Katniss on a hot tin roof.
The one constant in the appeal of almost all fantasy and science fiction is immersion and the allure of occupying our mind elsewhere. Having never read the Suzanne Collins novels on which The Hunger Games films are based, I can’t speak with any authority on how Collins manages to illustrate her fictional world of Panem, but when it comes to this concept of engrossment, the filmic saga is particularly unsatisfying. Panem is ambiguous at best, the logic behind the social system shaky and the cohesion between the worldly components tenuous. There are benefits and drawbacks to such vague delineations when it comes to world building. Holes in logic or expectations essentially mean that certain elements of Panem can be exploited and stressed without regard for continuity or consistency, but this lack of cohesion also invites scrutiny that these films just can’t withstand. Mockingjay, the latest in the series, occupies a pleasant but unremarkable space somewhere between these two concerns.
While the initial film in the series was plagued by unfortunate camerawork and elements of narrative déjà vu, the charm of the second entry, Catching Fire, was just how effectively the filmmaker’s were able to help us forget that the entire situation is ludicrous. Mockingjay also benefits from this sly sleight of hand – it’s just best not to ponder any of it too much. We’re privy to more of Panem than we were in its predecessors, and are dimly aware of the connection between it all – not so much that we can piece elements of the world into one lucid whole but enough at least to distract us from some of the more dubious narrative elements.
District 13, previously presumed destroyed by the Capital during a prior rebellion, is in fact alive and well and sheltering Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) after her own district was obliterated following the events of Catching Fire. By a stroke of luck, District 13 has been using their time in hibernation to prepare for war, which is exactly what the Capital and it’s shadowy leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), have in mind. There’s a spartan quality to District 13 and it’s inhabitants that’s not a bad argument for Capital victory. Is Panem trading one dictatorship for another? The lavish decadence of the Capital is certainly more superficially appealing, and improvements to Panem upon District 13 victory are at least questionable. President Coin (Julianne Moore), the leader of District 13, is so unsentimental and driven in her pursuit for triumph that she may not have stopped to consider herself. Mockingjay almost has something interesting to say on the matter, but ultimately doesn’t.
There are hazy comments regarding the role of the media in war, which were far more effective and pertinent in the previous films. Katniss, now some bizarre icon of hope for the struggle against the Capital, is prodded by everyone around her into a role she may not be able to occupy. I can only imagine how strange it must be being constantly referred to as ‘The Mockingjay’, even by yourself. Between her indecision regarding the men in her life, the sense of duty to her family and a disinterest in being a puppet for the revolution, there’s certainly a lot for Katniss to ponder and yet her internal struggle is the least interesting element of Mockingjay. There are only so many times that an emotional Katniss wading through a city in ruins should be something worth watching, and yet we’re treated to a number of such scenes. This focus on her indecision is surely born out of the decision to split the final book in Collins’ series in half, but it’s simply incongruous with how the series fostered the character during the first two films.
There’s a lack of self-awareness to The Hunger Games that does it no favours. Relentless earnestness surrounding such an inherently eccentric world suggests a certain obliviousness on the part of the filmmakers. And yet Mockingjay is remarkable in its ability to conjure something from nothing. Director Francis Lawrence has an entertaining knack for committing to each scene in an emotionally satisfying way, even when it’s entirely unnecessary. These are easy films to get caught up with while you’re watching them. Just don’t think about any of it too much.