When Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy re-popularized the cinematic blockbuster mega-movie — not just a series of sequels merging into a franchise, but a single complete story, planned from the outset to cover many films over many years — cultural criticism got just a little more complicated. Film writers suddenly faced some of the same questions TV writers had been dealing with for years: What’s the value of treating one section of a narrative as if it were a stand-alone experience? Is it really possible to meaningfully examine a film that’s incomplete without its other parts?
Some film series lend themselves more readily to film-by-film analysis, like the original Star Wars trilogy: with three different directors and three distinctive tones, plus a series of complete, satisfying character arcs in the first installment, those features feel like separate projects, even as they're using the same characters and actors to tell an ongoing story. Jackson's episodic Lord Of The Rings movies, on the other hand, are essentially one long feature, cut into manageable, theater-friendly segments.
The film's value is in how it pays off its predecessors
The Hunger Games movies, now wrapping up with the fourth installment, Mockingjay - Part 2, split the difference. In the series' opening film, 2012's The Hunger Games, director Gary Ross loyally adapted Suzanne Collins' bestselling novel without much visual or narrative distinction. But when Francis Lawrence took over the series as of film number two, Catching Fire, he established a crisp visual language and design that he's kept through his three films in the series. Lawrence's Catching Fire and the two halves of Mockingjay play more like a single six-and-a-half-hour movie, with pauses for cliffhanger moments between films. Part 2's value isn't in the individual experience, so much as in the way it pays off its predecessors. Taken on its own, it's a dour, faltering film with an under-served cast, full of unsatisfying downtime and distractingly poor lighting. As part of a bigger work, though, it picks up meaning in the way it triggers memories and completes thoughts, and the way it resolves the story for its long-suffering characters. It isn't a wholly immersive experience, but it's a comfortingly re-immersive one.
As Mockingjay - Part 2 begins, its heroine has — pointedly — lost her voice. At the end of Mockingjay - Part 1, having already survived two separate rounds of forced gladiatorial combat, reluctant rebel Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) was nearly killed by her Games partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who had been brainwashed to see Katniss as an enemy by dictator President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Katniss' silence is troubling, given how she's become the public face of the rebellion against Snow, responsible for stirring up the oppressed citizens of Panem with her impassioned, impromptu speeches. But Part 2 quickly moves on to the more symbolic ways she's being silenced, as rebel organizer Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and public relations mastermind Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his final, fairly minimal screen role) repeatedly attempt to confine and constrain her, to control the message they're sending to the rebels.
Mockingjay - Part 2 sets up a strange tension between what viewers want for Katniss and what they want for themselves. Katniss has earned a peaceful life, as devoted soldier Boggs (House Of Cards' Mahershala Ali) points out. And while she locks down her emotions around Peeta and forces herself to see him as nothing but a threat, the script lingers so pointedly over their mutual pain that it would be cruel and unusual to deny them a peaceful resolution. At the same time, the Hunger Games movies have always been about action and empowerment, particularly for underestimated young women forced to define themselves and their strengths on their own terms. While Part 2 moves inexorably toward a retirement plan for Katniss, it acknowledges at every moment that the story can't feel complete, and can't perk up, until her fans can see her back at the heart of the war. And so the Hunger Games themselves get one more revival, as Katniss and her allies run a lethal gauntlet into the Capitol, braving a series of traps (inexplicably called "pods") set up by Games engineers.
Jennifer Lawrence is called on again to play Katniss as a study in seething contradiction. Collins' young adult novels rely heavily on Katniss' inner monologue, as she fights for survival, no matter the cost to her pride, dignity, or ethics. Given the wise lack of voiceover, Lawrence has to communicate all that inner conflict silently, then project a hollow strength on top of it. At the same time, she has to bring across Katniss' selfish desire to stay alive, her guilt over that selfishness, and her ferocious will to right the wrongs around her. The entire series closely studies the many ways maintaining this complicated balance is slowly tearing her apart. But Part 2 feels like the first time the role gets away from Lawrence a little. Trying to play suffering martyr and grim death at the same time, she mostly portrays Katniss as operating on angry autopilot.
Part 2 veers between frenetic action and plodding, familiar arguments. The faithfulness of the book-to-film adaptation lets the director luxuriate in every scene, waiting for fans to soak up all the available emotion, but at the expense of any sense of momentum for those watching the story unfold for the first time. And given the sprawling cast of familiar faces, it's startling how many well-established characters (like Jeffrey Wright's Beetee, Stanley Tucci's Caesar Flickerman, and Woody Harrelson's Haymitch) only make brief cameos, while new characters (including Game Of Thrones' Gwendoline Christie, in a brief, generic role as a rebel commander) continue to populate the universe.
Even for hardcore Hunger Games loyalists, Part 2 has some off-putting elements. Collins always treated the emotional connection between Katniss, Peeta, and Katniss' old flame Gale (Liam Hemsworth) wryly, emphasizing Katniss' fixation on survival over romance. The triangle always felt like a deliberate twitting of Twilight's similar setup. But even so, Part 2 is surprisingly aggressive about making Gale petulant and needy. The film treats his connection with Katniss as downright distasteful, focusing on his glowering possessiveness. He's Edward Cullen with a pulse and a pout.
Ultimately, the film's biggest payoffs come in the sheer satisfaction of resolution, often in the form of parallels to the earlier movies. The first Hunger Games kicked into gear when Katniss' younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) is selected for the tournament, and Katniss volunteers to take her place. In Part 2, Prim has become a medic, and her fate becomes key in a new way. Other fan-favorite characters — Haymitch, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) — mirror their specific actions from the beginning of the series, but in new ways, to show how freedom, revolution, and sacrifice have changed them. Villains are punished, and Sutherland gets some welcome space to elegantly chew up the Capitol scenery as Snow visibly disintegrates. The sheer number of ending segments rivals the infamous chain of "final" scenes in Jackson's Return Of The King, but the cascading wrap-up does let the story return to its key locales, and bring the entire story full circle.
But above all, Katniss finally gets to resolve her inner conflicts. The ultimate resolution isn't which love interest she ends up with, it's where she goes, how she chooses to live her life, and the moment when she finally allows herself to express the emotions she's bottled up for four straight films. No matter what comes before it in this installment, her resolution is the culmination of three years of intense emotional setup, and getting there is like releasing a long-held breath.
Earlier in 2015, Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer said he was "actively looking" for "prequel and sequel possibilities" for the Hunger Games franchise. It's easy to understand the temptation to wring more installments out of this series, considering that the average worldwide box-office take for the individual films has hovered around $750 million. But it's hard to see where the Hunger Games movies could possibly go from here, or how the origins of this world could provide a compelling story. Unlike Star Wars or the Phase One Marvel Cinematic Universe films, Hunger Games movies don't entirely hold up as individual experiences. But together, they form a single arc. As wobbly as Mockingjay - Part 2 is, it's powerful because its characters and conflicts have become so familiar in the culture, and because it completes a long and painful journey. Katniss Everdeen has traveled from childhood to adulthood, and from political awakening to political release. The last thing her story needs is to be reopened and re-examined. As Boggs said, she's earned her rest.