Grim, relentless and immensely satisfying, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2” sends out the dystopian sci-fi franchise on a feel-bad high. Readers of Suzanne Collins’ source novel, who already know what’s coming, will be pleased by the movie’s merciless fidelity to the source material (or perhaps, considering the book is the least popular in the trilogy, will just be annoyed).
For the rest of us, who only know “The Hunger Games” through its wildly uneven movies, this is proof that there really was more going on here all along than derivative allegories, shallow cultural commentary and trite young-adult angst. Filmmaker Francis Lawrence, who has gradually deepened the series over the last three installments, doesn’t forget the somber aura that has seeped into the films, hinting at grave things to come. Civil war and fascism aren’t subjects you can wrap up with a shiny bow and glitter. Even a presumably happy ending would bear melancholy footnotes, which is the case here.
By now, the story has grown so complicated that the director doesn’t try to help newcomers catch up. “Mockingjay — Part 2” picks up where the previous movie left off: Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has been rescued from the clutches of the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) but is brainwashed to fight against Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and the rest of the underground rebels. Finnick (Sam Claflin) is preparing to wed. Johanna (Jena Malone) is still fronting. President Coin (Julianne Moore), the leader of the rebellion, and her assistant Plutarch (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died during production) debate Katniss’s value as a symbol. She may be worth more as a martyr now.
The bulk of this is a war movie, albeit on an intimate scale, with a small group of soldiers trying to achieve an impossible military mission, beset by enemies in the form of monsters and less describable things, such as a giant wave of black goo that seems to be alive. Their objective is simple — take Snow down — and Katniss, armed with her iconic bow and arrow, finds new uses for her versatile weapon.
The heroes suffer big losses, as all soldiers in wars must. But the film never generates the rush of a straightforward action picture: A sense of dread permeates the movie, a feeling that this story might not be as predictable as it appears. Despite the series’ monumental success, “The Hunger Games” hasn’t permeated popular culture the way superheroes or even “Twilight” did. Yes, you can buy a Katniss action figure, but who would ever want to pretend to be her?
The casting of Lawrence as the anchor of this franchise now seems like a stroke of prescient genius — her talent has blossomed and matured in ways no one could have predicted — and the saga’s final chapter brings the focus back to her, reminding us of everything Katniss has lost and suffered as a result of trying to protect her younger sister in the first installment. She gets a lovely, bittersweet send-off, and the actress makes us believe in all the pain and experience etched across her face.
When Lionsgate announced it would be splitting Mockingjay in two, the move felt like a cash grab. But after seeing the new movie, the decision makes sense. “Part 2” really is just that: the second half of the film you started watching last year. Here is your reward. Be careful what you wish for.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some thematic material. Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth. Director: Francis Lawrence. Running time: 137 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.