Monday, January 4, 2016

Mockingjay Part 2: So You Want a Revolution, Do You?


Oh my Chickadees. What could I possibly say about The Hunger Games at this point that hasn't already been said by someone far more eloquent and poignant than I? There is so little left to mine for depth, so many words spilled on this series. Anything I could possibly say would only be but another voice whispering into the wind...

Not that I've ever let this stop me before.

So, poetic nonsense aside, let's talk about the most recent and final installment in the Hunger Games series. I say final because, despite whatever development deals people might be brewing in Hollywood, for me this is where the story ends. I'm not in the habit of getting overly enthusiastic about the blatant cash grabs that are spinoff series. The Hobbit burned me, okay?

Going under the assumption that Mockingjay Part 2 was the final glimpse we got of Katniss and her world, how do we feel like the story left us? Is it good that it's over now? Are we happy with how it all turned out in the end? For the most part, yeah, I think we are happy. I know I am. There are some quibbles I have with the precise way things were done, but I think overall this is the rare book adaptation series without any real clunkers. 

The whole thing works together nicely and thematically resonates all throughout. I don't find Mockingjay Part 2 to be as emotionally affecting as Part 1, but that could just be me. I'm a sucker for pain and heartbreak, and this one ended, well, without as much of that as you might have anticipated. In short, if you want to cut this review down to its smallest core element, I think Mockingjay Part 2 is a really good movie that you should totally go watch if you've already seen the previous three and are emotionally prepared to cry for a while. Good? Good.

But on a deeper, more analytical note, I do think that some of the emotional power of the films leading up to this one was a little bit lost here. Don't get me wrong, there are still some incredible moments and overall the film is fantastic, but there's a strong through-line of Katniss' character that is a little buried in the action of this film. There isn't as much breathing room, not enough time to really let her character rest and the narrative blossom.

That's a really pretentious way of saying that even though this movie was only half of the final book, it still felt really rushed and quick. Too much crap happened to really make the feelings stick, which sucks because this part of the story is when everyone's characterization from the previous three films pays off.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. At it's core, what happened in this movie?

Essentially, war happened. The war that has been promised since the very beginning of the first film hits us in full force in this one. No more is it district against district. We open on a world very nearly united. Katniss' last real job as the Mockingjay will be to go out and bring peace to District 2, ending the fighting there and turning all eyes to the Capitol. 

While she's trying to do this, her personal life continues to be a complete and utter disaster. Peeta is back from the Capitol, but the torture he endured there has left lasting scars. Specifically, it's left Peeta absolutely convinced that Katniss is dangerous and evil and needs to be killed. Which is kind of a horrible thing to hear coming from the mouth of a person you would and have sacrificed everything to save.

Gale continues his mope-fest where he complains that Katniss doesn't love him enough, and Katniss throws herself into the revolution so she doesn't have to feel all these feelings in her feelings-hole. And so the story goes from there.

There are essentially three big chunks of the story: a smaller part where Katniss and Gale help to unify the districts and bring District 2 into the fold, a very large part where the two of them and some other familiar faces fight their way into the Capitol, and a small bit at the very end where Katniss gets her final moment of reckoning. Each of these segments is defined by two things: first, by Katniss' ever-changing relationship with Peeta, and second, by her suicidal tendencies.

That might sound flippant, but I don't intend it to. This film, like the other films in this series, very intentionally examines the emotional price Katniss must pay for being the one to survive all she's gone through. The last film dealt more strongly with the classic symptoms of PTSD, but this one is focusing more on Katniss' depression and low self-worth in the wake of all she's seen. It's particularly heart-wrenching that, with the loss of Peeta's love, Katniss doesn't know what in herself to find worthwhile anymore. Lacking something concrete, she decides to give her life for her cause instead.

The first segment, where Katniss goes to unify the districts, comes on the very tail of Katniss' realization that Peeta isn't going to get better overnight. After seeing Peeta insist to Katniss' own sister that Katniss is a mutt who needs to be put down, she's ready to do anything she can to destroy the people who did this to him. That much is obvious. But in a deeper way, she's desperate to avoid having to confront her feelings. There is nothing Katniss wants less than to sit in District 13 and dwell on how the one person she's been able to rely on for so long now thinks she's a piece of shit.

So Katniss begs Coin for a mission and gets sent to District 2. In lieu of any real sense of herself as having a future, Katniss has chosen to fully embrace her role as the Mockingjay and subsume her own identity into her role as a rallying cry for the revolution. Gale comes up with a clever plan to stop the Capitol's forces as well as save any civilians in their base, and Katniss steps up to deliver a unifying speech to anyone who wants to surrender. Yay for propaganda.

The speech probably doesn't go quite like Coin and Plutarch planned, but it still works pretty damn well. In the process of trying to talk down some loyalists from District 2, Katniss is taken down and has a gun held against her face. Only instead of defiance for this slave of the Capitol, all Katniss has is honesty and self-loathing. She literally cannot give the man a single reason why he shouldn't shoot her. This single scene sets the whole standard for the rest of the movie and it's here we fully understand what's going on: Katniss Everdeen has a death wish.

It's a wish that most of the events in this movie seem happy to grant. Just after her epic speech in District 2, she is shot and knocked unconscious. While her Mockingjay costume turns out to be bulletproof (thank you, Cinna), it doesn't mean she isn't still banged up. The shot of Katniss' torso after this is harrowing. But even with her insides all beat to hell and an official doctor's recommendation that she get real comfortable in her bed, Katniss can only think of finding some way to escape her feelings and fight like hell. Finnick and Annie's wedding is a nice diversion, but Katniss isn't the type of person to find solace in someone else's happiness. 

Really the whole plot of the movie makes sense when you understand precisely how much Katniss hates herself. Peeta's words strike so deeply because she believes that he is right. She is a mutt created by the Capitol. All she does is bring death and destruction in her wake. 

To Katniss' eyes, she is the reason why District 12 burned. She is the reason they lost their homes. She is the cause of everyone's suffering, of the broken families and the scars she sees all around her. It's all her fault.

Which, when you get down to it, is a very egotistical belief.

Rather than punish herself, though, Katniss throws all of her mental and emotional and physical energy into going after President Snow. If it's her fault that everything has gone to shit, it's Snow's fault for making her. He created "Katniss Everdeen, the Mockingjay." So he's the one who has to pay.

Since Coin refuses to risk Katniss by letting her be a part of the real charge on the Capitol - it makes more political sense to hold a figurehead like Katniss in reserve for more strategic moments than a battle which will almost certainly be a bloodbath - Katniss has to take matters into her own hands. Using Finnick's wedding as a distraction, Katniss hugs her sister and sneaks on board a supply ship and heads for the front lines.

Of course, the downside of being the face of a revolution is that anonymity isn't a thing you get anymore. She's only seconds off the ship when she's recognized and Gale comes out to meet her. Katniss' plan to just blend with the other recruits and storm the Capitol has been stymied. Coin is furious with her for all this sneaking around, but chooses to look on the bright side. With Katniss on the front line, there's lots of room for shooting propaganda pieces.

And so the middle chunk of the movie is about Katniss being forced onto a team of "stars", elite soldiers and recognizable faces, who will be the public visual for the taking of the Capitol. Katniss is forced to go along with this and pretend it's what she wants, instead of her actual plan to go on a suicide mission and take out Snow.

Even this, though, is not nearly complicated enough! Coin decides to throw Finnick and Peeta into the mix too, making sure that these propaganda videos are as star-packed as she can make them. Peeta's barely firing on half his cylinders, Finnick just got married, and Gale is already aware of what Katniss is up to, so it's not really ideal conditions for anything.

The push through the city, then, becomes less about the actual objectives or the booby traps or the physical fighting going on, and more about Katniss' relationships with the people around her. She is surrounded by the people who know her best in the world, either because they can see through her or because they have been party to so much of her life. This is a woman who is ready to die having to come face to face with everything she might lose if she does. And it's also about the people who love her having to come to grips with how freaking much Katniss is ready to go. Yeah. It's a dark movie.

This is also where another part of the message of this film comes to play. While Mockingjay Part 1 is very much a picture of a noble war, a war with a point and with a core of real moral feeling, Part 2 seems to throw all that back in our face. A war is a war is a war is a war. Thematically speaking, Snow's decision to weaponize the Capitol with discarded defenses made by gamemakers from the Hunger Games is right on point. War is a form of theater, and Snow is just making sure that theater is appropriately dramatic and entertaining for the masses.

In the end, death is ugly and not poetic at all. I really respect the movie for refusing to cop out on that one. Finnick's death, when it comes, is devastating, but it's not beautiful in any way. It's pretty gross, actually. Prim's death is haunting, but not poignant. It's a loss that burns for how unnecessary it was. War is not a noble thing we can pick up and put back down. War is sometimes necessary but never romantic. 

This film gets that. Even the moments that are darkly funny are still brutal, and the final revelation that everyone has known Katniss is on a suicide mission all along and has been enabling her is less glorifying the idea of what she's going to do, and more just a bunch of people figuring they don't have a better shot.

From a storytelling standpoint, I have to say that it makes me very happy that Katniss fails.

She fails because she doesn't have the full picture. While Katniss is fighting tooth and nail to get to the center of the city, the revolution is already there. Her last mad dash to get inside his palace and kill him only serves to put her front and center for the death of the one person in the world Katniss still has an untainted, uncomplicated relationship with: her sister.

Prim's death isn't gentle or noble or any other crap like that. Instead, as the narrative makes clear, her death is unnecessary, a theatrical stroke in a war of ideas that has gotten horribly bogged in mud. When Katniss realizes that everything she did was in vain, that the years in the Hunger Games, that her PTSD and night terrors and the loss of everything she held dear, that all of that has been wasted with a single explosion, it's like the world goes very very quiet for her.

If Katniss was angry and suicidal before, she's a maelstrom now. It gets even worse when she realizes and has it confirmed that the Capitol didn't kill Prim. The rebels did. They're the ones who had something to gain from showily killing their own medics, and so Katniss knows that not only is the one person she tried to save now dead, she also died at the hand of the people Katniss was helping. Dark dark dark.

The final scenes of the film take us deeper into Katniss' head by finally letting everything else be stripped away. Almost no dialogue. Very little facial expression. Just Jennifer Lawrence and a woman with nothing left to lose. When Katniss decides to start playing the game, it's all the more devastating when we remember the vibrant, angry young woman before all this happened who refused to believe in games. Katniss only agrees to support Coin's "Hunger Games for the Capitol" to get Coin comfortable with her again. And it's this comfort that Katniss uses on her very last suicide mission. Not to end Snow, because Snow isn't an enemy who needs ending. To end Coin and to force the world to face up to what it has become.

From a moral standpoint, this last film is probably the most complex of the four. Is Katniss justified in killing Coin? Is this a pardonable offense? Would a reverse-Hunger Games be morally okay? What standards of war are appropriate here?

The movie doesn't answer any questions, it just asks them, and I'm okay with that. I'm not interested in clear and solid answers, I'm interested in the naked devastation on Katniss' face when Peeta stops her from chomping a suicide pill and ending it all just after she kills Coin. I'm interested in a woman who feels like there is nothing left in the world to tether her down, but who is forced to keep living anyway.

I mean, Prim is dead. Peeta and her relationship is so strained as to no longer exist. Finnick is dead. Gale is so morally abhorrent to her now - because he helped develop the bomb that killed Prim - that she can't stand to be in the same room with him. Her mother is just another face in a crowd. Katniss is alone, but then, miraculously, she's not.

Instead of dying, Katniss gets a second chance. She finally gets what she's wanted all along: to live her life out in quiet solitude. Haymitch takes her back to District 12, to the house she shared with her sister once upon a time, and Katniss finally starts to feel human again. And when Peeta shows up in the spring, we get the idea that maybe these two can finally figure themselves out. Maybe Katniss can figure out she's not a piece of shit and Peeta can remember how to be the gentle, kind boy he once was, and together they can figure out if life is worth it.

In general I'm not a fan of sappy epilogues, and this one was kind of iffy for me in the presentation, but I like the thematic link of showing Katniss in several years, well fed and at peace. For the first time in her life, Katniss has no demons over her shoulder. No one is trying to kill her. She and Peeta have children because for the first time in their lives they can live with the confidence that their children will be safe. Even if the scene itself was only okay, that's a theme I can get behind, which is how I feel about the whole movie. 

Sometimes the execution didn't work. The shaky-cam was overused and the whole thing was frenetic or plodding, with nothing in between. The side-characters were great, from Coin to Cressida to Peylor to Jackson to Annie, but they all felt like ships passing in the night. Hell, the whole movie was stuffed full of awesome female characters and I really wish there had been just a touch more time to spend with each one. Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Donald Sutherland did some of their best work in this movie, but sadly a lot of it got lost in the frenetic pace.

Ultimately, I think Mockingjay Part 2 did what it was setting out to do, but it didn't do it as well as it could have. The themes still got across. The ideas that war is hell no matter how just your cause and that the psychological toll of this kind of trauma doesn't just go away over night are good ones to explore in a film like this. The movie did well to focus on them. I'm satisfied with how it all turned out, but I'm never the type to just calmly accept what I've been given. I still know it could have been a tiny bit better, and that bothers me a little.

But that doesn't matter now. What matters is that The Hunger Games went out exactly the way it ought. It reaffirmed life without getting hokey and it brought us full circle on a girl who didn't think she'd make it even half way. Here's to you, Hunger Games. You might be a hellish dystopian future, but I think you're one of the most important stories we've told in years. Well done.


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