Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

If The Martian was a problem of too much positive buzz, perhaps Mockingjay Part 2 benefited from a bit of the opposite. This is one of the few series that I've been able to review each installment of during its theatrical run, and if you go back to see my reviews of those previous three movies you'll notice that I've enjoyed every film in this franchise. Sure, some have aged better than others, and the stretched quality of Mockingjay Part 1 was a bit of a hindrance to my enjoyment of it, but I was still pretty pumped to see Part 2 in theaters despite the somewhat negative feedback I'd heard. Full disclosure, though, I have read all three of Suzanne Collins' books, so I went into this viewing knowing pretty much every plot point ahead of time. Given the lukewarm reaction to the third part of that book series, I wasn't too surprised with the response to this climactic installment in movie form. But what did I think of how this story ended? Read on to find out! (BTW: There may be a few SPOILERS, but I'll warn you ahead of time.)

Peeta has just been rescued from the Capitol, but Katniss is shocked to find their first encounter a struggle for survival rather than a tender reunion. Having been repeatedly tortured and psychologically conditioned (with the aid of Tracker Jacker venom) Peeta to hate Katniss and perceive her as a threat, he lashes out at her and attempts to strangle her to death. After a period of recovery, she realizes that the person she cared for was no longer there, and vows to take it out on President Snow in person. Before she can do so, however, President Coin (leader of the resistance) urges her to join them to recruit District 2 to their cause - which they do with a few well-placed firebombs and a military ambush. Returning to District 13 to celebrate their victory (and the wedding of Finnick and Annie), Coin continues to refuse Katniss's request to join the battle herself. Taking matters into her own hands, Katniss stows aboard a supply ship and joins the recruits without Coin's permission, and she reluctantly gives "The Mockingjay" a support team and film crew to capitalize on her disobedience. However, the streets of the Capitol have been transformed into a makeshift Hunger Games arena with death traps called "pods" at every corner to kill the would-be assassins in their tracks.

Like all the other Hunger Games films, this one has a bit of a slow start. We pick up virtually from the moment we left off in Part 1, and though the Katniss/Peeta dynamic has changed to horrifying effect, the real story doesn't get going for a good 20 minutes of this film. Having said that, I still enjoyed seeing what we're given as Katniss accompanies the group to District 2. This series has always been great at portraying the moral ambiguity of war, and the compromises that must be taken in order to gain any kind of advantage. This is a pretty major theme of this story, and I appreciate how it's set up in the first act in a fairly organic way. While it may not be that important to the plot of the film, I appreciate how it frames all of the military decisions made by both sides going forward.

I really enjoy the way director Francis Lawrence has expanded this world with his creative vision, giving the impression of grandiosity to what started out as a fairly claustrophobic setting. Just the way he films the explosions going off in the distance in District 2 gives us a sense of the scale of this war, while also putting us in the position of a bystander, removed from the brutality and leaving us questioning the morality behind their methods. Another moment where his direction is evident comes when the pods start going off on their road to assassinate President Snow. The intensity of the weapons unleashed on whoever was in their path was breathtaking, and they only get more and more dangerous as they get closer and closer to the Presidential Mansion.

SPOILER ALERT: If you really don't want to know anything else about the plot, skip the next two paragraphs. You've been warned.

One of the last dangers they come up against is when they move down to the sewers in order to move more quickly and avoid any other pods waiting for them along the way. Everything seems to be going okay until a security camera picks up Katniss's face, telling Snow exactly where they're located. Armed with this information, he sends a pack of Muttations (in this case, eyeless lizard creatures
with razor-sharp teeth) after the group. This is a scene that works tremendously well regardless of whether you've red the book or not. Francis Lawrence controls the tension so well that we're literally looking for danger a good two or three minutes before it finally appears. Even if you know what's coming, we don't know what to look for exactly or when the Muttations will be revealed. Once they do arrive, it's a thrilling battle on par with any of the fights in the Hunger Games arena. Of course, not everyone makes it out of the tunnels alive, which makes us care more about those still living and strengthens our hatred for the Capitol.

The ending of this movie, however, is sure to be the make-or-break it moment for almost every viewer. Having read the book, I knew what Katniss was going to do, but the direction and the acting and the music all build to such a level that I couldn't help sitting on the edge of my seat as it played out. Despite the strength of this moment, it's actually the subsequent epilogue that takes this movie up a notch in my mind. Katniss has been given a pardon for her deeds and is sent back to District 12, where she meets and rekindles a romance with the good-hearted Peeta. This is the first time that I fully bought into their love story, and it was executed perfectly. Seeing them comfort each other during rainstorms and nightmares was really quite touching, but it's the final two scenes that really drive home the emotion. They each get a final line, and each one truly resonates and even makes me tear up when I even think about them - let alone when seeing them play out on screen.


Ultimately, I think this would have been an even better movie if it was one long film rather than two... but I still really enjoyed what we got. There would definitely be a trade-off between the subtle thematic elements of the war games as well as between the characters (the whole "real or not real" thing, for example) and the satisfying experience that a more complete story would provide. If I had to rank the films based on how I feel about them now, I would probably say this is the second best installment next to Catching Fire, which I still think is a near perfect movie from start to finish. Then I would go with the original Hunger Games, then Mockingjay Part 1. All of these movies are pretty great, and I think it's a really consistent franchise that I find myself more and more interested in as time passes. Not everyone is going to like Mockingjay Part 2 as much as I did, but I give a really strong three and a half stars.

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 2 is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and for some thematic material