In theaters Friday, Nov. 20
2 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)
In less than four years, Katniss Everdeen has gone from Girl on Fire to Girl Who Must Overthrow the Shady Government Before All the Districts Flame Out.
That’s a much less catchy hook. And her much-anticipated last hurrah — though an improvement over the stagnant previous installment — suffers for it. With its cynical political bent and relentless downbeat tone, consider it the feel-bad blockbuster of the year.
First, a note to anyone who is new to the dystopian Hunger Games universe and wants to join the party late: Proceed directly to Star Wars. This film is not a stand-alone. It’s intended solely for people up-to-speed on the plight of the districts.
In fact, the action picks up immediately after the shocking climax of Part 1 – when Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), still brainwashed from his time in the Capitol, lunged at the neck of his ally and childhood crush, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). Her neck now a lovely shade of purple, Katniss is trying to sound out words in the District 13 bunker. It would be a throwaway opener if not for the presence of former Games maker Plutarch, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. This is Hoffman’s final performance, and it’s impossible to not reflect on this great loss during his fleeting appearances here.
Soon our favorite headstrong arrow-slinger is in full-on rebellion mode. With the nation verging on all-out warfare, she knows filming propaganda videos as the symbolic “Mockingjay” ain’t going to cut it. She wants change yesterday, and she’s set on doing it by storming the Capitol and assassinating uber-controlling President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Yes. Let’s do this. Helping her on the mission: fragile and still-ailing Peeta, Finnick (Sam Claflin), and the members of the so-called “Squad 451.” Oh, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is there too. And he’s as useless as ever.
The group’s journey through Panem is packed with lethal and violent obstacles, including dangerous fireballs and flash floods. (Finnick dubs their adventure “the 76th annual Hunger Games.”) Some of the thrills are frightening; most are meh. Perhaps this is a case of mutant-itis. Though we jumped out of our seats the first time we saw the beasts, now we’ve built up immunity to them. As Katniss & Co. amble into a cave for safety, the enveloping darkness and quiet may lull you into a brief nap.
The march leads to a standoff at the Capitol that fails to convey the proper emotional oomph. Not to blame the director, but what was Francis Lawrence thinking? The disjointed, stop-and-start sequences are maddening, given Lawrence’s fearless and immense talent — she’s won a Best Actress Oscar and been nominated for a Supporting Actress since launching her first arrow! Yet the star is cheated out of fully experiencing a few key events in the third act. The only consolation is that said events are surprisingly faithful to the source material. And the melancholy resolution is just as effective (and well-earned) on-screen as it is on the page.
Except for anything Gale-related. Hemsworth, who acted in all four films with a blank look on his handsome mug, never did hold up his corner of this supposed love triangle. #Teampeetaforever.
Look, even ardent fans can admit that Mockingjay is the bleakest and weakest chapter in the book trilogy. It lacks the raw originality of the Hunger Games and the souped-up storytelling of Catching Fire. Beloved friends such as Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks) wither in the background, while Julianne Moore’s President Coin lacks the domineering characteristics given to Snow. Splitting it into two films was certainly a spectacular financial move, yet not necessarily a wise artistic one.
Nonetheless, there is an upside to the two Mockingjays: more Katniss. Now more than ever, she’s a classic heroine who perpetually uses her physical and inner strength to rise from the ashes. The odds will always be in her favor, as well they should.
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