Book-based film franchises that split the final novel in their series into two films will never not feel like they're reaching for a blatant cash grab. However, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 was the odd split-book movie that actually felt like it took the freedom to not cram an entire book's worth of character development into one film and ran with it.
the bleakest installment of this franchise about children murdering children
Splitting the book gave Part 1 time to play out character arcs, to showcase the militaristic socialist society of District 13, and to give proper weight and emotional impact to the consequences — good and bad — of the Mockingjay's slow-burn revolution. In Part 2, however, that extra time seems to have been given over to painstakingly setting up what is actually a relatively simple plot (at least until the finale): Katniss realizes that with all the districts finally rallied together against the Capitol and the rebellion's leadership looking forward to postwar politics, she has once again become a completely helpless pawn in a deadly theatrical game. So, against orders, she decides to mount a suicidal, rogue strike on her personal nemesis, President Snow.
But before we get there, we have to remind the audience of President Snow's iron grip on our protagonists, even as his administration thrashes through its death throes, growing more evil and less rational as it goes. We have to lay out the major themes of the film — the ethics of war and the reciprocal nature of vengeance — before the plot can move on. Except for one brief scene, the huddled masses who took Katniss as inspiration to grasp their own freedom — whose presence both visually and narratively gave the previous film so much of its emotional punch — go virtually unremembered in a more isolated story, to the film's detriment.
Panem remains one of science fiction's most enthralling dystopias
But if Mockingjay — Part 2 starts slow, as soon as the movie actually gets to the point where Katniss' actions can take full control of the plot, it gains the forward momentum it needed all along. A particular sequence taking place in the bowels of the Capitol sewer system deserves special mention for being chair-arm-grippingly tense and stretching that tension for agonizing minute upon minute. Part 2 returns the franchise to what made it appealing to the Hollywood blockbuster machine in the first place: our young heroes dodging the Capitol's insidious and horrifying traps, weapons and genetic manipulations, as their every move is packaged and repackaged for their enemy's agenda.
And yet even here it's the scenes of Katniss and her squad lying low in lavish but abandoned Capitol apartments — watching news and propaganda about themselves on television or simply talking through the damage they've suffered over the events of the past three films — where the movie feels the most compelling, and where it showcases the narrative ideas that have put Panem on the list of science fiction's most enthralling dystopias.
Now is as good a time as any to warn those who haven't read the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy that Mockingjay — Part 2 stands out as the bleakest installment of this major blockbuster franchise that's draped around the idea of a yearly televised competition to see which of 24 children is the best at murdering other children. This is not a matter of one big death scene changing the tone of a film, but rather a series of events and character decisions that permeate much of Part 2's second act. Go in emotionally prepared.
The Hunger Games books already have a relatively controversial ending, as many readers can tell you. Mockingjay has long been weighed by readers as being too abrupt or — paradoxically — too bleak and too saccharine to truly do justice to the life of Katniss Everdeen. As for how The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 wraps up the series, I remain personally divided. For once, the films benefit from not being able to use Katniss' role in the books as an unreliable first-person narrator. What can seem abrupt in the last chapter of a novel turns out to run along just fine in a moving film montage. And yet, I expect the film's final scene will remain divisive as ever. I wasn't sure whether it worked for me when I stepped out of the theater, and I remain unsure even now.
I expect the film's final scene will remain divisive as ever
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 (there, that's the last time I have to type that mouthful) has not dethroned its predecessors to take the spot of best movie in the franchise. But it is a solid action film full of memorable performances from folks like Julianne Moore, Jena Malone and Donald Sutherland — not to mention the final film performance of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. And as a send-off to Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire, victor over her own demons ... it could have done a lot worse.