Mockingjay (2014-2015)

Way back on Wednesday night I watched the Mockingjay double-feature at the Alamo; it was my first time seeing either movie, and it was, hands down, the best theatre-going experience of the year for me, at least until tonight when I go watch Santo and the Blue Demon Against the Monsters projected from a VHS tape.

I’ve never read the books, but Grace did, around the time the first Hunger Games movie was coming out, so I watched it with her. It was better than I expected, but the series didn’t really start picking up steam for me until the under-appreciated—I Am Legend notwithstanding—Francis Lawrence got into the director’s seat with Catching Fire.

I liked Catching Fire and I was excited to see Mockingjay, but I was not prepared. This is a tough review to write, if review it even really is, because it’s hard to separate Mockingjay the movie(s) from the experience I had in that theatre. I watched the films in what are almost certainly the optimal conditions: in a huge room filled with other people who were every bit as excited as I was.

Anyone who watches a lot of movies can tell you that each individual viewing is its own thing, especially in a theatre. The experience can be invested with the energy of the crowd, changing it for the better or the worse, and that definitely happened here, for the better. It’s tough to say how much different the movies would have been if I’d seen them some other way.

First off, though split into two and released roughly a year apart, Mockingjay is in fact and emphatically just one movie, with a gut punch of a cliffhanger intermission right in the center. I can’t imagine how the poor souls who watched the first half a year ago and had to wait ’til now to proceed managed all that time. To a greater extent even than other movies that have been split into two or more parts, the two halves of Mockingjay rely on each other to work. So if you’re planning to head out to see Part 2, I recommend refreshing Part 1 as immediately beforehand as possible.

And if you’re not going out to see Part 2, I recommend that you reconsider. Mockingjay is a triumph, full stop. Not that The Hunger Games franchise needs any help from me. The books sold all the copies, and the movies have consistently made all the money. But I don’t see people talking about them the same way they do franchises like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or the latest Marvel movie, and they should be.

There’s a lot to praise in Mockingjay, but I’ll focus on what maybe surprised me the most, and that’s the movie’s intensity. There are moments of peril—moments, plural—when I was literally on the edge of my seat, when I held my breath. I practically watch horror movies for a living, and yet that almost never happens. The sewer sequence is the standout, of course, and seems to at once go on forever and yet never feel interminable, just beat after beat of heart-in-your-throat tension until you’re pretty sure you’re going to need a defibrillator when it finally stops. But there’s also the tar trap, and a rescue sequence in the first movie. Would these scenes have had quite as much impact if the rest of the theatre hadn’t been holding its collective breath with me? Maybe not. Would they still have been a hell of an accomplishment? Absolutely.

Back to the sewer sequence, for a moment. I don’t think this counts as spoilers, since they’re in the trailer, but that sequence involves CHUDs. They’re not called CHUDs, but that’s what they are, for all intents and purposes. And while there are almost certainly better monsters in other movies that have been released this year—The Hallow, I am looking meaningfully in your direction—I have rarely seen any monsters anywhere deployed to such staggering effect as these. It’s a sequence reminiscent of Aliens but—and I say this as a huge fan of Aliens—dialed way, way up.

The fact that all of these moments are contained in a PG-13 movie ostensibly aimed primarily at a YA audience shows a couple of important things. One, that rating doesn’t have much to do with what a movie is capable of accomplishing. And two, that horror directors need to up their freaking game.

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