The Speculative Post's Review
All three Hunger Games movies so far have a combined running time of 411 minutes, which is nearly seven hours of Katniss Everdeen shooting a bow and engaging in love triangles. I attended a screening of the three films, in a row, at a local theater last Thursday; when watched in quick succession, these movies really feel their length, and by the end of Catching Fire I was ready to shank the rude, fidgety people sitting behind my friend and I. The downsides of this experience were tired eyes and the imposition of having to complain to the theater about guests behaving badly; the upsides were free tickets and seat reassignments for our trouble, and also, probably more importantly, the ability to compare Mockingjay to its predecessors with all of the films fresh in my mind.
Last year’s Catching Fire ended on a cliffhanger; rescued from the deadly arena she destroyed by a group of rebels, including the former Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and her curmudgeonly alcoholic mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), our protagonist Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) was informed that her home, District 12, had been bombed to oblivion by the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Mockingjay picks up precisely where the previous film left off, following Katniss, her mother, and her sister as they are reunited and begin to rebuild their lives in the underground District 13. The first two movies don’t devote nearly enough time to establishing 13’s reputation and history (they exported nuclear weapons and are essentially in a cold war with the government), but if the indulgent Capitol looks like Washington D.C. collided with Ancient Rome, the strict and sparse District 13 calls to mind Soviet Russia, with drab jumpsuits and a “needs of the many” mindset that is constantly enforced. President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) is 13’s poised and charismatic leader, and she needs Katniss’ help if the uprising against Snow is to be a success. That means gaining the support of other terrified, oppressed Districts through propaganda centered around the liberation symbol of the Mockingjay, but unfortunately, the Capitol is doing the same thing with Katniss’ ex fiance and joint winner of the Hunger Games, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). As Katniss tries to balance her support of the Rebellion with her concern for Peeta, her visceral hatred of President Snow, and a struggling romance with her old flame Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the stakes are higher than ever, and nothing will ever be the same again in her crumbling world.
Mockingjay represents a departure from the general structure, pacing, and themes of the last two films. It’s essentially a war movie, with two clearly defined “sides,” but thankfully the film does an excellent job of making District 13 feel like the lesser of two evils rather than the good guys by default. Julianne Moore is a commanding onscreen presence as the sympathetic but quietly dangerous President Coin, insisting that she wants to bring back democracy… while leading her followers in fist-pumping chants reminiscent of an eerie hivemind. The design of the bunkers, stairs, and ladders of the District’s structures is clever and striking, but the movie spends ample time in other locations. The Hunger Games and Catching Fire didn’t spare many scenes to dwell on Districts other than 12 throughout the fictional world of Panem, and the scope broadens significantly and refreshingly in Mockingjay to put some of the most uplifting moments of sacrifice and rebellion in lives other than those of the main characters. Combined with the haunting soundtrack, the centerpiece of which is the Lumineers-arranged “The Hanging Tree” performed by Jennifer Lawrence, there are some very beautiful and emotionally hard-hitting moments here. Even more than the other two films, Mockingjay has a definite spirit, one that builds and wanes according to Katniss’ mood, whims, and occasionally badass lines. (“Fire is catching!” she roars at one point, addressing President Snow. “If we burn, you burn with us!”) When so much depends on her commitment to the Rebellion’s cause, it makes a lot of sense and the effect can be the pinnacle of what cinema was designed to achieve.
Catching Fire was pretty thrilling throughout; despite ending on a grim note, it was a heck of a lot of fun to watch, packed with suspense and colorful action. Its sequel, conversely, is not a feel-good holiday film in any sense of those words. Many darker aspects of Panem’s world find a mouthpiece in Mockingjay, from the existence of Avoxes (dissenters who have had their tongues cut out and are programmed to be submissive, mute servants) to President Snow’s practice of prostituting especially desired Hunger Games Victors for political favors. The attractive Finnick speaks with somber candidness about this happening to him, and it’s perhaps Sam Claflin’s finest moment in a role he captures fantastically, one of many that convinces Katniss and viewers alike that Snow’s monstrous reign can’t end quickly enough. It’s also a moment that earns the film’s PG-13 rating just as effectively as the remains of Katniss’ District, strewn with piles of charred bones and skulls crunching underfoot.
What little action there is to break up a film that’s more tactics than execution feels obligatory, as if it was shot to fill a quota out of fear that audiences would get bored. With a more modest running time than the series’ first two films, Mockingjay doesn’t quite carry that risk… but there’s no denying that of all the Hunger Games movies, the third one is perhaps the most baffling to split into two parts. While it provides a lot of space for filler, characterization, and paying attention to relationships that were rushed or neglected in the previous installments, Mockingjay is the book where comparatively little happens and Katniss is a fractured, post-traumatic mess for much of it. It feels less like the writers thought two movies were absolutely necessary to resolve the series, and more like they’re reluctant to let go of the cash cow status The Hunger Games is experiencing. That being said, it’s hard not to be impressed; having read the book it’s based on, I had a lot of questions about how on earth they’d turn something so seemingly unfilmable into a decent movie. If Part 2 manages to be this well-crafted, I wouldn’t hesitate to call The Hunger Games’ adaptations as collectively strong and successful as the Harry Potter movies.