(Netflix streaming, August 2016) It would be tempting but unfair to start holding Mockingjay Part 2 accountable for the faults of the entire young-adult dystopian subgenre. Even though The Hunger Game launched the category in 2012, it can’t be entirely held responsible for the flood of imitations, including those executed as trilogies with split last chapters. Especially not given how many flaws it has on its own. Surprisingly enough, this last chapter in the Hunger Games series holds true to the third book’s second half, even despite the bad reviews and disappointed fans’ reaction to the end of the series. Here, protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, once again holding the series on her shoulders) heads to the Capitol for a final confrontation with President Snow (Donald Sutherland, just as good in his slimy-cold mode) as the rebels are nearly done overthrowing the established tyranny. Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up one last time in a small role that he manages to make much better. Of course, things aren’t so black-and-white: the rebels once again prove to be just as bad as their oppressors, Katniss is suffering from some significant psychological issues, she’s surrounded by a people she can’t trust and the Empire is ready to throw some tough obstacles in her way. The rest is an urban war movie with enough teenage melodrama (helped along by some brainwashing and questionable character choices) to reach most of the four quadrants. Some bits drag on and on, such as an almost entirely superfluous zombie battle in the sewers. There are a lot of special effects, last-minute betrayals, musings on propaganda and a downbeat ending that (as in the novels) makes a mockery of the first book’s initial triumph. On the one hand: how sad and depressing—are we sure this is what we should be teaching today’s already-depressed young adults? On the other: how daring and unconventional—isn’t such nuance what we’re always saying we want from fiction aimed at younger people? I still haven’t figured out, and so my rating for Hunger Games 3b remains in the middle range. But if there’s anything to push me over to a side in particular, it’s that I’m glad it’s over, because it means another dystopian series I won’t have to keep remembering plot details in anticipation of the next instalment. That may not be entirely fair to the film, but when you can mix-and-match elements from three different series in one common structure, it’s hard to avoid a bit of burnout.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2014) The root of the problems with Mockingjay 1 (or Hunger Games 3a) is the business decision, well before the movie had started shooting, that the third volume in adapting Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy was to be split in two separate movies. While there is some justification to the split (the book itself does feel as if it has separate halves), it means that this first half isn’t much more than seeing the lead character mope around despondently for a full hour and a half, with much repetitive material thrown in, over and over again. The pacing isn’t just off: it’s the entire point of the film that’s dulled by this decision. Fortunately, Jennifer Lawrence continues to be better than the material she gets: even a relatively low point like Mockingjay 1 showcases how much the series relies on her performance. It’s not as if the other actors stand there doing nothing (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s pretty good as a manipulator working against his former masters and Natalie Dormer gets a meatier part than usual here), but she remains the foundation on which the series is built. While there’s something encouraging to be said about the film’s production values, its jaundiced view of revolutions and the vulgarized exposition of propaganda techniques, Mockingjay 1 isn’t a whole lot of fun to watch – and if the producers stick to the book, Part 2 won’t be a bag of happy puppies either. But then again, I’m comfortably older than the target audience for this trilogy. At least it’s a bit better than most of its emulators have managed to be so far.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) There are few surprises in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. If you’ve read the Suzanne Collins book, it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. If you haven’t, then it’s a straight continuation of the previous film, with somewhat better direction by Francis Lawrence and a structure that consciously echoes the first film… before breaking out of it. Jennifer Lawrence continues to be the anchor of the series, while Josh Huchinson does his best to stay out of the way. The background details of that imagined future still don’t make sense, and the story gradually picks up steam until it sparks into the long-awaited insurrection. Otherwise, though, it’s serviceable without being particularly memorable. It sets down the necessary element required for the sequel. If that’s less than enthusiastic as a reaction, it’s largely because there’s a glut of such young-adult films all crowding the marketplace and their cynical intentions are only too apparent. It is what it is, though, and as far as execution is concerned, this second volume is competent enough, with just a bit more spark to it than the first film. Bring on the third and fourth movies… it’ll have to end at some point.