The Hunger Games saga might just be the bleakest blockbuster film franchise of all time. It started on a fairly grim note (you know, with the whole “teenagers killing each other on TV for entertainment” business), but somehow, each installment of the series has grown progressively darker and gloomier. I had assumed that this was a drawn-out “darkness before the dawn” routine, and that we were building to a grand, ultimately celebratory finale ala Return of the Jedi or Return of the King. Nope. Mockingjay – Part II is darkest film of the whole series; a grim death march that embraces cynicism and flirts with nihilism. The film does an admirable job of committing to the harsh realities of the world the series has created, but disappointingly, director Francis Lawrence struggles to make things dramatically compelling.
You may recall that the previous film concluded with a brainwashed, rabid Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, Zathura) attempting to strangle his loyal friend Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone). He was unsuccessful, of course, but there's still a great deal of uncertainty over whether or not he can fully shake the torture-induced programming he received at the hands of the wicked President Snow (Donald Sutherland, Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Alas, there's little time to linger on such questions: rebellion leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, Magnolia) has decided that it's time to strike back at the Capitol, and Katniss will be leading the efforts to assassinate President Snow.
Things get genuinely interesting once Katniss finally arrives at President Snow's doorstep, but man, it takes an awfully long time to get there. The film's first 90 minutes are an incredibly dull affair, and it takes a long time for the story to gain any sense of momentum. The tone the film is going for is similar to the one offered by Mockingjay – Part I – a sense of quiet despair – but somehow, it isn't half as dramatically compelling this time around, partially because most of the film's interesting characters have been shoved to the sidelines. Woody Harrelson (Natural Born Killers), Elizabeth Banks (30 Rock), Stanley Tucci (The Terminal), Jeffrey Wright (Source Code) and Jena Malone (Sucker Punch) are all reduced to thankless cameo roles while Katniss and her band of anonymous-looking twenty-somethings take center stage.
Lawrence's performance has been consistently strong throughout this series, but she struggles to enliven her scenes to the same degree as usual this time around. It's not really her fault: her portrait of hopelessness is convincing, but when almost everyone else in her scenes is also tasked with sulking about the horrible state of things, it saps the film's energy. The film's love triangle element (always the weak point of this series) feels particularly underwhelming this time around; a comparably insignificant factor that gets more time and attention than it deserves.
After what seems like an endless amount of low-key planning and strategizing, the film shifts into action mode – but this, too, is pretty dull for a while. The film's biggest action setpiece (a battle with some CGI xenomorph rip-offs that takes place in dimly-lit sewer tunnels) is sloppily-staged and visually uninteresting, and the character deaths occur so frequently that most of them end up feeling weightless and insignificant (it's a problem when the film's most heartbreaking sight is a grief-stricken extra). I'm not sure whether all of these problems could have been solved by turning Mockingjay into a single 2 ½ hour film, but the tale certainly wouldn't have felt as slow and dreary as this overlong second half does.
Still, by the time the film heads into its final stretch, it begins to attain real dramatic power. The film's climax is not a bloated “final battle,” but an unsettling political drama which suggests that the freedom Katniss has been fighting for may just be a naïve illusion. It's surprising, nervy stuff, and not even the film's slightly soggy coda can diminish the thunderous power of the climax. There's real substance here, even if getting to it means enduring a whole lot of dreary exposition and half-hearted action scenes.
The MVP of the cast this time around is unquestionably Donald Sutherland, whose performance retains a wicked sense of humor in a film that has otherwise been completely stripped of playfulness. His savage grin has never seemed quite as demented as it does here, and his near-satanic presence works beautifully with one of the film's key ideas: that it's easier to identify and defeat an evil person than it is to overturn and transform an evil system. The film's final shot of President Snow is perhaps the single most memorable, unsettling image the entire series has produced.
I should also offer a final nod to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, making the final appearance of his career. Hoffman died before filming was completed, but he's effective in the scenes he appears in. He seems pale, sad and weary – appropriate for the part, yes, but it makes seeing him feel like seeing a ghost. Disappointingly, he missed out on the opportunity to film what almost certainly would have been his character's best scene, so the filmmakers have Woody Harrelson read a letter on Hoffman's behalf. It's a moving scene, but much like Mockingjay – Part II as a whole, it's not what it could have been. Taken collectively, the four Hunger Games films offer a flawed but surprisingly rewarding story. This is the weakest piece of that story, but at least it delivers an ending worth waiting for.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part II
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 137 minutes
Release Year: 2015