This article contains plot spoilers.
There’s always a great deal of anticipation regarding the final film in a series as successful, and embedded in such an extensive fan network, as The Hunger Games.
The final film needs to develop a discrete story so that is still comprehensible to an audience of non-initiates, while at the same time referring back to and tying together the narrative, themes, and character relationships of the films that preceded it.
It needs to satisfy fans of the series by clearly wrapping everything up, but it needs to do more than that.
Series become, for fans, a kind of environment. The films become the backgrounds of lives, and there can be comfort in the knowledge that, at a certain time of the year (or every couple of years), another film in the series will be released. Think about what the end of the year meant to Harry Potter fans.
Final films, therefore, need to leave viewers with a sense of completion, but also with satisfaction regarding the future world for the characters they have come to know and love. The final scene in which we see our heroes will be the scene they inhabit for the rest of time.
The new Hunger Games film, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II, effectively fulfils the first two requirements, but leaves a lot to be desired in terms of its ultimate presentation of its characters.
The narrative follows an “impossible mission” type structure (The Dirty Dozen, 1967, The Devil’s Brigade , 1968, The Expendables, 2010) with a band of rebel heroes up against the odds on a mission through hostile territory, dodging myriad pitfalls along the way.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) leads a small rebel unit, including the apices of the series’ love triangle, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), into the Capital in order to assassinate dictator Snow (Donald Sutherland).
A series that began with such a razor-sharp first film was at risk, in the third film, Mockingjay Part I (2014), of devolving into the kind of tedious epic spectacle that characterised the later films of the Twilight series.
But Part II redeems the series through its spare approach to both design and story. One of the strengths of the films in the series has, indeed, been the simplicity of their narrative architecture.
The rendering of the world, in this film, as a kind of “game” – “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the 76th Hunger Games,” Finnick (Sam Claflin) says as they embark on their mission – beautifully ties together the first and fourth films.
The world becomes a kind of literalisation of the “gamespace” described by cultural theorist McKenzie Wark in Gamer Theory (2007) – a gridded world of positive and negative choices, with ruthless competition and clearly attainable booty as the reward.
Various plot twists and turns occur as they edge closer to the Capitol. But the ending – the victory of the revolution against the Capital – is noticeably anticlimactic.
“Victory” in war, the film indicates, is little more than a spectacular sham – perhaps less brutal than the circus spectacles orchestrated by Snow - and yet hardly more ethically sound.
This is problematic, in that it indicates that the political struggle – literally political, a struggle for the control of the polis at the centre of Panem – has been, virtually, for nought.
Thus the final words of Plutarch (Phillip Seymour Hoffman appearing from beyond the grave, proving once again the miraculous nature of media) in a letter to Katniss that basically bemoan the state of idiotic humans and their political woes.
This, of course, begs the question, what was the point?
If political struggle is pointless, and power is inevitably filled by beings-to-be-corrupted, then why have we bothered following Katniss and her band of the disenfranchised through four films for a total of ten-plus hours?
In a sense, this kind of nullification of the political – “Burbanking” – is to be expected in Hollywood cinema, but the final scene is problematic for more reasons than this.
There is a new ruler, and Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) return to Panem. It is all rather desolate, anticlimactic. There is no victory in victory.
The film then skips forward a few years. What do we see?
Katniss sits in an idyllic field, watching Peeta play with their son, while rocking a newborn in her arms. The hair blows through her hair, and she seems genuinely happy.
She should be: she is occupying the most satisfying role a woman can have, “mother” – or so the film seems to tell us. She’s a warrior, a freedom fighter, a hero for the exploited and abused … but really she just needed to pick the right man.
Katniss, it appears, is finally in her place; all of her fierce (and inspirational) action has led to her being saddled with a couple of kids, under the care of a good, rustic man.
Futuristic narratives are always worth thinking about, as they often offer critiques of the present off limits to films constrained by the requirements of social and physical verisimilitude. Some of the best social and political critiques in recent years have come from science-fiction films – Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) and Neveldine/ Taylor’s Gamer (2009) come to mind.
Which is what makes the astonishing conservatism of the ending of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II so disappointing.
It’s a tough, solid film. Like the first two Hunger Games films, it is defined through its spare action and design, low-key for such a big-budget production relative to other Hollywood blockbusters.
But the reduction of Katniss, as it is played out in the final sequence, marks a genuine betrayal of the ideals of the rest of the series. One can’t help feeling that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II has turned its back on the revolution.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II opened in cinemas around Australia on November 20.