The Final Arrow Loosened
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
We all know the whistling tune. It’s the tune that calms a storming ocean but lights a thousand hearts aflame. It’s the tune that signals an arrow fitting tightly into its bow. It’s the tune that signals a revolution. Here we here it for one last time. The Hunger Games franchise has become one of the most successful of its time, becoming the hallmark against which all of the other seemingly endless churning of dystopian narratives compete and largely fall flat. The series came to a launch in 2012 with a solid if slightly underwhelming effort, spawning three more films from two books as has now become obligatory, but the excitement never seemed to wane. The vital part of what made The Hunger Games such a smashing hit out of the gate, outside of the readership of Suzanne Collins’s decent but prohibitively prosed trilogy, was arguably one of the greatest characters in postmodern cinema in Katniss Everdeen. Female roles that are complex and believable are rare in and of themselves, female protagonists being even more so. Katniss came with the baggage of the clichéd narrative device of the Chosen One but what the series did well is not give it the sense of fate; it simply wouldn’t have worked here. Katniss was a tough, smart girl who above all else cared about her family. She had no love for the Capitol and certainly none for Donald Sutherland’s snarling President Coriolanus Snow (Shakespeare buffs, have at it with the metaphor here), but that didn’t translate into an immediate desire to place herself upon a pedestal and become the Mockingjay that would lead the Districts to victory. Katniss’s reluctant transformation into a leader was, for better and for worse, the true backbone of the series and despite the missteps in the past, it pays off incredibly well here.
The decision to split the final volume of Collins’s trilogy into two films was undoubtedly a cash grab, fueled by the desire to see another several hundred million fall into the coffers of Lionsgate and the other production companies attached to the project. Outside of the basic cynicism rooted in film production reality, there is a storytelling reason for the split that makes some amount of sense on page. The first section would focus on District 13 and the transformation of Katniss from the captured tribute into the Mockingjay that would set the stage for a final, brutal struggle to take out President Snow and restore the Capitol to its pre-Panem days. The thematic construct of a propaganda war would set the installment apart from its predecessor. The second section would focus on the infiltration of the Capitol, the booby-trapped route to President Snow’s palace, and the traumatic journey of Katniss’s final stretch. The problem with Mockingjay is that as potentially sound as that division may sound on paper, it leaves a fair bit to be desired, primarily because the source material isn’t that dense, lengthy, or complex. Part 1 instead felt like a long march down a road that could have been wrapped up in about forty minutes and Part 2, while a significant improvement, feels less like a thundering finale to a franchise and a bit more like an final installment on fire that is nevertheless suffering from a bout of pervasive exhaustion.
The opening of the film is brilliant as a metaphor. Mockingjay: Part 1 made the puzzling choice of ending on fairly awkward note, but it sort of makes up for that with the sequence of Katniss in a hospital gurney, her neck severely bruised from Peeta’s attack. She simply can’t find her voice, an apt symbolic moment for a film in which she finds herself constantly twisted and turned for the sake of someone else, her own individuality mitigated until it barely exists. President Alma Coin, as she made abundantly clear to the point of inane reputation, believes wholeheartedly that Katniss is the face of the Revolution and her value as a propaganda tool is immeasurable. She has an understandable point at that juncture, considering Katniss’s original act of defiance with the blueberries was the spark the Rebellion needed to truly kick off. It’s also a thinly veiled attempt to keep Katniss reigned in, lest the wings of the Mockingjay spread too far and wide. Katniss, however, slowly realizes that she has no desire whatsoever to be tied together like a prop leading soldiers in front of a green screen. As Peeta’s health fluctuates more than the weather patterns in Portland, Katniss’s desire to see President Snow die at her hands for his crimes increases exponentially. That is the moment when Mockingjay’s second installment truly takes off in terms of plot and the Capitol comes into real focus. The sequences from the opening shots up to Katniss’s decision are fairly clunky, however, hobbling from one scene to the next without an organic idea of how to get to its ultimate destination.
Mockingjay – Part 2 makes several mistakes along the lines of its clunky opening stretch, as if the screenwriters were inhibitive of doing another re-write to ensure that the film had a smooth and unperturbed flow. An action occurs, then everyone talks, an action occurs, and then everyone talks once more. It’s not a requirement that the final film in a franchise be nonstop action (this series, with all of its flaws, is really above that), but the transitions need to be less startling and certainly more organic to the narrative that’s being woven. More often than not, those pauses felt unfortunately like the film was trying to pad out its running time when there were other, more vital events that seemed to get a bit of the short shaft. The most tiring of these instances is the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, which has never worked and the focus on it in the final installment makes it all the more apparent that this aspect of the plot was the bane of the series’s existence. The one aspect of the love triangle that is fairly progressive and unique, however, is that this involves an instance where the female gets to make the choice and that choice is not relegated to the importance of a romantic life or any such nonsense. Peeta and Gale recognize that their own feelings may be true, but ultimately it is Katniss’s decision they have to respect and frankly, at the moment, Katniss has a plethora of other, more prescient matters to worry about. I admire that, but it unfortunately doesn’t change how lifeless and stilted the romantic connections have been presented in the series so far. Each kiss feels less organic and more like the film is fulfilling an obligation towards its target audience.
The most impressive aspect of The Hunger Games that has likewise been the most consistent (outside of the performances) is the series’s commitment to the brutality of war and oppression. Too many series take the easy road in portraying the cost of battle and Mockingjay does an admirable job of portraying that horror in a truer light, a feat made all the more impressive when the PG-13 rating is taken into consideration. That horror makes the final installment of the franchise by far its most depressing one, but that commitment to making its audience walk away with a heavy burden instead of an overt euphoria is a commitment that more mainstream blockbusters should be making. The politics of The Hunger Games have never been subtle, the namesake Games themselves make that fairly obvious, but they’re a fantastic primer for the complexities of the byzantine politics that are a hallmark of the real world. For those who have read the book and haven’t, there’s a junction where the story could have ended, a neat victory that would be expected but a complete betrayal of what the story had so far set up. But the story is a smarter one than that and the lesson of how power can corrupt anyone and the importance of a collective voice over one imbued within a singular leader is a powerful note for the series to conclude on. Panem was shaky, Panem was a wonder to behold, and at times Panem was simply bemusing. But Panem was nevertheless an often astounding world that held its audience with a tight trip, reveling in its brutal storytelling ability and the political metaphors that at times seemed all too real to the world we live in now. There are definitely too many endings, complete with an inane epilogue straight out of the book, but I most profess that when the final shot cut to black, I knew that Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen had left a mark no one else’s arrow could ever hope to pierce.
Title: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Produced by: Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik
Screenplay by: Peter Craig, Danny Strong, Suzanne Collins
Based on: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland
Music by: James Newton Howard
Cinematography: Jo Willems
Edited by: Alan Edward Bell, Mark Yoshikawa
Production Company: Color Force
Distributed by: Lionsgate
Running Time: 137 minutes
Release Dates: November 20, 2015 (United States)
Image Courtesy: EW, Telegraph UK