this something that cannot possibly stand on its own legs. If Mockingjay Part II were to be dissected and evaluated as a singular film it would fail in nearly every way. But since that is clearly not what the filmmakers were going for, it’s unfair to view the movie in a bubble. That being said, the film still cannot compete with the freshness of the first film or the strength of Catching Fire.

Above all, the name of the game here is obviousness. Characters repeatedly state their ideological viewpoints, their goals, and any ideas that may have been subtext in a movie that wasn’t dedicated to bashing viewers over the head with a message. These issues persist from the very beginning until the literal final scene of the film as the story can’t help but hold audiences’ hands and walk them through every single idea and development. Whereas the previous films, even the sleepy Mockingjay Part I, asked audiences to unpack ideas and unravel the plot, the finale is too focused on ending it all and suffers from a lack of narrative layers and interesting context that helped to elevate some of the other films. Here, Katniss may be a more driven and proactive protagonist than she has ever been, but her storyline and the narrative surrounding her are incredibly uncomplicated. It’s mostly a matter of getting from point A to point B in order to kill Snow, and then making one final decision. While this may appeal to the core teen audience that jumpstarted the series, most adult viewers may become frustrated with the simplemindedness of the narrative. Combined, Mockingjay Part II never comes close to hitting the emotional highs that most often come from the conclusion of a thrilling series.

For a series that took the world by storm and had such a broad positive appeal for audiences, it’s strange to see The Hunger Games come to a somewhat lackluster and quiet end so suddenly. Given the decision to split the final novel by author Suzanne Collins into two and the amount of stumbling experience here as the series hits the finish line, The Hunger Games is yet another series that can’t quite satisfy its fans the way they deserve.

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