One of the first images we see in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 is that of Philip Seymour Hoffman. This is a welcome seance. We have said many farewells to Hoffman — one of our generation’s finest actors, here playing Panem resistance mastermind Plutarch Heavensbee — since his death in February 2014, almost two years ago. This is not another goodbye. His breezy role here is more like meeting an old friend in town for a quick drink just before he leaves again for good. Sad to see you go, sir, but at least we did see you once more. Safe travels.
But Hoffman’s appearance also has an unintended effect. It reminds us that much of this final Mockingjay had finished filming by early 2014, having been shot at the same time as last year’s Part 1, and that everyone else involved with the film moved out of Panem a long time ago to better things. We would have been wise to do the same.
This Hunger Game is one too many, a 2010-era cash grab in its purest form, more akin to a stern-faced curtain call than a fleshed-out story with a beginning, middle and end. When the adaptations of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian trilogy began four years ago, they were the intelligent, visceral alternative to Twilight mania, youth-skewing blockbusters that took their characters seriously and spoke to real-world conditions like few other YA stories. Now they feel like waiting rooms for A-list actors. Catch fleeting glimpses of Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson and Jeffrey Wright as their once-fascinating characters run out the clock until Lionsgate has finished wringing every last drop of irony-laced profit from its heroic young anarchist.
As we begin, the world’s children all know the tale of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, with a distinct “I’m getting too old for this” look on her face). She’s the former battle royal contestant who beat the system, the fabled “moderate rebel” who will lead the good Panem folk (Panemanians?) in an uprising against the evil overlords who have kept them in line for generations. At last film’s conclusion, Katniss and her team, including warrior love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and slippery white-haired rebel leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, who knows how to wear a face of false concern), were gathering troops from across the war-torn districts for the final assault on the Capitol. Now, despite the best efforts of her superiors to constrain her, Katniss is on a single-minded hunt to kill archenemy President Snow (a perpetually impatient Donald Sutherland).
The sudden arrival of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, whose unsettling performance is still the acting highlight of the series) complicates matters, since he was previously under Snow’s thumb and had said some nasty things about his old pseudo-fling Katniss in public. But things would have been pretty complicated anyway based on the sheer number of expository conversations all these characters are having. In dividing Collins’ 390-page book into two movies, screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong came up with a bad seven-10 split. All the compelling visuals and notes of characterization went into Part 1, leaving only endless serious dialogue, a preposterous climax and (strangely) sewer mutants for the final 137 minutes.
We learn, in minute detail, about all the land mines in the way, the fighting between rebels and loyalists, and the cyclical public debates over whether Katniss is dead. These many gusts of dead air will be ideal moments for the film’s intended audience to check Facebook once the whole $500 million-plus shebang makes its way to their laptops.
Somehow, despite the fact that the film is going nowhere, director Francis Lawrence (who was also the Gamemaker for the last two entries) can’t wait to get there, and the editing hurries us along with tightly overlaid transitional audio. Part 1 wasn’t doing much plotwise, either, but at least there was potency in its propaganda war. This film professes a new level of darkness, and some key characters die, but the closest it comes to a truly distressing moment is a half-second shot of a child we don’t know wailing over her dead mother after a bomb attack on what looks like a line of Capitol refugees.
And how about that Capitol? The trademark symbol of tone-deaf opulence used to be such a treat, when Panem’s outlandishly dressed leaders would parade the Tributes down gold-plated streets and onto that insidious government-controlled talk show. Most recently, the setting has inspired a fantastic recurring bit on The Late Show where Stephen Colbert sends off the “fallen” presidential candidates while dressed as Tucci’s giddy gadfly. Somewhere in the middle of Mockingjay, the rebel force turned the Capitol from gilded to gutted, as it had to for purposes of the story. All that eye-popping window dressing became washed-out and arid, and parts of the film were shot in Berlin to evoke the sense of a withering city.
But the kicker is that we never get to see the forced transition: the gold collapsing under its own stack-of-cards government — otherwise known as the symbology the entire series was building toward. Katniss and her fellow soldiers lay siege to an already destroyed city where the bad guy just happens to live. Any sense of Panem’s tectonic plates shifting from under our feet is utterly absent.
When all is said and done in this world, we are left with a cruel irony: With Hoffman, The Hunger Games resurrected the dead. But the franchise fought so hard to keep itself alive that it couldn’t go out the way it was always meant to.