It has been intriguing to watch the Hunger Games series evolve. From the outset, the films (adapted from Suzanne Collins' fantasy novels) have pulled in utterly contradictory directions. They were regarded as the natural successor to the Harry Potter movies, and yet the series ended up being made not by one of the major US studios but by independent company Lionsgate. They were aimed at teenagers and yet have grown darker and more violent. They combined media satire with elements you would expect to find in reality TV gameshows.
At times, their sheer artificiality counted against them. The film-makers were depicting a fascist and oppressive society in which citizens were kept pliant through a diet of bread and circuses. The irony was that the films offered precisely the same diet. They were lurid and spectacular, with heavy elements of kitsch.
Jennifer Lawrence has turned out to be the series's greatest asset. Reportedly now the highest paid actress in the world, the 25-year-old was a relative unknown when she was first cast as Katniss Everdeen. Many fans of the Collins novels disapproved of her winning a role that had been almost as sought after as that of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. Lawrence, though, has excelled from the outset as the Joan of Arc-like heroine, combining a warrior-like steeliness with mischief, vulnerability, tomboyishness and Amazonian glamour. She has brought depth to a character who easily could have seemed like a comic-book creation.
After the anticlimax of Mockingjay Part 1, which inevitably seemed like only half a movie, Mockingjay Part 2 turns out to be a proper send-off. It is more of a full-blown war movie than a teen adventure picture. Instead of Big Brother-style games, the last challenge for Katniss Everdeen is to topple the great dictator, President Snow himself. Destroying him turns out to be far more challenging for Katniss than winning the Hunger Games themselves.
There is symmetry in the casting of Donald Sutherland, now aged 80, as President Snow. One of the most memorable performances that Sutherland gave in the early part of his career was as Attila Mellanchini, the sadistic Italian fascist who ends up imprisoned in a pig sty in Bernardo Bertolucci's sprawling 1976 epic, 1900. In The Hunger Games, Sutherland is again playing a fascist leader, albeit a far more sophisticated one. His President Snow is a bearded, sleekly purring Machiavellian, determined to hold on to power by whatever means are necessary. He is the most urbane of despots, forever sniffing at the white roses he so cherishes, and scrupulously polite, even when shedding blood by the bucketload. As he clings to his position, he can't help but evoke memories of other real-life tyrants, from Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania to Gaddafi in Libya.
As ever, the production and costume design are over the place. Snow's helmeted henchmen look as if they are on leave from Star Wars. There are Orwellian elements, moments that play like scenes from Second World War resistance movies, traces of Robin Hood and sequences involving succubus-like bogeymen in the sewers that would more normally belong in a horror picture.
The new film starts with a traumatised Katniss with her neck in a brace and barely able to speak. To compound her misery, her beloved Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who has been tortured and brainwashed by Snow, thinks she is a monster. She is not sure that he is far wrong.
Together with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Finnick (Sam Claflin) and other allies, Katniss ventures to the Capitol. She is supposed to be part of the propaganda drive by the rebels as they seek to liberate the citizens of Panem but her real intention is to make Snow pay for all the suffering she has endured.
The conceit here is that the rebels' attempt to depose President Snow is played out on TV and becomes a Hunger Games-like event in its own right – mandatory viewing for the citizens of Panem.
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The Capitol has been booby-trapped. There are “pods” on every block, hidden explosives that cause buildings to come tumbling down. In one set-piece, Katniss and her renegade band are almost drowned in a river of oil. The kitsch, self-reflexive elements of the previous instalments have been pared down.
We barely see Stanley Tucci's grotesquely wigged gameshow host Caesar Flickerman. The flighty, fashion-obsessed Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) doesn't have much screen time, either. Even Woody Harrelson's dissolute Haymitch Abernathy appears only fleetingly. Disconcertingly, one character who does feature fairly prominently is rebel mastermind Plutarch Heavensbee, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died in early 2014. Julianne Moore's ruthless rebel leader Alma Coin is also a strong and disturbing presence in the series finale.
In the earlier films, Katniss was buffeted along, reacting to events over which she had no control. Now, finally, she is firmly on the front foot. Lawrence again shows the character's doubt as well as her courage and, late on, in another scene with the woebegone cat Buttercup, the explosive grief that she feels. The difference here is that she is the one making the decisions.
Mockingjay Part 1 was anticlimactic. It felt frustrating and opportunistic that the film-makers had split the third book in Collins' trilogy into two separate features. Now, The Hunger Games gets the finale it deserves, albeit with a film whose bleakness may take some younger fans of the series by surprise.
Like Harry Potter, the series is bound to have a very long afterlife. There has already been talk of a Dubai theme park but given that the films go to such lengths to depict a brutal and totalitarian world, it's a fair bet that this won't be anything like Disney World.
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