Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 (Lionsgate, Color Force, Studio Babelsberg, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I finally got to see the last episode in the film cycle based on Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, given the ungainly title The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 (following that damnable practice started by the makers of the Harry Potter movies of spinning one more blockbuster movie out of a book cycle by splitting the last book into two films) and closing out the story told in Collins’ remarkable series of books featuring Katniss Everdeen, girl archer and hunter who triumphs in a neo-gladiatorial contest set in a future country called “Panem” (as in the Latin word for “bread” — Collins gives almost all the characters in the Capital, where Panem’s 1-percenters live, names of historical Romans to underscore the parallel between her dystopian future and the Roman Empire) that’s located in what’s now the northeastern U.S. and emerged after the U.S. itself collapsed during a series of atomic wars. It also became a dictatorship and established the Hunger Games, an annual ritual in which two conscripts from each of the 12 Districts where production actually takes place were put into an arena and forced to fight to the death, with the last survivor being declared the winner. Enough modern technology survived that the Hunger Games were beamed onto TV receivers all over Panem and the population was forced to watch whether they wanted to or not. The first book in the cycle depicted Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her friend Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, who had to have his hair dyed blond for the role — something he hated — and in the final scene of Mockingjay, Part 2, filmed well after the rest of the movie, he wore a blond wig because he didn’t want to have his hair bleached again to match the rest of the film), who becomes one of her lovers during the course of the story, triumphing in the Hunger Games after all the other contestants die and Peeta declares that since they are lovers, they won’t kill each other. This act of defiance against the all-powerful Capital authorities sparks a Panem-wide revolution which, in the next two books, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, fights its way to the Capital itself and directly threatens the regime of Panem’s president, Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland). Snow appears to be an all-powerful dictator but by the end of Mockingjay he’s revealed to be a rather befuddled guy, sort of like Louis XVI, who inherited (he didn’t build) the ancien regime and finds himself unable to understand why anyone would challenge it or how to meet the challenge.

During the rebellion Peeta gets captured by the forces of the Capital and is subjected to venom from a trackerjacker (one of many genetically engineered beasts the Capital’s scientists have created both to make the Hunger Games more interesting and lethal and to suppress any attempt by the District populations to rebel) and other treatments that brainwash him and lead him to believe Katniss is actually evil and is trying to kill him. The revolutionaries recapture Peeta but his mood-swings — sometimes he’s close to his normal self (though considerably more morose than he was in the earlier films) and sometimes he snaps back to being mind-controlled by the Capital and threatening to betray them — and most of Mockingjay, Part 2 is a pretty standard war movie in which a commando team attempts to infiltrate the enemy’s capital and avoid the booby traps the enemy has strewn about. The traps are called “pods” and each one unleashes a life-threatening defense mechanism, whether bio-engineered creatures (so-called “mutts,” which in this version are white-skinned hairless humanoids something like the Orcs in the film version of The Lord of the Rings, though while reading the books I’d imagined them, based on their name, as more like monstrous feral dogs than people), a huge pool of oil, automatically fired machine guns or whatever. I remember that Charles and I discovered The Hunger Games almost by accident — I’d seen a copy of the first book in the cycle either just before or just after the first movie came out in 2012 and picked it up, wanting to know just what the fuss was about — and I was blown away by it, particularly by Suzanne Collins’ beautiful combination of social comment and action-adventure, and I passed it on to Charles immediately after I finished it and promptly ordered online the other two books in the sequence, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. I remember reading the last pages of Mockingjay in a tearing rush as I was heading home on a bus from a meeting and being absolutely riveted to the pages even as I was also grandly disappointed by the ending; Collins had done such a good job of portraying a revolutionary movement just as soulless and unscrupulous as the Capital elite it was trying to displace that the message seemed to be that society as it is sucks, but any attempt to change it is going to create something that may suck a lot more and at the very best will suck only a little less (as Katniss’s sardonic narration at the end of the book Mockingjay says), and the only real way to challenge the system is to drop out of it as much as possible, as Katniss and Peeta have done at the end of the story when they literally cultivate their garden (a nice touch omitted from the film, in which the bucolic denouement happens in a wood but Katniss and Peeta aren’t doing anything but looking after their two sons, played by Jennifer Lawrence’s real-life nephews) and withdraw from the rest of the world as much as possible.

I had read the open anarchism of Mockingjay’s ending — the message that salvation from a screwed-up political, social and economic system lies not in collective action to change it, but in individual action to live as far apart from it as possible — as a kind of consensus statement of the philosophy of American youth these days, particularly since the huge success of the cycle, especially among the “young adult” readers (and moviegoers) for whom it was intended, seemed to suggest it was speaking to something powerful in the Zeitgeist of its young audience. Oh sure, there seem to be occasional twitchings of political and social activism among America’s young — the Occupy movement of 2011 (also the year the first Hunger Games novel was published, and to me it seemed almost a fictional parable of the ideas behind Occupy — though others, like ardent Libertarian Will Stoddard of the annual Condor science-fiction conventions in San Diego, read it as a parable of the evils of big government) and the support Bernie Sanders’ presidential candidacy has won among young voters this year — but one of my fears for the future of this country is that, once Bernie Sanders is not the Democratic Presidential nominee, all too many of his young supporters will conclude that they were right the first time, that political activism is a waste and they’ll go back to individualistic lives the way the Hunger Games’ protagonists do, not because they don’t want to see a better world but they don’t see any realistic way one can be achieved. Anyway, I was a bit surprised by the overall tone of this movie — granted, Suzanne Collins’ cycle starts out surprisingly optimistic (by allying and declaring their love, real or feigned, on TV before all Panem Katniss and Peeta wittingly or unwittingly strike a blow against the Capital establishment and win at least a temporary victory at the end of book one) and gets considerably darker, especially once we run into the District 13 hierarchy at the start of Mockingjay, where we soon learn that the so-called revolutionaries who want to take over from the Capital elite have set up a society just as regimented and unfree as the Capital’s regime they want to displace. (When I read the book I thought of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” — with its final, chilling line, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss” — and thought it would have made a much better outro theme over the closing credits than the rather wimpy lullaby Jennifer Lawrence sings to her kids in the final scene.)

I remember the book as one great energy rush from start to finish; the film, on the other hand, seems slow, somber, almost ponderous — and not because its director, Francis Lawrence, isn’t good enough to keep it moving but because he seems to want a draggy pace to emphasize what’s happening not only to the stories but the characters in them. (Oddly, though Veronica Roth’s Divergent cycle is hardly at the level of The Hunger Games — not only is she nowhere near as good a writer as Suzanne Collins, her story is considerably more muddled in its political and social implications — the directors who’ve made the Divergent movies, Neil Burger and Robert Schwentke, seem stronger filmmakers than Gary Ross, who directed the first Hunger Games movie, or Francis Lawrence, who made the rest of the cycle.) With Mockingjay, Part 2 I missed, more than I had before, Katniss’s own sardonic voice narrating the story and wished the filmmakers had at least considered a film noir-style voiceover narration by which we would have seen and heard the events as filtered through her consciousness. I also noticed that the story does rely an awful lot on old-fashioned movie clichés — the moment we realize we’re watching former Hunger Games survivor Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) getting married to his girlfriend, we just know he’s not going to be among the living at the final fadeout, and indeed he isn’t; also, though I know the filmmakers were stuck with it because it was a key part of Collins’ original novels, the romantic triangle between Katniss, Peeta and her previous hunter-gatherer boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth, who frankly did considerably more for me aesthetically than Josh Hutcherson did, just as Taylor Lautner seemed hotter to both Charles and I than Robert Pattinson in the Twilight cycle) was pretty useless (though I have a good friend who was vehemently upset with the way the cycle ended because she thought Katniss should have gone with Gale instead of Peeta — whereas I’d seen the ending Collins wrote as at least in part a symbol of human progress: Katniss begins the cycle as a hunter-gatherer but at the end she accepts not only Peeta but the next step in the evolution of human culture: agriculture).

Overall, though, Mockingjay, Part 2 was a quite good conclusion to the cycle, despite its longueurs; Lawrence and his writers (Suzanne Collins is credited with “adaptation” of her novel but two other authors, Peter Craig and Danny Strong, wrote the actual script) mostly manage to capture the original spirit of the piece and in particular its bitter ending [spoiler alert]: President Snow orders his palace gates to be open for a refuge for the Capital’s children, but then a bomb attack wipes out virtually everyone who takes Snow up on his offer — including Katniss’s sister Prim (Willow Shields), who you’ll recall was why Katniss signed up for the Hunger Games in the first place: Prim (short for “Primrose”) had been drafted and Katniss used her legal right to save her sister’s life by taking her place in the arena. Katniss confronts Snow, but Snow proves to her that it was the rebels, not the Capital’s own army of so-called “Peacekeepers,” that launched the attack that killed Katniss’s sister. So when she’s given the opportunity to assassinate Snow in a ceremonial execution being televised all across Panem to announce the new regime of President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) — who set up the equally dictatorial regime in District 13 and is quickly moving to establish her own dictatorship to replace Snow’s (if Snow is the Louis XVI of The Hunger Games, Coin is its Robespierre) — Katniss draws her arrow but uses it to kill Coin instead. She’s arrested but the new leader, Commander Paylor (Patina Miller), pardons her and allows her to return to her home in District 12 with Peeta and they both drop out of public life, presumably for the rest of their lives. I find myself with a certain sadness leaving the world of The Hunger Games after having spent four years first with Collins’ books and then with the various movies as they came out, and Charles made the comment that watching the last of the Hunger Games films only reminded us of how much stronger this sequence was than the Divergent cycle (a trailer for the third film in the Divergent series, Allegiant: Part 1 — they did it again! — preceded Mockingjay, Part 2 on the disc), both as political/social commentary and as sheer storytelling!