Dissonance Finally Kills the 'Hunger Games'
The franchise has battled its own image for four movies, and it loses definitively in 'Mockingjay Part 2.'
To love the Hunger Games series is to tolerate a certain amount of cognitive and tonal dissonance. The underlying messages of the books and movies — materialism corrupts, complacency is ugly, cycles of violence should be broken, and beware people who seek power — have always stood at odds with the Hunger Games phenomenon. It’s hard to heed caution against buying stuff you don’t need when the messenger is selling you a movie tie-in Barbie, makeup line, and Subway meal deal.
Up to now, the dissonance has been easier to compartmentalize, but it overwhelms The Hunger Games, Mockingjay Part 2, making it feel extraordinarily insincere even as it hits its beats with relentless precision.
The movie is bleak, the bleakest in the series. It also has the most to say. We open on Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) having her neck brace removed after being throttled by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) at the end of the last movie. Peeta's mind has been hijacked by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) so he believes Katniss to be a killer muttation created by the Capitol. The bruises around her throat tense and swell as she tries to speak. It looks painful and it sets the tone for the entire film, which is almost unwaveringly dark. The sweet and sincere Peeta has been tortured and twisted, his personality laid to waste. Gale is now a calculating military strategist whose coldness disturbs Katniss. You've seen the lizard monsters in the trailers. Those things are straight up horror movie material. And book readers know just how far we go down the path of darkness in this story.
And that's where the tonal dissonance becomes a problem. It's impossible not to watch this movie within the context of its reality. It's a bleak war movie that's been shoehorned into a PG-13 rating. It's a megablockbuster that banks on celebrity and is celebrated with ridiculously lavish (even by Hollywood standards) premiere parties. (To her credit, Jennifer Lawrence has recently seemed a little bummed out that the story's meaning has been usurped by her own celebrity.) It's used to sell lines of makeup and dolls. It's been split up into two parts for no reason other than to milk the franchise for more money. And Lionsgate is turning it all into a theme park.
Maybe the problem here is that Katniss is an adult hero being marketed as a child's hero. Superheroes basically need to check one box: Be inspirational to kids without being too problematic. They make perfect iconography because the whole point is to make them easy to define. They're ideal for backpacks and toys and videogames. Adult heroes are more complex. They need to be inspirational while addressing real-world problems. Their victories are more nuanced. Their foes are more familiar because we encounter them in the real world, in the news, and in our daily lives. We might even go into a movie agreeing with their foes. We might not even agree whether these heroes are heroes. It gets weird to put one of them on a backpack.
Katniss Everdeen is mired in depressing real-world problems. She's fighting tyrannies that are too familiar to take as lightly as the Hunger Games phenomenon asks of us. The tyrants live in houses that look too much like our own. Handled with more intellectual honesty, the final Hunger Games might be compared more readily to the likes of Snowpiercer and less to the likes of The Avengers.
The fatal flaw here was splitting the final book into two installments. If Lionsgate had stuck to three films in the series, it would be easier to go along for the ride, and accept the trappings that come with a successful movie franchise. By splitting up the movies, the cash grab becomes too overt to be ignored — to say nothing of how it spoils the momentum created by the second (and best) film.
Once you become attuned to the film's insincerity, it seems to permeate every scene. In one emotionally cathartic moment for Katniss Everdeen, she comes face-to-face with her sister's cat. Jennifer Lawrence admirably digs deep and delivers on a roiling pot of anger and grief and psychological damage. But the weight of the moment is kneecapped because the audience is too excited to see a cameo from their favorite cat. Congratulations, Buttercup. You've ruined everything. Then there's the matter of Philip Seymour Hoffman's computer-assisted performance. The late actor was known for a near obsession with authenticity, and there's nothing authentic about one particular shot where he smirks knowingly while watching Katniss.
This line of critique is, arguably, not fair. The directing is fine. The acting holds up. The action is riveting. And those are generally the kinds of things you're looking at in a review. But the real world encroaches on this movie, sapping its power, and dampening its blows until it's more likely to make your eyes roll than cry. The Hunger Games are over, and dissonance is the victor.