Review – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

For all the talk of this final instalment of the wildly popular Hunger Games series promising to be an ‘epic’ conclusion to the dystopian drama, very little generates a spark, let alone catches fire.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 PosterIt’s a real shame a franchise that has given us so many great moments, and in the case of its second movie Catching Fire a genuinely top-drawer slice of blockbuster entertainment, should cross the finish line with such an exhausted stumble.

Those who care about such things will no doubt have an opinion over whether the decision to split the final part of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy into two films was right or wrong from an artistic perspective. However, it’s essentially a moot point as we have to judge Mockingjay – Part 2 on its merits – which are sadly lacking for the most part.

Girl on fire: Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

Girl on fire: Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

The film picks up almost exactly where Part 1 left off, with a brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) having tried to murder Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who is finding the burden of being the face of the resistance a heavy weight to shoulder.

With the pieces being moved into place, the final assault against the Capital and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) gets underway, but this is a fight fraught with danger, not only from the deadly traps set within the Capital, but also from inside their own ranks as Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) struggle to address their love triangle while trying desperately to survive.

President Coin (Julianne More) and Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) take command in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

President Coin (Julianne More) and Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) take command in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

It almost goes without saying, but Lawrence is once again excellent in the role that has defined her career to date. The shell shock that Katniss has been experiencing since her first, horrific encounter in the Hunger Games has only grown more acute as time has gone on and left her as a husk, whose only motivation is to assassinate Snow.

Lawrence effectively conveys both the terror of being sucked into a violent and unpredictable situation, as well as the dead-eyed resignation of someone desensitized to events around her. In the hands of a lesser actor, Katniss could easily come across as miserable, but Lawrence has continually imbued the character with an intriguing mix of vulnerability and steel.

Dastardly President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

Dastardly President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

The supporting cast provides suitable back-up, most notably a lively, but under-utilised turn from Jena Malone as the mentally damaged Johanna; a reliably excellent Sutherland as the pitiless Snow; and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final screen appearance as puppet master Plutarch Heavensbee (a scene towards the end involving a letter from Heavensbee would have worked so much better had Hoffman appeared in it).

The film finds an extra gear when the assault on the Capital finally begins in earnest and the springing of the traps laid down by Snow’s Gamesmakers recapture some of the magic of the first two movies. Likewise, an extended sewer sequence where Katniss and co must overcome creatures borrowed from The Descent is pulse-quickening stuff and nods heavily in the direction of Alien/Aliens.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) lead the resistance in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) lead the resistance in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

However, just when the film feels like it’s ready to lift off, the foot is taken off the gas as the characters talk themselves into a stupor. As such, the pacing of Mockingjay – Part 2 is all over the place, veering disjointedly from moments of tension to swathes of glacial tedium. A similar issue affected Part 1, although it was saved in part by the subtle commentary on how the media war and actual conflict help to fuel each other.

The final section feels anticlimactic (a symptom of adhering so closely to what is considered the weakest of the books) and underwhelming, while the much-discussed final scene, although earned on Katniss’ part, feels like it belongs in a lesser Young Adult adaptation.

After the mouth-watering treat of the previous three courses, it’s a shame The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 concludes this banquet in such an unsatisfactory way.

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Review – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

There may be plenty of hunger before we finally get to the games, but it’s more than worth the wait in this bigger, bolder and – yes – better sequel.

Even in spite of Lawrence's knockout performance The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is so pleasing that come the closing credits, you'll be hungry for the next serving

Even in spite of Lawrence’s knockout performance The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is so pleasing that come the closing credits, you’ll be hungry for the next serving

Despite being an international bestseller, nothing was written in stone to suggest Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of young adult sci-fi adventure novels would make a convincing leap to the big screen.

However, paydirt was well and truly hit with the casting of star-in-waiting Jennifer Lawrence in the central role of Katniss Everdeen who, along with strong direction from Gary Ross and striking production design, turned 2012’s The Hunger Games into a mature and effective first chapter in the franchise.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) must jump through President Snow's hoops in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) must jump through President Snow’s hoops in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

With almost double the budget under his belt, new director Francis Lawrence (no relation) has turned in a follow-up that manages to avoid many of the symptoms of sequel-itis and builds on the foundations of the first movie to impressive effect.

Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games left off, with Katniss and fellow 74th Hunger Games tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) reluctantly embarking on a victor’s tour of the impoverished districts of Panem out of fear for their families’ safety. Anxious to stamp out the unrest that’s been brewing following Katniss’ show of defiance in the last Games, despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland) announces that the 75th anniversary Quarter Quell will see former champions – Katniss and Peeta included – fight to the death in the most twisted and sickening Games yet.

Talk show host from hell Caesar Flickman (Stanley Tucci) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Talk show host from hell Caesar Flickman (Stanley Tucci) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Just as in the first installment, Catching Fire spends a great deal of time building up to the gladiatorial spectacle of the Games themselves. However, unlike The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, for example, you never get the sense the film is treading water and indulging itself. The slow, gradual wind up towards the horror of the Quarter Quell feels neccessary, as if the characters are pieces on a chessboard being carefully positioned.

Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) defies the authorities in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) defies the authorities in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

That this build up is as engaging as it is is largely down to the captivating performance of Lawrence, who commands the screen. Since her breakout turn in Winter’s Bone, Lawrence’s stature has grown with every film and here it’s as if the camera is magnetised to her. What makes Katniss so appealing – and so human – is that she remains a reluctant hero, someone who would much rather be out hunting with her friend/love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth) than be the face of the rebellion or a thorn in Snow’s side.

Catching Fire‘s supporting cast is an engaging mix of young and established talent, from Sutherland’s oily turn as the banally evil Snow, to Woody Harrelson’s colourful performance as Katniss and Peeta’s alcoholic mentor Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks’ nuanced portrayal of the garishly dressed Team Katniss cheerleader Effie Trinket, whose blind obidience to the Capitol gradually erodes as the veil is lifted.

The banally evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The banally evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Special mention must go to Stanley Tucci, who’s even more over-the-top this time around as Caesar Flickerman, the Hunger Games talk show host with the impossibly white teeth and insincere laugh who peddles bread and circuses to the masses and stands alongside Snow as the face of Panem’s totalitarian regime. It’s the film’s creepiest character and Tucci’s performance is skin-crawlingly effective.

Just as in the first film, Catching Fire, well, catches fire when the Hunger Games finally commence. Although essentially the same set-up as the previous film (last person standing wins), this time around we get poisonous gas, electrified force fields, psychological warfare and, most disturbingly, flesh-eating monkeys thrown in. Each mini-set piece is striking in its own way and follow each other so quickly you’ll be left as exhausted as the tributes.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark are the girl, and boy, on fire in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark are the girl, and boy, on fire in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

As is the way of modern day franchises, this second installment is darker than its predecessor and is much better for it. The social commentary and political subtext alluded to in the first film is more pronounced this time around (both visually and in the dialogue, most notably between Snow and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Games Designer Plutarch Heavensbee) and the violence more reactionary and brutal. It’s pretty strong stuff for what’s supposed to be a film aimed at young adults.

Even in spite of Lawrence’s knockout performance Catching Fire is so pleasing that come the closing credits, you’ll be hungry for the next serving.