Hollywood blockbusters are supposed to be an enjoyable affair. You get your popcorn and candy of choice (Snow Caps for me), turn your brain off, and lean back in your theater chair and have a nice relaxing time at the picture show. These movies are not supposed to be too hard on the brain. Studios spend millions of dollars to give us this escape from real life and put a smile on your face when you leave the theater. Whether it’s Hulk slamming Loki around like a Norse god rag doll or when Neville Longbottom turns a boggart into Professor Snape wearing his grandmother’s hat, blockbusters are supposed to give us a bit of levity in this serious journey we call life.
Suzanne Collins didn’t get this memo when writing the Hunger Games. Neither did screen writers Peter Craig and Danny Strong when Lionsgate decided to hire them to adapt Collins’ beloved series. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if all three of them met in a room at a big round table, with nefarious monocles firmly placed in their left eye, because villains always place the monocle in their left eye, and decided to disguise a movie that deals with social and political issues that would make Nick Fury pee his pants in horror as a Hollywood Blockbuster. This plan was released on a unsuspecting movie going public, the ones that don’t read the book before seeing the movie (like me), in the disguise of a hipper, even more over-the-top version of the 1980’s classic Running Man, with it then suddenly transforming into a full blown war movie that is so bleak you can actually feel your lungs become heavy with the smoke and dust of a city decimated by war.
Mockingjay: Part 2 is not a movie that leaves a smile on your face. It’s a blockbuster that forgets it’s a blockbuster and it turns into something of a case study in war, power, politics, and propaganda. Nothing about this movie is fun and, at times, can leave you wishing for an intermission from the grief and dissolute atmosphere it creates just long enough to prepare you for the next lesson in despair it’s about to teach you. It’s heavy and only lightens the load at the end so we can at least get a bit of relief so our brains don’t go numb with sadness.
With all that being said, Mockingjay is an extremely well made film, and it’s partially because of the heavy subject matter and how it creates chances for exceptional performances by the cast.
Jennifer Lawrence continues to show that she was born to play Katniss Everdeen with another endearing performance as a girl who just wanted to save her sister, became a symbol of political and social change to the masses, and now realizes she is being used as pure propaganda for President Coin’s rise to power. Lawrence’s performance is so captivating to watch because of how the character evolves and how Lawrence portrays the change of Katniss so vividly. Whether it’s the pure survival mode in the first film to this focused and hardened military operative of the last, Lawrence’s performance matches each change perfectly. We’ve seen actors play one character for many years and, usually, struggle to keep that character relevant and not just the same version in a different environment. Lawrence’s performances are indicative of the change the actual character of Katniss goes through, and makes you see the major changes to Katniss’ demeanor and outlook to great affect. One particular on screen breakdown, after Katniss is left alone to finally digest the events of the story, is so well done it makes you want to try and jump through the screen and just hug her. It’s an incredible scene of despair and mourning that any human being would have after realizing what they just lived through and who they lost during the process. It’s another amazing performance from one of the female leads in Hollywood today.
Lawrence’s performance isn’t the only one that exudes excellence. Josh Hutcherson’s performance as a tortured and brain washed Peeta Mellark gives the film even more tension. His recovery is painful to watch as he comes to the realization that he can’t control his violent outbursts toward Katniss and is a very dangerous hinderance. Hutcherson does a great job of depicting a character that has been completely broken and now trying to figure out how to move on knowing that death may be the only way to do so. In this film alone he goes from an unhinged lunatic, to being paralyzed with fear on the battlefield, to a sympathetic character that knows he is a danger to the people he loves. It’s a worthy performance of possibly the most intricate character in the whole film.
Donald Sutherland (who might possibly be my favorite performance of the entire series) continues his clinic on how to be a hated villain as President Snow; Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of Haymitch Abernathy continues to be solid with his abrasive tone and witty jabs; and Julianne Moore makes you hate President Coin as you continue to see her turn virtually into an even more ruthless President Snow. You add Jenna Malone’s crazy eyed turn as the loose cannon Johanna Mason, Elizabeth Banks continuing to add relief to a movie with very little of it as the innocent and caring Effie Trinket, the final performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the peace driven and genius Plutarch Heavensbee, and you have a film that has its foundation built on inspired acting instead of special effects. With the exception of Liam Hemsworth and, let’s be honest, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone at this point, the cast gives a memorable performance on every level possible.
The cinematography of the film is top notch as are the special effects. The rebellion isn’t clean and it’s shot to reflect that. The environment becomes a character unto itself and it magnifies the dread with each moment Katniss and her group engages it. The effects are seamless and doesn’t verge into the absurd. The Capital’s weapons and traps are well within in the possibility of the futuristic war that is being waged.
One of my favorite scenes in particular, without giving too much away, puts the team in a dark and flooded underground corridor with very nasty Capital creations hunting them down. It’s a scene that invokes the tension of the original Alien film and the dread of EA’s Dead Space 2, two of my favorite Sci-Fi horror experiences, as you know this has no chance of ending well. The whole scene made me wish that director Francis Lawrence would be given the keys to the Alien franchise.
As I stated before, I haven’t read the books, but my wife, who has read the books, was pretty happy with how the series’ finale was brought to the big screen. It wasn’t perfect, as very rarely (if ever) book-to-screen adaptations stay completely faithful to the written page, it was close enough to make her happy with the finale and the series as whole. Her only major qualm was with how physically pretty Katniss stays throughout the film, as the character shows the affects of war in her appearance in drastic ways by the end of the actual book.
Mockingjay Part 2 is masterpiece that will stay relevant due to it’s content matter rather than the number of explosions. Francis Lawrence did a fantastic job of not shying away from how ugly war is and how even a noble cause can be sullied by the quest for absolute power. It’s even more amazing at how the film portrays that within the PG-13 confines it’s built in.
In short, the term “Hollywood Blockbuster” has been redefined. And we, the movie going public, are reaping the rewards.