By only pulling from the first half of its source novel, Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 filled its screen time with redundant plot setup that excessively established the two sides of the civil war that rages throughout Panem: the status quo maintained by President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), and the rebel faction led by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). Caught between them was Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), ready to kill Snow at a moment’s notice, but increasingly uncomfortable with her role as Coin’s propaganda symbol. It was an act’s worth of conflict stretched over two hours, with only the grim cliffhanger of Peeta’s (Josh Hutcherson) brainwashing introducing any significant new drama.
Ideally, the final movie would feature all the action that wasn’t shown in its predecessor, yet Mockingjay – Part 2 opens with so much recapitulation that a full half-hour acts as nothing more than self-summary. Conversations exude the stiff weariness of duty, reminding audiences of where everything stands before belaboring every single aspect of Coin’s plan to take the Capitol from the president. It takes nearly 45 minutes simply to get inside the city, at which point we’re told and told again about horrendous, fiendishly imagined booby traps that await Katniss as she and her unit move through the city to hunt down Snow. Traps that, sadly, are too rarely shown.
Occasionally, these set pieces prove imaginatively nightmarish. Snow’s gamemasters spring a massive trap on Katniss’s unit in a courtyard, sealing off the area and pumping it full of oil in an attempt to drown them. Later, when the squad heads underground, they’re ambushed by mutant creatures, all talons and teeth, in the first truly unnerving glimpse of the supposedly manic horrors concocted by Snow’s staff to stop the rebels’ progress. But these scenes act merely as precursors for resulting moments of the characters talking about what just happened and how it affects them.
For all the grandstanding, polemical dialogue, the franchise has always best expressed its politics through the shaken trauma of its characters, who put on brave faces for rebel cameras and their comrades, only to privately gasp and leap at shadows—not from the fear of death, but the pain of survival. It’s why Catching Fire remains the highlight of this saga, following up with Katniss and Peeta’s fresh PTSD while also spotlighting how the effect of the Hunger Games stays with its victors for years, even decades.
But where that film ably demonstrated its characters’ emotional states through their actions (their tense public appearances for press, their experienced yet resigned gameplay), Mockingjay – Part 2 never gets the balance right, forever careening from carnage to group therapy so wildly that the action never gets to build and the conversations just repeat themselves. The latter aspect robs the actors of the chance to explore their characters further: Hutcherson should be free to explore entirely new terrain as the mentally poisoned Peeta, but all he’s allowed to do is glumly beg for death, his wish so often stated that it starts to sound less like a broken child’s desire for release than the sullen melodrama of a teen who couldn’t get Taylor Swift tickets. Lawrence spent the last film playing opposite her strengths by unconvincingly propping up Katniss as an inspiring orator, and she fares no better returning to the character’s frayed nerves and shattered emotions, merely replicating the same beats she explored in the previous installments.
The only consistently rewarding aspects of the film are Sutherland and Moore, each of whom plays a mirror of the other. Sutherland has long been the MVP of this franchise, with a savage sense of violent delight tucked under the calm veneer of a voice that never raises, and body language that contrasts the nervous quiver of the protagonists with rigid stoicism. Moore, for her part, gets to fully grow into the venality she hinted at in the previous film, and she portrays Coin’s hypocrisy with shameless pride. They steal the show, but in doing so they expose how badly the young actors meant to carry the film have been let down by a script that never gives them the same freedom to play with their roles. Both parts of Mockingjay are a testament to the fact that adaptation is not mere transcription. By retaining so much of the book’s plot, the movies fail to offer anything of real interest or challenge to those going into the final installment knowing how it ends. For a film about the violent overthrow of the status quo, Mockingjay – Part 2 is terminally conventional.