Directed by Francis Lawrence; Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong
In 1991, Charles Barkley, basketball great, was in hot water after spitting at a racist heckler at a game (but hitting a young girl instead), and among the sports commentariat and those pure enough to throw the first stone, the debate raged about what examples athletes should set. Barkley was firm in his belief that examples should be set by those actually in a child’s life, not some commercialized athlete they watch on television. It didn’t take Nike long to use the debate to sell shoes, shooting a commercial wherein Barkley, in stark black and white, told the camera “I am not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
Barkley was both right and wrong. He was right when he chastised parents for their moralistic outrage that pinned child-rearing on athletes, but he also refused to acknowledge the reality that with great talent comes admiration, and that admiration doesn’t confine the example you set to your chosen field. Once famous, you’re no longer a person, but an non-copyrighted image, to be used and interpreted by others as they see fit.
Charles Barkley wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last celebrity to learn this, and in Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant face of a political uprising that reaches its climax in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, he’s found a sister, as Everdeen battles faceless henchmen, mutant monsters, and the dirty politics of revolutionary war in the franchise’s blockbuster conclusion.
Picking up where Mockingjay – Part 1 left off, the film begins close to the end, with the rebellion staging its final push into the Capitol where the future of Panem will be decided. On one hand, the galvanized fighters of the outlying districts, on the other, the entrenched city-dwellers led by President Snow, whose detached machiavellian brooding of the earlier films is replaced in Part 2 by an uncoupled madness that flips from fascist strongman, to weary grandpa, to deranged trickster. Nothing like the end of days to bring about a change in outlook.
In a franchise that’s always had a compelling emphasis on the individual’s strength and weaknesses in effecting social change, Everdeen’s final chapter begins with unfortunately heavy-handed metaphor, as she literally tries to find her voice in the aftermath of almost being strangled to death by a brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a brutal twist that brought the last film to a close. Her hoarse, raspy whisper sets the tone for a film that’s surprisingly disillusioned in contrast to the first film, where clear-cut dichotomies of good and evil have been replaced by murkier terrain in the shape of Everdeen’s misgivings about the true character of rebel leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, cold and hard like an icepick). Will the new regime be the same as the old regime, she wonders?
The Hunger Games-franchise was never optimistic, yet its conclusion still feels far flung from the first installment and its belief in the power of great acts of humanism. In Part 2’s, this dystopian disillusion is reflected in the universe losing whatever colour it had, and emerging almost as a projection of Everdeen’s long-standing malaise, with everything bathed in grey and even the Capitol’s supposedly gleaming downtown core resembling Soviet-era communal housing.
Newfound political outlooks aside, those who are drawn to The Hunger Games for its images of children killing and dying will leave satisfied, and I’m honestly a little shook by the film’s bloodlust and the state of our ratings system when a death scene reminiscent of Frank’s death in Hellraiser, people being eaten by genetically engineered monsters, and children being firebombed only warrants a PG-13 rating in the eyes of the MPAA. No sensuality and only a few kisses, thank goodness, otherwise we’d really be corrupting those middle schoolers.
Its violent spectacles are top-notch, however, and a scene in the sewers of the capital stand out in particular, paying homage to the quiet tension-building of Ridley Scott’s Alien before breaking out into overwhelming terror-inducing chaos. In a film concerned with a peoples’ liberation, the filmmakers’ flair for multi-person action sequences and crowd work is noteworthy. It ain’t easy, just look at The Dark Knight Rises and its stilted backdrop of play fighting.
In a film whose love language is combat, it’s perhaps not surprising it struggles with emotions and resolving the central love triangle that has lumbered along in all four films, choosing to spend its time in the havoc of warfare instead of finally fleshing out the relationship that was presented as the default, or justifying the other that only seemed viable on the basis of its couple’s shared trauma. In Panem, maybe that’s the most you can hope for.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 is a fitting end to the “grown up” young adult series and emblematic of the series as a whole, excelling at spectacle, and struggling to find a balance in communicating many of its characters. Dispiritingly, it also keys in well to the times’ political ennui, with anti-establishment sentiment, an attitude of victory at any cost, and disillusionment so severe it breeds a death wish; it’s a little damning of our times when sci-fi fantasy provides no escapism nor seems prescient, but instead just feels like Gen Z revolutionary fan fiction.