Abandon hope, all ye who enter the fourth and final Hunger Games installment here. Not only for any helpful exposition—Mockingjay Part 2 opens midscene, as if the pause button on Part 1 just wore out its one-year warranty—but for the future of all Panem’s citizens. Our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is bruised and broken after a vicious assassination attempt by her onetime best friend/fiancé/fellow warrior Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), whose mind has been turned to a paranoid 12 Monkeys mush by President Snow’s shadowy forces. The rebellion is in shambles, the Districts are turning on one another, and even Snow himself seems diminished; these days, poisoning an insubordinate at the dinner table elicits only the thinnest Putin-esque wisp of a smile.
But as long as Katniss lives to see another day, there are still plans (and franchise dollars) to be made. Once she’s recovered enough to strap on her longbow again, it’s decided that she will join an all-star team of Tributes on a march toward the Capitol—more as a propaganda squad than an actual battle unit, since they’ll be broadcasting their progress from well behind the front lines. The crew soon discovers, of course, that “safe zones” don’t really exist: Buildings are booby-trapped, bullets are real. And in one terrifying sequence, a slithering mass of mutants with boiled-frog skin and barracuda teeth attack, turning an underground tunnel into a death trap. At this point, you might start to wonder how a young-adult audience will handle scenes scary enough to make old adults long for the relative mutant-free safety of The Martian. (Matt Damon may be 50 million miles from home, but at least he’s alone.)
It’s a good question, and one parents will have to answer at their own discretion. Suzanne Collins’ source material always fell outside the conventional YA curve—it is, after all, about kids killing kids for sport—but she also placed her dystopian themes inside a balanced moral universe, and gave us a female protagonist who was smart and complicated and thrillingly self-determined. The first two films managed the challenge of visually presenting the books’ violence without tipping into territory their target demo couldn’t handle. Mockingjay, though, strays too far into darkness: With its political power struggles and prodigious body count, all rendered in a thousand shades of wintry greige, the movie feels less like teen entertainment than a sort of Hunger Games of Thrones. The acting and production values are still well above grade, and Lawrence skillfully holds the center, letting everything the skeletal dialogue doesn’t say play across her face. Like the arrow-slinging, empire-saving Joan of Archery she’s portraying, she understands the symbolic weight she’s been asked to carry here. If only it didn’t have to hang so heavy. B–