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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (Release Date: 11-20-2015)

        For all of the devoted fandom and pop culture conversation The Hunger Games has inspired, the critical reading of Suzanne Collins' three (or four?) part epic is still woefully lacking. The book trilogy that inspired the films is firmly situated within the Young Adult fantasy literature boom that's dominated both publishing houses and film studios for the last decade plus, even sporting a love triangle that seemingly comes custom at this point. Yes, the adventures and exploits of Katniss Everdeen are undoubtably designed to titillate teenaged females the world over, but that glaring veneer has led to a misreading of the narrative's larger scope. Considered as a whole, the story explores and ruminates upon propaganda, grief, the distribution of information, symbolism, and the gray area between ethics and agenda... and consistently puts a whole hoard of butts in seats. Comparing the intellectual ambition of this mass entertainment to Tony Stark zipping around the city, or the Indominous Rex getting over-eager with a hamster ball, is laughably asinine. I'm not saying The Hunger Games is War and Peace, but it's operating on a whole different plane than everything else that's making big money in the modern box office. Now that it's all over, I hope this is what we remember about the perils in Panem; that they engaged the minds of their audience where other blockbusters proved entirely unwilling... and that, in the end, the whole enterprise decided that if it really couldn't defeat the likes of Marvel or the impending Jurassic franchise, it might as well join them.

        For those uninitiated to the Hunger Games juggernaut, I highly recommend checking out the premiere installment, and am only slightly less bullish on its immediate predecessor. Each of those films was adapted from a novel of the same name, but because money won't print itself, the climactic book has been separated into two feature films, the first having been released right around this same time last year. Part 2 picks up right where Part 1 left off, with the rebels for which Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) serves as a reluctant patron saint just about ready to finally make their move. Gentle-hearted Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is still tormented by the mental trauma he experienced in the previous installment, though the mass-media-stoking itinerary of rebel leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) requires him to accompany Ms. Everdeen on their climactic mission. With a small crew in tow, including prospective lover Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and his ever-fading moral compass, Katniss trudges through innumerable death traps and battle fields on her way to the heart of the capitol with exactly one goal in mind: assassinate tyrannical dictator President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

        This is the uprising we as an audience have been waiting for, the one which the series has been setting up for 7+ hours now, and yet, much like the film's heroine, it's impossible to not feel let down by its arrival. The heady aspects I've praised this franchise for time and time again are only present through allusion, the other three films having already burned through all of the story's intellectual properties and intrigue. Many have derided Part 1 for stalling in the face of the saga's inevitable conclusion, but all that padding allowed the film to explore some knotty notions with both patience and care. Part 2, by comparison, is only slightly more action-packed, yet has nothing left to argue in its slower passages, filling the lulls with the exact romantic non-sense these films had so wisely skirted up to this point. For as unfair as I believe the Twilight comparisons to be on the whole, at least Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson forged a believable connection; Lawrence has no real chemistry with either of the men who court her, and all three actors appear just as disengaged with the sappier elements as those seated in the auditorium.

        The main culprit for these diminishing returns is undoubtably the source material, which, having leaned heavily on its impending climax for years, is wholly unable to fulfill its promise. It's long been clear that Collins is a more advanced thinker than she is a storyteller, but taken as a whole, the two parts of Mockingjay represent an unforeseeably massive step back on every narrative level. The structure is almost repulsive, whipping us through a series of emotional shifts that nearly all seem mistimed, and robbing our protagonists of any real agency at the moment where they would need it most. Swapping out Francis Lawrence for a more talented director wouldn't have solved the film's myriad of problems, but the flick could benefit from someone with a firmer grasp on helming action sequences. With one single exception, the violence here feels non-threatening, and often fails to engage altogether. Not only is this a war movie wherein we miss almost the entire war, but the moments we do see never elicit either the dread or excitement that are needed to hold our interest. Many will decry the movie's final scene as the low point in the entire chronicle, but I had already cashed in my chips and left the table by that point, and could do little more than chuckle under my breath.

        Yes, this is a scathing review, but it's not written from a place of hatred so much as disappointment. The world that Collins and these filmmakers had established up to this point was strikingly ambitious, and challenged the minds of its audience at nearly every turn. Watching it conclude as an underwhelming brain-dead action romp is disheartening to say the least. To my mind, this franchise will have exactly two lasting legacies: The thoughtfulness and moral rigor that it carried with it through three installments, and the sad truth that each film was lesser than the one that came before it.

Grade: D+

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