“The Hunger Games” is one of those series that seemed to come completely out of nowhere, suddenly exploding into a worldwide phenomenon that saw the three novels in Suzanne Collins’ series become bestsellers. It comes as no surprise that I didn’t start hearing about it until they were adapted into films, after all, I hadn’t even heard of “Harry Potter,” “Divergent,” or “Twilight” either until those movies came about. It’s a series that’s had its ups and downs thus far, and as the series comes to its ultimate conclusion, it’s time to take a brief look back over the previous films before taking an extended look at the grand finale, which will show whether or not what we have been waiting for has been worth it all along.
The first film in the series, simply titled “The Hunger Games,” saw our hero Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) take her sister’s place in the titular games, along with fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), that pitted them against 22 opponents from the other 11 districts that make up Panem. These games are held every year by the Capitol, and its ruthless President Snow (Donald Sutherland), as a reminder of the time the districts tried and failed to rebel, which occurred more than 70 years prior. Katniss and Peeta train for the games with the help of a former victor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), before finally being thrown into the arena to face off against several others who are in it to win it.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: this first entry in the franchise is little more than a rip-off of Koushun Takami’s masterpiece “Battle Royale,” using an extremely similar storyline, but luckily Collins manages to do enough things different to make her vision of a dystopian future decently entertaining. The first half of the film does its best to set up the characters and send them through the obligatory training sequences, but this section does begin to drag on a bit too long, making you wait a little longer than necessary before we get to the more exciting part of the story. However, once that second half hits, we are treated to a mostly-engrossing fight that has our heroes desperately trying to stay alive. It may not go nearly as deep as Takami’s story, but given that it’s based on young adult literature, I suppose it’s not particularly surprising (and there’s the fact that it’s merely PG-13, which puts a lot of restrictions on how strong the games can be), and as mentioned, it still makes for a decent spectacle, which starts the series off on a pretty good footing.
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” picks up with the victors of the games, Katniss and Peeta, traveling around to different districts to give speeches. There is already a hint of rebellion in the air as several people show their support for the outright disobedience that Katniss and Peeta displayed by saving themselves at the end of the games with their threatened suicides. However, Snow and his cronies don’t take too kindly to it, announcing that the 75th annual games will be a “Quarter Quell” that brings back previous winners to compete, and so, Katniss and Peeta once again find themselves fighting for their lives in the arena.
This second entry in the franchise is a rather fascinating one in that it does a complete turnaround from the previous film. Whereas in the first film, it’s the first section that becomes dull in its attempts at character development and the second that’s more entertaining because of the games, the first half of “Catching Fire” ends up being far better thanks to its much more successful attempts at building the characters, with the games of the second half being a rather unusual mix. As Katniss and Peeta travel around to the various districts, the film takes its time to show us what they’re going through with their new-found relationship, and this is on top of getting to explore the characters back home in District 12, including Katniss’ love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth). This time, it doesn’t feel like it’s stretched out or taking too long to get somewhere, and in fact, when the film does finally get to the games, don’t be surprised if you find yourself missing the strong, character-driven first half, for once the games begin, the film becomes something quite different.
As mentioned earlier, this time around, the games are an unusual mix, and by that I mean it’s an odd tonal combination. On the one hand, we’re supposed to be on the edge of our seats as we watch Katniss and Peeta fight for their lives once more against several opponents who have no problem killing them, but on the other hand, the obstacles that they have to face this time end up providing an unexpected dose of laughter. It’s supposed to be entirely serious, but it’s rather hard to keep the grin from your face as they have to deal with things like killer monkeys and poison fog. With that being said, even if it was unintentional, it makes the games even more amusing, and even though the second half is still a little weak in terms of excitement, when combined with the excellent character-driven first half, this second entry balances out to another decent film in the series.
In “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1,” we pick up with Katniss after she has been rescued by the rebels and brought back to District 13. After being reunited with her mother and sister, she is introduced to President Coin (Julianne Moore), who wants Katniss to become the symbol of their rebellion against the Capitol. She agrees and begins to film propaganda for the resistance, but soon finds out that Peeta has been captured by the enemy and is being forced to do something similar. However, this doesn’t stop him from sending out a warning on air that the Capitol is planning to attack District 13, causing them to make preparations for the impending strike.
Here is where “The Hunger Games” franchise begins to show its weakness. Just like what happened when the unfortunate decision was made to split the final “Harry Potter” book into two films, the result is a film that feels like nothing but an overly-long prologue leading up to the final chapter. It’s not a terrible entry, but much more needed to be done to help advance the storyline and the characters, instead of just allowing them to remain at a standstill for this two-hour outing (ironically it’s the shortest entry in the series, but it feels like the longest). There are parts of it that are important and somewhat intriguing, but there’s far more that feels like it’s mere padding on a film that could have easily been combined with the subsequent entry. There isn't even that much to say about it simply because there’s not a lot of substance here, which merely leaves you with an entry that’ll have you yearning for what will hopefully be a grand and exciting conclusion.
As “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” begins, we find Katniss and her resistance friends dealing with a brainwashed Peeta, who was rescued, but now becomes extremely agitated when he thinks of his former friend. Meanwhile, the attack on the Capitol continues as planned, with several squads of troops attempting to invade the city, including one that contains Katniss, Gale, and a mostly-subdued Peeta. They must make their way through the city slowly, avoiding the multitude of deadly traps that have been set to stop them. With their sights set on President Snow’s mansion, their ultimate goal of freeing the people of Panem appears to be in sight, but even though they’re miles behind the frontline and have a map that contains the locations of most of the traps, it doesn’t mean that the journey there will be an easy one.
At last we come to the final chapter of the franchise, the entry that we’ve been waiting for that would hopefully bring the series to an appropriately epic conclusion. After building it up for three films, you would certainly think that Collins and co. have been saving the best for last, but as it turns out, there wasn’t really that much to see in the end. In a similar fashion to the first part of the final novel, the second part has a difficult time in advancing the story and characters, instead settling into an overly-repetitious pattern that has our heroes advancing closer to their destination via bland action sequences, including getting chased by thousands of gallons of oil (a callback to the silliness of the games in the second film perhaps?) and getting attacked by mutant creatures while running through tunnels (which comes off as a random and silly attempt to suddenly turn the film into a horror movie).
These sequences are separated by long periods of rest where the characters try to sit around and talk about subjects including their feelings and what they should do next. As always, it’s appreciated when the writers try to make the characters develop, but unfortunately, it just doesn’t work as well here as it did in “Catching Fire,” resulting in even more desire for the film to get a move on, though once you recognize the pattern, you simply realize that another forgettable action sequence is more than likely coming up next. With a lack of story and character development, this repetition turns what should have been an exciting finale into one that leaves you waiting for something significant to happen to help alleviate the tedium that has been building up instead.
When it comes to the conclusion, once again you would think that this is what everything has been building to, the point where we find out that all of the waiting has been worthwhile. However, once again, it only comes to more disappointment, as the climactic sequence of the film never truly feels like the climax that it should be, and indeed, the actual plot of the film is wrapped up before you even know it. If that were the only issue with the finale, it might not have been particularly troublesome, but it goes even further in that the film continues on for about another 30 minutes. There is an attempt in a couple spots during the film to set up something of a secondary villain, but it’s done so poorly that it comes off as a completely random afterthought that no one thought through. Perhaps it’s set up better in the novel, but you’d easily be forgiven for watching the film and becoming rather befuddled as to what they were thinking.
Looking back over the series as a whole, it would seem that Collins had a somewhat intriguing idea that, while it did begin by piggybacking off someone else’s work, had a few interesting places to go, but she just couldn’t come up with a satisfactory way to bring the story to a close. Even if the final two sub-par films had been merged into one, it’s doubtful that it would have improved anything. What we’re left with is two decent films and two not-so-good films, which is rather depressing to have to say because those who enjoy the first two entries are obviously going to want to see how it ends, only to find disappointment where a powerful conclusion should have been. In the end, you can only wonder how good it might have been if a little more thought had gone into the ending, for it would appear that they wanted to deliver something meaningful, but just couldn’t find the right way to do it.
“The Hunger Games: The Complete 4-Film Collection” brings the entire saga to Blu-ray in 2.40:1, 1080p High Definition transfers of excellent quality (the one exception being the second half of “Catching Fire,” which is presented in 1.78: 1 to preserve the IMAX sequences). The first film in the series has a slightly grainy look to the picture, but it doesn’t hinder viewing in any way, while the remaining three films remain perfectly sharp and clear throughout. The first two films feature 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, while the final two feature Dolby Atmos audio. All four tracks are fantastic, giving you all dialogue, music, and sound effects in outstanding quality. Overall, all four films have been given top-notch treatment that is sure to please the fans.
The Hunger Games (Disc 2)
The World is Watching: Making The Hunger Games
Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games Phenomenon
Letters from the Rose Garden
Controlling the Games
A Conversation with Gary Ross and Elvis Mitchell
Preparing for the Games: The Director’s Process
Trailers and Galleries
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Disc 3)
Audio Commentary with Director Francis Lawrence and Producer Nina Jacobson
Surviving the Game: Making The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (Disc 4)
Audio Commentary with Director Francis Lawrence and Producer Nina Jacobson
The Mockingjay Lives: The Making of Mockingjay – Part 1
Straight from the Heart: A Tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman
Songs of Rebellion: Lorde on Creating the Soundtrack
Lorde “Yellow Flicker Beat” Music Video
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (Disc 5)
Audio Commentary with Director Francis Lawrence and Producer Nina Jacobson
Pawns No More: Making The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
The Hunger Games: A Photographic Journey
Cinna’s Sketchbook: Secrets of the Mockingjay Armor
Panem on Display: The Hunger Games: The Exhibition
Jet to the Set
Bonus Disc (Disc 6):
The Hunger Games
Stories from the Tributes
Casting the Tributes
Tribute Video Diaries
Stunts of The Hunger Games
Capitol Couture: The Styles of Panem
Weapons of the Arena
Effected: The Visual Artwork of The Hunger Games
Feast and Famine: Creating the Food for The Hunger Games
On the Black Carpet: The Hunger Games Premiere
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Alliance: Returning Cast
Friend or Foe: New Cast
One Vision: A Faithful Adaptation
The Look of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Quarter Quell Cast
Bringing Panem to Life
Taking Aim: Stunts and Weapons
The Quell: On Location in Hawaii
Battling the Clock Arena
Coldplay “Atlas” Music Video
Inside District 12: The Hob
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
Rubble and Ashes
The Propos Team
Katniss Propo Video
As you can clearly see, there are a LOT of special features spread out over five of the six discs in this collection. I won’t bore you by going through each and every one of the 70 featurettes individually (to do so would go on for pages and pages), but I will take you through what’s important here. There are a number of featurettes that feature interviews and smaller looks behind the scenes at how certain things were done, but the main meat of these 14 hours of bonus materials are the absolutely outstanding “Making of” documentaries that are included on all four films. Each one runs between two and two and a half hours (totaling around nine hours for all four), covering everything you could want to know about how these films were brought to life, from adapting the novels to finding the right director to casting to designing the world and much, much more.
I also highly recommend the three excellent commentary tracks featuring Francis Lawrence and Nina Jacobson, who both have plenty of fascinating things to say about bringing these films to the screen (it’s a shame that Gary Ross didn’t do a track for the first film, for it would have been great to have a complete set of commentaries). As I said, there’s plenty of additional supplementary material to look at as well, including a whole boatload of featurettes on the bonus disc, but if you only end up watching a few, make sure that the “Making of” docs are included.
“The Hunger Games” is a series that has indeed had its ups and downs. It started off with decent potential, resulting in two films that, while they aren’t necessarily great, still managed to provide a good amount of entertainment. However, then things took an unfortunate turn with the ill-split final novel, leaving us with a pair of films that had a little too much trouble handling the story and characters. If that had been all, then this set would have been stuck at something of a stalemate and wouldn’t really warrant a recommendation, but this is one of those instances where the special features end up making all the difference.
I’ve always been a sucker for thorough “Making of” documentaries. Even when it’s a film I’m not a fan of, these kinds of extras are still utterly fascinating to watch, though it does help even more when the films are very good (the outstanding nine-hour “Making of” docs on the Extended Editions of “The Hobbit” films come to mind). In the case of this complete collection of “The Hunger Games,” they, along with the multitude of additional bonus material, end up helping to tip the scale in its favor. Fans of the franchise will love everything about the set, especially having all four films in excellent quality, while those who enjoy just some of the films will more than likely be fully satisfied with the smorgasbord of extras (Anchor Bay’s incredible release of “Halloween: The Complete Collection” is a great example of the latter). In the end, all of the films might not be particularly good, but there’s certainly more than enough here to recommend picking up the set.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting today.
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