The Hunger Games book and movie series has always been about resistance, and particularly about using the machinery and iconography of the oppressor to fight back. Katniss Everdeen is a creation of a violent, manipulative system, but she turns all of its symbolism against it. And in the final movie, Mockingjay Part 2, she turns the tables, at immense, horrifying cost.
This review is basically spoiler-free—may the odds of avoiding spoilers be ever in your favor.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, the Hunger Games series takes place in a dystopian future where the evil Capitol forces the rest of the country to send its children to compete in gladitorial contests. Katniss Everdeen is one of the victors of that bloodsport, and she becomes a hero to the ordinary people of Panem because she’s able to outwit the rules of the game. In this last movie, she’s becoming an actual leader of the uprising against the Capitol.
Mockingjay Part 2 is the most brutal of all the Hunger Games movies, and in a few places it actually manages to outdo the books in sheer ugliness (partly because reading about nastiness is different than watching it.) It’s not so much the big bloody action sequences, but the small intimate moments, that make you feel the full weight of how awful all of this has been for Katniss, Peeta and the others.
Much like Part 1, this movie makes some fascinating stylistic choices, that force you to confront the personal consequences of violence and violation. And that, in turn, makes you ask what kind of government, what kind of leaders, would use violent games and torturous mind control as crucial elements of its propaganda strategy. The genius of Mockingjay Part 2 is that we get enough glimpses of that thought process, how people could decide that such things are a good idea, to start understanding it—and that’s perhaps the most intense shock of all.
Mockingjay Part 1 opened with a horribly damaged Katniss Everdeen whispering in the dark, and Part 2 begins with a similarly stark and nasty image of Katniss in terrible shape. Between director Francis Lawrence’s unflinching lens and Jennifer Lawrence’s intense, layered performance, this has the effect of forcing us to empathize with this incredibly traumatized hero from the first minute.
And this time around, both Lawrences never quite let up on this tight focus, although we do pull back from time to time and get to see all the games that the political leaders are playing. Even though the stakes are getting higher and the action more intense, this is paradoxically the most intimate and at times claustrophobic of the Hunger Games films.
The obvious difference between Mockingjay Part 2 and the other three movies is in the fact that Katniss is stepping up and taking control of her own destiny in a way that she never has previously. She’s come a long way from the first movie, where she manipulates a no-win scenario purely due to a willingness to sacrifice everything. Now, she’s becoming more adept at pulling other people’s strings, instead of dancing as other people yank on hers.
But there’s also another difference between this film and the others—the ever-present Greek chorus of propaganda and media manipulation is still there, but it’s used much more sparingly and strategically. In the first three movies, there was a constant tension between the Katniss we know as a person, and the image of Katniss that appears on giant video screens—the “real” Katniss and her distorted and enlarged image were in dialogue with each other, and Katniss tried (often in vain) to control how she’s portrayed by the machine.
In this last film, the notion of Katniss as propaganda vehicle is as much a part of the story as ever—but because of some of the events of the film, we don’t see her actions reflected through the celebrity fish-eye lens nearly as much as in the past. (Poor old Caesar Flickerman only gets a couple of appearances, in fact.) There’s still dueling propaganda, but we pretty much only see Katniss the person, not Katniss-as-image.
Which makes it interesting that this is the film in which Katniss finally owns her legend.
The other thread, as I mentioned earlier, is the notion of trauma and recovery—and the notion that you never really recover 100 percent. These things are always with you, and “victor” is really a fancy word for “survivor.” This time around, everybody is crushed under a massive burden of grief and unprocessed horror, and it makes for a curiously muted “final battle” storyline. In a way that feels incredibly real and believable. There’s no “let’s blow this thing and go home” whooping here, and the fog of war dovetails with the mental exhaustion of too-long-at-war soldiers.
And as I wrote when I reviewed Mockingjay, the book, way back in the day, the theme of trauma and recovery gets combined with the series’ obsession with media manipulation and propaganda in a fascinating way. It turns out that you can get so horribly brutalized that you can no longer tell what’s real from what’s fake, which is the ultimate end-state of the kind of trickery we’ve seen all along in this series.
To be sure, Mockingjay Part 2 has some serious flaws—in particular, it has to cover so many random horrible incidents from the book, it sometimes seems to trip over itself. Certain character turns happen so fast that you get a bit of whiplash, and there are definitely times when several hubcaps and a few chickens come flying off the bus as it takes one of its sharp turns. But those flaws are, by and large, a consequence of trying to film such an ambitiously eventful novel. For the most part, the final movie takes a really tough ending, and sells it.
Also, the loss of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman is painfully evident in this film, which has several moments that were clearly supposed to feature Hoffman and which fall slightly flat without him. He seems to have been digitally inserted in the background in a couple of scenes, but also he’s clearly supposed to play a key role in other moments, and has had to be replaced. It sucks, though it’s not enough to cause major problems—it’s just one more among the endless number of reasons to be sad that Hoffman is gone.
At some point, any honest review of any of these movies is going to turn into gushing praise of Jennifer Lawrence. Particularly in this last movie, she’s carrying the whole thing on her back—and her acting is subtle yet powerful enough that she keeps you convinced of the reality of the situation at every turn. She manages to create this character of a young girl who’s all scar tissue inside, and it’s incredibly compelling.
And that’s the thing I’m left feeling, now that all the movies are done. Even more than the books, they have given us one of the most indelible heroes of the 21st century so far. When it comes to self-sacrifice, making tough decisions, inspiring people, and larger-than-life heroism, few others even come close—Chris Evans’ Captain America comes to mind, actually.
There are all sorts of reasons why people connected with this series, ranging from its love triangle to its intense political commentary. But its most important legacy may actually be giving us a really vital 21st century hero.