Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 Goes out With a Whimper

2 1/2 out of 5 stars.
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For me, the surprising thing about last year’s third installment of The Hunger Games was the fact that I liked it as much as I did. The Hunger Games has never been my favorite movie franchise; it sometimes feels as if they’ve been dragged out to extend the running time, and while Jennifer Lawrence is often good in her more dramatic scenes, none of the three leads have grown into their roles the way I had hoped they might. Lawrence’s Katniss so often seems to be getting dragged into things rather than becoming the hero of her story that I tend to lose patience with her. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta is often pushed to the side and used to manipulate the audience as the sad, sacrificial lamb in a love triangle that never blossomed and therefore gets too much focus, and if Liam Hemsworth’s Gale was supposed to be this franchise’s Han Solo, he quickly became the Jar Jar instead: an annoyance whose presence seems a hindrance to the filmmakers.

But the third film surprised me with how much I enjoyed it, and the political conversations it raised felt more interesting and relevant than in the other two films combined. Ideas about the politics of a resistance, collateral damage, and propaganda were finally given real focus. Mockingjay – Part 1 was imperfect, but it did succeed at holding my attention for its 2-plus-hour run time—pretty long for an action movie with very little action—and it left me interested in returning to the series, which I really hadn’t been with the previous two (although as a standalone film, Catching Fire is probably the best of the series).

The strange thing about Mockingjay – Part 2 is, even with a lot more action than the previous film, I found myself losing interesting often. For one thing, it feels longer than all the other previous installments. And while a lot seems to happen, too much of that feels like unnecessary padding. Just as I felt Part 1 could have been a cleaner 80-90 minutes, there is no reason both Mockingjay movies couldn’t have been either cut down to smaller, better paced movies or turned into one big epic. As two overly long movies, they lack a clear sense that this is the director’s vision and feel too faithful to the books, throwing in moments and characters that simply don’t work in a condensed film.

It isn’t as if we are getting much character development from our new resistance fighters. We’re still pretty much only interested in Katniss, an interesting character perhaps, but not interesting enough to carry four of these films alone. We had opportunity to learn more about our now-brainwashed Peeta, but he’s still a pretty underdeveloped character, and I just don’t care about Gale at all. We do have capital resistance fighters like Elden Henson’s Pollux or Natalie Dormer’s Cressida, who remain fascinating characters we frustratingly still barely know anything about (although we get a few moments with Pollux), especially how they turned against their home Capital to fight for others’ freedom.

And that is probably my biggest problem with the movie: There are a lot of detours about this love triangle melodrama, considering they are actively fighting a war of resistance. Seriously, there are at least three extended scenes of characters sleeping so we can have personal conversations with Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. Pick one! Why are we talking about who Katniss loves instead of why all these people are willing to sacrifice their freedoms for others, why they are willing to defend Katniss to the death, and what the resistance’s ultimate goal really is? Of all the characters I honestly find interesting in these movies, I’m most interested and emotionally invested in the character of Finnick (Sam Claflin) because of the way he compartmentalizes at different points and still shows the toll these events have taken on his mental state. This is essentially a war film masked with sci-fi adventure, and the character of Finnick is an interesting soldier to observe. Let’s call him the Wedge of this movie to use Star Wars comparisons (who also happens to be my favorite Star Wars character, so I mean that as a compliment).

If there’s something I like about the Hunger Games trilogy, it’s that if Katniss is Leia to Finnick’s Wedge, we do get to see her use her weapon and fight, but after four movies, why can’t we see a little more motivation from her character? Yes, she’s silent and has had her Mockingjay status forced upon her, but there’s a static nature to the character. Lawrence is fine as Katniss, but she clearly seems tired of playing this character (so do a lot of the returning cast members), and it only adds to the sense that this series is slowly coming to an end. Woody Harrelson barely makes an appearance and still seems like the most underutilized star in the franchise (although Stanley Tucci gets nothing more than a cameo appearance), while Donald Sutherland is the film’s greatest benefit, hitting that perfect note of high drama and total commitment to the character—they were lucky to cast him in the role. Julianne Moore, who had much more to do in the first film, is still an interesting President Coin, while Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, and Elizabeth Banks make an impression with their limited screen time. Philip Seymour Hoffman has some screen time, although changes were obviously made to the production following his untimely death.

Considering this is the first time they’ve really tried to open up the “world” of the capital, it’s disappointing that the production design didn’t get to do more. One problem is that the movie seems ridiculously dark—so dark it’s often hard to see characters. Considering this is the first time we’re really walking through The Capitol, I wanted to see more of the vibrancy we’ve only gotten a taste of before—the disgusting opulence in contrast to the lives of those on the outskirts.

But there are also some really great moments when everything comes together and uses the torture devices established in the other films against our fighters, including a great chase scene and fight sequence (which also has the strongest emotional impact in the entire film). But the movie’s main three BIG set pieces seem anticlimactic and don’t hit the emotions the way they probably should, usually because we too quickly focus on Katniss’ reaction rather than what she’s reacting to. And the entire last third seems oddly rushed for a movie which took its sweet time getting there. Narrative points are tied up so quickly that you wonder why we even have to return to some of them at all.

These movies have always been best when they don’t avoid or side-step the real-life emotions that would logically result from what these characters are put through and take those reactions seriously. The trauma weighing on Katniss and Peeta that they brought to Catching Fire made their characters more interesting than in the first movie and led to Katniss becoming a more interesting character in Mockingjay as a young woman struggling to find her voice. Although set up to dig into those emotional realities and discuss the political and social ideas that have been on the periphery for four years, this outing sacrifices what could be satisfying character moments and emotional reactions in favor of action (often well executed but less involving this time) and shallow relationship drama. And when the movie isn’t drawing to a conclusion, Mockingjay Part 2’s gloomy, monotone approach makes this feel like an exhausting obligation to sit through.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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