Much of this is familiar as a premise to any person who has ever seen a movie about disruptive governments in need of a rebellion, but “The Hunger Games” franchise didn’t always indicate those intentions. When it arrived in a flurry of hype three years ago, those on the outside of the literary context discovered something that challenged their very notions of young adult fantasy: a story in which kids are relegated to disposable victims in a public display of slaughter that rivaled the gladiator arenas of ancient Rome. But that movie, the first of this series of four, was not a sound judgment; though it lived and breathed the horrors of its underlying values, it neglected to offer us a coherent purpose beyond the violence, and ended on a note of jarring cynicism. Later endeavors helped to refine that prospect into something worthwhile, and now we arrive here at “Mockingjay Part 2,” the final entry in Katniss’ long and exhausting nightmare through immense political ordeals. If anything is certain beyond the wavering quality of this series, it’s that it has always remained focused on the immense strength of its very dedicated heroine; seeing all four films together in a single pass, one wonders if Harry Potter would have wept in despair at the mere prospect of walking in her shoes.
The trajectory of lengthy movie series has often yielded split endeavors for final book adaptations, and here is yet another example of said principle; rather than deal with an isolated narrative, the movie deals instead with the last half of the final chapter, which plays less like a full-fledged narrative and more like an extended climax of what came before. That often yields endeavors of detached sentiments, but “Mockingjay Part 2” stays distinctly in synch with the momentum. The early scenes recall the bleak circumstances surrounding Katniss’ interactions with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who has just been rescued from imprisonment in the Capital but does not arrive in satisfactory condition. In fact, Peeta has become downright violent – specifically towards his greatest competitor, a woman whom he now sees as a threatening presence that must be murdered. What inspires such radical emotions comes down to the discovery of intense psychological torture, in which the government forces have used his memories as tools for radical mental reshaping in order to create a weapon against their most feared rebel. The added benefit, at least to them, is that Ms. Everdeen could be eradicated by a source she has come to depend on so closely, which symbolizes a greater extreme than just disposing of her via bombs or mere assassination plots.
But Katniss is no simpleton driven by hopeless romance, and under the watchful direction of District 13 – an underground resistance that has formulated a detail agenda against the Capital – she spearheads the propaganda of the uprising, and they have just successfully raided a military compound in order to launch a full-scale attack against President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The screenplay by Peter Craig and Danny Strong does a fairly coherent job at establishing the agendas for the District’s various military cells – a rarity in films this chaotic – but the government is not exactly a bunch of retreating pushovers, either. In their descent beyond the outer walls of the city, intriguing discoveries are made. Residents have retreated deep into the metropolis. Streets are abandoned and quiet. And lurking around every corner are elaborate traps designed to gradually pick away at the sizable numbers of the rebels, all of whom have been assembled out of the surviving districts in order to strengthen the odds. That Katniss has to fight at all is an odd prospect, but of course there is a necessity in the film to keep her as close to the danger as possible. By sending in Peeta to join the ranks of her cell – especially when he remains uncertain of his own impulses, even after rigorous reprogramming – added layers of tension carry them forward, hopefully towards a situation where they can penetrate the membrane surrounding Snow’s inner sanctum before his forces can undermine their resistance.
A great many dangerous setups await them in that treacherous cityscape, and nearly all of them place emphasis on an unspoken realization that these rebels, skilled as they may be, are ultimately playing the a variation of the Hunger Games themselves, and the city is their elaborate obstacle course. Sometimes that leads to moments where they are trailed by threatening forces (including underground beasts that resemble the creatures in “The Descent”), and at other intervals are required to fake their deaths in order to bypass notice. In between those cautious cat-and-mouse scenarios are the kindly impulses of civilians in protest, propaganda speeches from both sides of the war, and even a dialogue on the motivations of District 13’s current leader (Julianne Moore), whose political ambitions seem less innocent with passing time and more opportunistic as she closes in on the feint possibility of victory.
The movie jostles to and fro in an elaborate display of confused motives, revelations, piercing action sequences and heavy-handed dialogue meant to underscore the bleak nature of an impending outcome (does anyone actually win in a war, after all?), and not all of it inspires the sheer pitch of excitement that the marketing campaign would suggest. This is bleak material, rarely optimistic and frequently downtrodden, only meant to contemplate the dangers of the world rather than bury them under false hopes. But there is no critique in intention, and after seeing the possibilities of “The Hunger Games” realized in the second film, I have come to accept the details for what their intentions indicate. If kids carry a power beyond their capacity to dream and wonder, it’s their ability to use the purity of logic in scenarios where others are robbed of it in order to ask: why must any of this be an issue? Just as distinctly as those themes are roused to dramatic intensity, so are the film’s performances reflective of serious considerations. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss could easily be a hysterical victim, and Sutherland’s President Snow might have become just another bitter antagonist only interested in bloodshed and power. But neither accept the surface value of their characterizations because they see the layers of the story’s downbeat ideology, and play up their roles with such unwavering conviction that they give us reasons to watch on, even when there are moments where it feels as if nothing could remain in the wake of so much narrative anarchy.
The ending scenes, I suspect, will inspire some divisive conclusions. The first notable moment in this regard comes in a pivotal sweep of climactic decision-making; when Katniss is asked to resolve the conflict in a public gathering, she becomes armed with some startling information that places uncertainty in how the moment will play out. When it goes one way, the response of the audience is one of surprise. But the movie doesn’t do anything notable with it other than surface acknowledgment; in a crowd of people that ought to react with mixed emotions, they instead counter with a blanket impulse, and the story undercuts the ramifications of her rather opposing sentiments. On the other hand, the very last scene – reportedly a departure from the book’s finale – is something to applaud, especially for those of us who first came into this series with weary perceptions. The argument against the scene is roused from puritanical mindsets, who insist that a film adaptation of a book must reflect the values of its author; for them, that scene plays against the tonal implication of the source material. I, however, embrace the idea of a moment of optimism; at the end of a long jaunt through such bleak narrative terrain, how could any sensible filmmaker deny these characters a respite against chaos? Is that not why we go to movies about young adults? To hopefully see them overcome the dreadful fates of peers subjected to immense suffering? “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2” could have resorted to a handful of cynical conclusions, but its ability to leave the key characters in a moment of pleasure is not so much a contradiction as it is an affirmation of our emotional involvement. It is a taxing acknowledgment to walk away from the smoldering embers knowing that so many must die for your right to endure, but how fortunate that even in the darkest scenarios a movie can muster the courage to find a satisfactory silver lining.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Adventure/Sci-Fi (US); 2015; Rated PG-13; Running Time: 98 Minutes
Jennifer Lawrence: Katniss Everdeen
Josh Hutcherson: Peeta Mellark
Liam Hemsworth: Gale Hawthorne
Woody Harrelson: Haymitch Abernathy
Donald Sutherland: President Snow
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Plutarch Heavensbee
Julianne Moore: President Coin
Willow Shields: Primrose Everdeen
Elizabeth Banks: Effie Trinket
Produced by Suzanne Collins, Jan Foster, Nina Jacobson, John Kilik and Michael Paseornek; Directed by Francis Lawrence; Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong; based on the novel “Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins