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Non-Review Review: The Hunger Games – Mockingjay, Part II

As with the rest of the series, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II has an admirable sense of ambition.

There some bold ideas here for a young adult series, some of which are increasingly relevant to twenty-first century political realities. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II feels like very old-school science-fiction, tackling big issues through metaphor and allegory. While the final film in the series is very much an action spectacular, the script offers any number of observations about terrorism and state power, about media and revolutionary politics. It is nice to see such a big-budget high-profile film tackling these ideas.

Straight arrow...

Straight arrow…

At the same time, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II feels a little too clean and tempered for its own good. The script is willing to engage with complicated questions of moral relativity, but the problems frequently feel superficial. The movie frequently suggests that political and military realities are not as clear-cut as they might appear, before offering a rather clear-cut solution to what was presented as a moral quagmire. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II does not follow the path of least resistance, but it follows the path of second-least resistance.

Oddly enough for a story that has been split across two films, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II feels rather incomplete and rushed in places. Certain sections of the expansive ensemble are casually brushed aside towards the end, with the film tying its major plot threads up quite hastily and efficiently. Still, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II is impressively produced and anchored in a few great performances from a very experienced cast. The result is a smooth-running film that perhaps might have been better to embrace a few more bumps and hiccups.

As the world burns...

As the world burns…

One of the boons of the young adult boom of recent years has been a willingness to embrace traditional science-fiction storytelling tropes. There have been a number of big budget allegorical science-fiction movies aimed at the adult market in recent years, from the body horror of AntiViral to the capitalism critique of Elysium. Nevertheless, it feels like the young adult market has embraced the spirit of classic allegorical (often post-apocalyptic) sixties and seventies science-fiction like Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and Logan’s Run.

The origins of The Hunger Games has become something of a modern myth, the tale of author Suzanne Collins flicking idly between news coverage of the Iraq War and reality television shows late one evening. Given that context, it is no surprise that the series has a decidedly political subtext. The Hunger Games is a post-apocalyptic story of oppressive capitalism and political revolution, all neatly framed for the era of social media and the twenty-four hour news cycle.

Take a bow!

Take a bow!

It seems like no matter where the characters might wander over the course of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II, they are subject to the demands of media. When the siege of “the Capitol” begins, Katniss is recruited to an “all-star squad” that are designed for purely propaganda purposes; they are a bunch of recognisable icons who can be filmed in action so as to inspire and incite. It is an approach that took root as early as the Second World War, but which takes on a whole new life in a media-savvy age.

More than that, it seems like the characters are never out of hearing-range of a media centre broadcasting vital (albeit filtered) information to the masses. Whether hiding in an abandoned building or crouching in a basement, there is nowhere that Katniss can hide from the propaganda footage of the opposition forces. Billboards cycle through the faces of the most wanted terrorists; news footage of successful military strikes are on the air within minutes of occurring.

Revolutionary fashion...

Revolutionary fashion…

It is no wonder that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II opens with a scene of Katniss struggling to get her voice back after a violent assault. As brutal as the combat might be, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II suggests that war has become more about competing narratives than competitive forces. Indeed, the siege of “the Capitol” builds to an anticlimax as if to demonstrate that point; a final conflict fought in the court of public opinion as much as the field of battle. Katniss is a skilled warrior, but she is more effective as a propaganda tool.

There are any number of sequences in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II that are designed to evoke the iconography of the war on terror. Early in the film, our heroes discuss setting two separate explosive devices; the first blast designed to injure civilians and the second intended to kill first responders. Footage of death and execution are streamed through media. Rebels hide under the floor boards. Violent revolutionaries plot to infiltrate the enemy camp by posing as refugees. There is a lot of powerful and familiar iconography here.

City break...

City break…

There are also some fairly bold ideas to be found in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II, particularly for a young adult story. One of the tendencies in science-fiction adventure stories is to avoid the political quagmire that tends to come from revolution, to suggest that the overthrow of a dictator is enough to assure the triumph of democracy. Twenty-first century pop culture seems to be drifting away from that romantic notion, perhaps as a result of bitter first-hand experience during the War on Terror.

Pop culture of the twenty-first century seems to be fascinated by the doctrine of unintended consequences. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman confronts the consequences of deposing Ra’s Al Ghul. In Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, it would seem that killing Emperor Palpatine did not usher in an era of galactic peace. History would suggest that revolutions are seldom as clean as official histories would suggest, and one of the more interesting aspects of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II is a willingness to embrace this idea.

Love during revolution...

Love during revolution…

There are limitations, of course. One of the most frustrating aspects of the Hunger Games franchise has been a reluctance to commit to its bolder ideas; these radical and clever concepts are suggested, but they are seldom employed to maximum impact. This is most obvious in the death scenes. The Hunger Games is a series about the horror of children murdering children, but it is absolute afraid to linger on the horror of these events for fear of alienating audiences or earning a harsher rating.

There is something disconcertingly bloodless about the carnage on display in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II. At one point, a character is caught in an explosion. It is a fairly sizable explosion, and the character is caught right in the midst of it. While the explosion does kill the character, the scene is remarkably clean. There is no sense of the sheer damage that an explosive device can do to a human body. The carnage remains abstract, the violence tempered so the audience never feels too uncomfortable.

Walk of life...

Walk of life…

This recurs throughout The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II. For a film about the horrors of war, there is a palpable reluctance to embrace those horrors in a literal way. Although Katniss is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of civilians caught in the crossfire and of the collateral damage involved in a campaign like this, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II keeps her hands clean. As with the other films, there is never a sense that Katniss is compromised by the world in which she finds herself.

Katniss wields her bow and arrow during the movie’s action sequences, even employing her weapon against enemy troops. However, the film makes sure to play down the idea that Katniss is killing people, even in combat and in self-defense. The “peacekeepers” that she kills are dehumanised, their faces hidden behind black visors. The “mutts” that she murders are not human by any measure. There is a sense that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II is sidestepping the moral ambiguity that it suggests is inherent to war.

A fun shoot...

A fun shoot…

There is also a sense that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II is simply unwilling to push its format too far. The structure of the film should be that of a war epic. However, the film is more comfortable with the stylistic trappings of the series itself. When the rebels arrive in “the Capitol”, they find that booby traps have been laid out by the same sadistic minds who designed the eponymous games. “Welcome to the seventy-sixth Hunger Games,” quips Finnick Odair. He is correct. It serves the same structural purpose in the film. It ensures a sense of stability and formula.

In fact, the characters wander through “the Capitol” with a handy map of the traps that have been set for them by the enemy. It suggests a rather clean and predictable model of warfare that belies the uncertainties and anxieties of modern urban combat. The map that outlines all of the traps seems like something of a redundant plot points; the characters seldom use it to avoid traps, and the movie still finds a way for its big action setpieces. The inclusion of the map feels like an unnecessary detail that serves as an ordering principle.

Laying the groundwork...

Laying the groundwork…

It feels like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II is a little too tidy in places. The story embraces any number of war movie clichés. It is quite easy to identify which major characters will make it through to the end of the film simply by looking at demographics and characterisation in the first half-hour or so. While the film embraces the ugly realities of post-revolutionary politics, it posits a disarming simplistic solution to those problems which avoids the implications of its political commentary.

Still, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II works reasonably well. A lot of this is down to the fact that Jennifer Lawrence is an extremely charismatic lead, even when offered a fairly predictable and generic character arc. Lawrence is one of the great young actors of her generation, and a lot of the success of The Hunger Games can be tracked down to her performance. Lawrence is surrounded by a wonderful ensemble, with Donald Sutherland getting a lot of nice material to chew over the course of the film.

That said, the cast is so large than not all performers are adequately served by the material afforded to them. Although they were standout performers in the first Hunger Games films, actors Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks are largely sidelined over the course of the film. Indeed, certain long-standing characters do not really get a resolution to their arcs; they just disappear. There are some issues around the character played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but those were inevitable given the sad circumstances around his passing.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II is perhaps more interesting for what it suggest than for what it actually accomplishes. It is a finely-produced film, but it never entirely delivers on its biggest and boldest ideas. It is not a failure by any stretch, but it feels like it might have been so much more.

6 Responses

  1. It sounds similar to the final Harry Potter film. I thought that film was rushed, and suffered from a lack of grit. That film really should have shown the deaths of Lupin and Tonks.

  2. I always found this a tricky one, since I thought the third book was the weakest of the three, plotwise, and the movie two parter largely stuck to the same plot rigidly. Jennifer Lawrence remains the reason to watch this, her intensity is just brilliant at times, particularly when faced with clichéd lines in speeches etc.
    I thought the whole movie seemed muted in some way, possibly because of the lighting and very methodical pacing. There was an element of box ticking along the way also, making sure that each popular character had at least a line to their name, however fleeting as you mentioned.
    Having said that, some of the main action sequences were gripping and had their own rhythms which worked well. As a movie, not bad and watchable, if a tad long. It’s always difficult to shake off the idea that it didn’t need to be two movies as is oft quoted.
    Thanks for the review Darren.

    • Thanks Derek. Yeah, the two-movie split does seem a little cynical. But I admire what it attempted more than what it accomplished, if that makes sense.

  3. not a bad movie but took too long to just end the movie

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