It’s only been a month since the last installment of The Hunger Games was released, but in the dominant glow of the latest Star Wars film, it seems much longer ago than that. Part of the reason for that is not only the buzz over The Force Awakens, but the end-of-the-year buzz over the other Oscar bait released at this time, all of which tends to suck the air out of the critical and popular room and cause us to forget anything earlier than two weeks ago. The other reason is that the trilogy-tuned-into-four f-i-n-a-l-l-y c-a-m-e t-o a h-a-l-t s-o s-l-o-w-l-y.
This last entry brought things to a conclusion, succeeding in wrapping up most loose ends. But it did so with little excitement and more time taken than it should have; in fact, things rather limped to an conclusion at a tired, methodical pace. There was only one real shocking moment, but that had more to do with the startling beginning of an essentially inconsequential “fight” scene with horrible creatures than anything to do with the main plot. It’s as if our emotional investment in this film is spent on minor moments rather than major issues.
More than ever, however, Jennifer Lawrence shows her star power and acting skills. Though there is a certain deadness to the character of Katniss at this point in her life and struggle, Lawrence still holds the screen and her thought-filled, elongated scenes with internal life and focus. Even in her calm and stillness, she holds attention when surrounded with the minor stars, partly because they aren’t in enough of the film to have an impact, and when they do, they surround her as insects around a light. Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson—these are actors who can dominate when given half a chance, but their time in the film is so limited that there is no danger of moving our attention away from center (AKA, Katniss). Again, it’s as if the energy of the film is being deliberately tamped down in deference to the stoicism of our lead.
Only Donald Sutherland could balance the scales with his powerful performance in these film as President Snow. [Spoiler alert] But here he is weakened almost from the start, and he presents less and less of a challenge to Katniss and to Lawrence as the film goes on. This continues to keep the focus on our central character, but it also robs the film of the energy of its central conflict. Having the great Philip Seymour Hoffman die during the film’s making also damaged the film, as one of his possibly strongest scenes apparently turned into a letter that was read (can you feel the energy draining out of the film as you read this?) by a third party to Katniss. Even the talented Julianne Moore (who joins her Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated “older actress” sisters Kate Winslet and Glenn Close as great female dystopian leaders) is less than compelling, and [another spoiler alert] her ultimate fate is painfully predictable to even those of us who haven’t read the books.
Then there is the Peeta-Gale issue, which yes, gets resolved. But like the fates of Snow and Coin (Moore), it’s almost perfunctory rather than engaging or even dramatic. Both men seem to actually fade away as the film progresses, and even though one is the ultimate “winner,” one begins to wonder what the legendary Katniss sees in either one other than a childhood friendship. (There is a rather nice “real or not real” trope that is used well in the second half of the film, though, and at least makes the moment of choice verbally interesting if not dramatically satisfying.)
I don’t know if the film was quoting or paying homage to previous film classics, but the comparison between those films and this only reflected negatively on the newer film. Is the way Panem is treated visually only coincidentally like that of Nuremberg in Triumph of the Will, and if so, why is that 1934 film horrifying in its cinematic monumentalism while this one simply looks like a triumph of CG? Is The Third Man being quoted in the sewer scenes, and if so, why is that older British film so much more suspenseful than Mockingjay, Part Two?
The film is admittedly well photographed, with a clear preference for stillness rather than action—perhaps a telling sign of why this film ended up so lethargic at times.
For one who is no longer a Young Adult, and is a non-reader of the books, the final chapter here at least provides closure with the main questions of who will live and die, who will win and who will reign, and which of two unengaging characters will end up with our heroine. Yet the drawn-out pace and lack of dramatic tension throughout leads to the thought that, except perhaps for the financial benefit of its makers, the series should have remained a trilogy.