There are many ways the Hunger Games series has been groundbreaking. It’s given us a female world-changing heroine in the mold of the countless males Hollywood has cast in such a role, and showed the caricature up by depicting her as more human than most of them: more conflicted, more unsure, more afraid yet also more brave in overcoming all that … while simultaneously more principled and more selfish. Katniss Everdeen has never been about some romantic, idealistic notion of heroism; she’s always been about protecting those she loves. The series has given us a look at a world in which women are presumed to be as capable and as authoritative as men, and has delved deeply into the potent influence of propaganda.
With this final installment, we might even see that all the films that came before are a kind of propaganda that primed us to expect a certain wrap-up to the story of Katniss and her rebellion. Spoiler (not really): We do not get that kind of ending. What’s already one of the smartest and most enthralling SF film series ever takes itself to a thoroughly engaging and very fitting end by questioning all of our assumptions about war, politics, and peace, particularly as blockbuster film series tend to present them. The course of events might feel anticlimactic to some. There’s no final battle that, as bloody and brutal as it could have been, nevertheless represents a neat, tidy finale and a pandering conclusion of good over evil. Nothing here is that easy.
Thwarting war-movie clichés starts early, when the public face of the people’s unrest, Katniss Everdeen (the amazing Jennifer Lawrence, not stumbling for a change), doesn’t lead the rebels of District 13 in what everyone hopes will be a definitive assault on the Capitol. Instead, she’s bringing up the rear with the propaganda filmmaking team, making videos she hopes will sway the hearts and minds of the Capitol citizens who, naturally, aren’t on the rebels’ side. Why should they be? We don’t see any of Katniss’ “propos” this time, only Katniss’ disgust at being forced back into this role again, even as she appreciates the need for it. But we do see some of the broadcasts Panem President Snow (Donald Sutherland) makes to the citizens of the Capitol — one of them comes with an unspoken suggestion that luxury such as the Capitol enjoys is its own kind of propaganda: “If we’re rich, we must be right,” basically, and “Comfort is its own justification.” That’s not what Snow says, but it’s what he means. And it’s unsettling to realize that that’s not an unusual subtext to much of what we see in our world today.
This is so-called “young adult” dystopian science-fiction with an unusual resonance. We see it in tortured and tormented Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss’ former Hunger Games partner who’s been rescued from the Capitol and is now along on the propo mission — the idea is to show Snow and the Capitol citizens that Peeta has recovered from the horrendous conditioning he’d been subjected to, which forced him to denounce Katniss and the rebels — and has turned back toward the forces of good. The team is taking a huge risk having him along; he isn’t quite recovered and will likely try to kill Katniss. PTSD is a big thing here … and how war impacts those who fight it has not been something big loud action movies have addressed.
There are real consequences here for Katniss, and very high prices she has to pay before the rebellion she accidentally started is finally over. And it’s the impact on Katniss that lingers. This film features some of the most breathtaking and original action sequences we’ve seen: Snow has turned the Capitol into a deadly obstacle course for the invading rebels; one character sardonically deems what they’re up against as the “seventh-sixth Hunger Games.” But matters of trust, intimate and personal as well as social and political, that haunt Katniss make this an emotional experience as much as a explosive one. And that may be the most radical thing about how this series concludes — not with a bang, but with whispers of doubt, grief, regret, and soul-searching. Costars Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci.