I’ve long possessed a noted indifference to The Hunger Games franchise, its premise uninteresting to me and the first film having done little to recommend it. Catching Fire was an improvement by several miles, and Mockingjay Part 1 was, if not cathartic, at least adept at creating tension. Assuming Mockingjay: Part Two is a more-or-less faithful adaptation of the book, it’s easy to understand why fans hated Mockingjay so much. What a piece of garbage. Mitigated garbage, sure, but spraying febreze on a trash can doesn’t make its contents any less rotten.
In our final installment of the most violent YA adaptation in recent memory, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and a crew of folks, some from previous films and some new, are tasked with creating propaganda in the Capitol, which the rebels are desperately invading in a bid to control the seat of Panem’s power. Katniss elects to prioritize murdering President Snow (Donald Sutherland) despite the relative power her public image gives her to help those caught between Capitol and rebel forces. Along the way Katniss copes with the unnecessary and forced emotional angst of romantic tension with childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and fellow Hunger Games Victor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).
The production value is of course fantastic, the direction adequate, and the cinematography skillful. The bright point of the film is a tense action setpiece in the sewers which borrows heavily from Alien, a sequence which belongs to a better film. This is a well-made movie, but its content begs the question, how can a film about a revolution manage to so heavily support the cultural status quo?
The Hunger Games have been applauded for their “gray morality” and “dark sociopolitical themes” and whatever else people use to describe narratives where the characters aren’t clearly divided into good and evil, but these films aren’t interested in challenging the viewer. If anything, they reinforce common cultural values, as exemplified by Katniss’ general indifference to the plight of others (unless they are directly within her field of vision). This goes hand-in-hand with her not-boyfriend Gale proposing solutions when all of the women in authority in the room are unable to find one, and the sole black man of note dying for the pretty white protagonist. In fact, lots of people seem to be willing to die for Katniss, despite her extraordinary lack of redeeming qualities.
This all happens before Katniss murders an unarmed civilian in a non-combat situation purely because she disagrees with their politics and is praised as an upstanding person for it. Katniss is not motivated by doing what’s right, but rather by what makes her feel good; she doesn’t like the idea of a strategy that may result in civilian casualties because it makes her feel bad, but she’s fine with lying and exploiting rebel resources in order to kill President Snow, because it feels good. When that blows up in her face, everyone is quick to reassure her, and she accepts their reassurances, because it feels good. Her morals are as flexible and lacking in consistency as the plot.
Yet it’s not enough to say that this film is not internally consistent. The writing clearly suffers from the sort of disease wherein there is a passionate desire to diverge from the Hero’s Journey and do something different or unusual, but “originality” does not quality make. There’s a reason that three-act structures and character arcs in stories often fall into patterns, and that’s because they work. In attempting to do the unexpected, Mockingjay sacrifices reasonable or understandable character arcs, comprehensible plot details, and the integrity of its themes (whatever those are supposed to be). Worse, in so doing it falls back on a lot of other equally, if not more predictable plot resolutions.
The one theme the film does capably reinforce in spades is the virtues of apathy: Katniss has no real interest in the revolution or the changing of living conditions, she truly does not want to fight for the people of Panem. She is largely unconcerned with the fate of her country as long as her personal desires, desires to kill someone, mind you, are satisfied. The film rewards her for this in the form of praise from others (who repeatedly choose to die for her), and reinforces it even more by needlessly killing off one of the few selfless people in the franchise. According to The Hunger Games, the way to be a hero is to not give a damn about the societal conditions that lead to suffering for others.
Even worse, in the end Katniss is married with two little babies, a happy (if haunted) wife and mother, living a dream that the series has never indicated she desired. Tacking a 1950s nuclear family as the model of happiness onto the end of the film to give Katniss a happy ending is almost disgusting in a film that claims to be about revolution, freedom, and self-determination. The movie is not a gray exploration of conflicting political themes; it is an unrealistic attempt to tie up this disaster into a bow with no understanding of its political implications at all whatsoever.
Perhaps the film’s greatest sin is that, despite its meandering and violent content, the political questions posed by its muddled plot, and the skillful craft that went into making it, it still manages to be boring. It drags and drags through the invasion of the Capitol, discussions of executions, and the ever cringeworthy love triangle. I distinctly recall thinking, “Shoot the President, shoot the Peacekeepers, shoot Peeta, hell, shoot me if it ends this.” Not even Jennifer Lawrence’s most intense line deliveries can save this film from its more soporific moments.
In short, the film ends the series decisively, if not well. Like a soap bubble, it is pretty with little substance, its structure so inherently fragile that it could pop at any moment. At the very least we can all breathe a sigh of relief that no further muddled Hunger Games films are inbound.
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