It’s hard to build much intrigue about whether a lovestruck teenager with a seemingly gentle heart and a firm moral compass will betray those who trust him and turn to the dark side when his name is Coriolanus Snow and we’re from four previous films know that he will grow into an evil overlord, played with chilling authority by Donald Sutherland. Even less so when he joins the fascist ‘Peacekeepers’ and trades his limp blonde locks for a Hitler Youth buzzcut.
That’s just one of the limitations of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakesa lumbering prequel to the blockbuster battle royale series based on Suzanne Collins’ YA novels, which has grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
It comes down to
An abrasive dystopian elegy to Appalachian folk melodies.
Date of publication: Friday November 17
Form: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Peter Dinklage, Jason Schwartzman, Hunter Schafer, Josh Andrés Rivera, Viola Davis, Fionnula Flanagan
Director: Francis Laurens
Screenwriters: Michael Lesslie, Michael Arndt, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins
Rated PG-13, 2 hours and 37 minutes
Aside from the fact that Collins wrote a sequel in 2020 that was set 64 years before the events of the original book trilogy, and of course the market reality that Hollywood never met a dystopian cash cow it couldn’t milk to death, there are few compelling reasons. for the new episode to exist.
Certainly not the creepy but unimaginative deathmatch arena action in which dutifully diverse but thinly drawn characters, identified mainly by their disabilities or levels of brutality, meet their makers in front of a live TV audience. And certainly not Viola Davis, who devours the chilly, futuristic landscape like an evil doctor with a fright wig, a piercing ice-blue eye and Drag race-strong makeup, preparing increasingly cruel torments to unleash on the games’ hapless participants. As the archvillain, she’s too campy to be disturbing, but not enough to be fun.
The most important takeaway from The ballad of songbirds and snakes is the realization that this is a crucial element of what made the previous four Hunger Games movies that were fun – even the closing entry, which was stretched unrewardingly over two parts – was Jennifer Lawrence’s natural grit and charisma. Her Katniss Everdeen was someone to root for, not to mention something that was a rarity at the time in terms of resourceful female action heroes whose fighting spirit never crushes their humanity.
An underdog from District 12, the impoverished mining sector of the fictional North American autocracy Panem, Katniss brought with him formidable archery skills that he honed while hunting to put food on the family table. But she became equally notable for her compassion, which was expressed in the first film through her alliance with Amandla Stenberg’s preteen Rue and her grief over the latter’s death. There has probably not been a more poignant moment in the series than Katniss showing her love and respect by spreading flowers over the dead girl’s body. If only this bloated prequel had a scene or two with even a fraction of that emotional power.
As Lucy Gray Baird, Katniss’s counterpart in District 12 during the 10th annual Hunger Games, West Side Story discovery Rachel Zegler is feisty and attractive, emphatically evoking echoes of Katniss with a defiant bow at The Reaping, the ceremony in which two involuntary ‘Tributes’ are chosen from each district to compete in the games by the oppressive Capitol that rules Panem .
Her sharp Appalachian accent can be distracting, but the rousing folk songs and foot-stomping jigs she performs – Lucy Gray is a member of the Covey, a community of traveling musicians forcibly assigned to a district by the regime – give it character in every case vitality. and help her create more than a rote reprint from the Katniss template. But unlike Katniss, who was the beating heart of the earlier films, Lucy Gray must compete for narrative primacy with the young Coriolanus (Tom Blyth). And the longer the film drags on, the more she loses.
Like other students from wealthy families in the Capitol, Coriolanus must guide a Tribute through the training and promotion period and then the competition itself, with viewer sponsorship determining the amount of survival supplies that can be sent to the students via drones.
But unlike most of his mentor colleagues, Coriolanus has a lot at stake. His once prominent family has fallen on hard times since his father’s death in the long war sparked by the Districts’ rebellion against the Capitol. As the sole remaining breadwinner, he needs the Plinth Prize money awarded to the winning mentor to keep his grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) and his cousin, future Hunger Games stylist Tigris (Hunter Schafer), above the poverty line.
The 10th Games also marks a turning point in the gladiatorial event overseen by the heartless Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Davis). Public interest has waned, so Dr. Gaul has come up with ways to raise the stakes and increase engagement, including using mutated creatures bred in her lab, most notably a huge canister of venomous iridescent snakes. The parallels between this sci-fi version of sensational entertainment and contemporary ratings are highlighted in the adapted screenplay by Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt.
A more ambiguous figure than the cruel doctor is Dean Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) of Capitol University; it gradually becomes apparent that his morphine addiction is the result of his guilt over initiating the original games, which is also the root of his hostility towards young Snow.
Then there’s Lucky Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman), a family ancestor of Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman from the previous entries, who is tasked with hard-selling the gruesome event to home viewers – and injecting some tense comedy into the largely humorless film. That includes coming up with catchy nicknames when the most vicious frontrunners emerge – Cunning Coral (Mackenzie Lansing), Merciless Mizzan (Cooper Dillon), Treacherous Treech (Hiroki Berrecloth) – just as Trump mocks political opponents at a rally.
On the undeniably good side is Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), an idealistic scion of one of the Capitol’s wealthiest families and a classmate who considers Coriolanus an ally. When Dr. Gaul insists on continuing after a rebel “terrorist” bomb attack on the eve of the Games kills a handful of participants and virtually destroys the arena, Sejanus’ loyalty to the Capitol is tested. His stomach for barbaric games is also tested when he finds himself mentoring a former school friend, Marcus (Jerome Lance).
Divided into three chapters – ‘The Mentor’, ‘The Prize’, ‘The Peacemaker’ – Lesslie and Arndt’s script is less interested in the gladiatorial action than in the moral formation or disassembly of Coriolanus. Will he act in solidarity with the principled Sejanus? Will he step up his efforts on Lucy Gray’s behalf to make her not just a survivor but a winner? And will he remain faithful to her once love emerges from their shared experience in the spotlight of the Hunger Games?
Considering that Snow’s personality in the earlier films leaves little doubt about the answer to those questions, a lot depends on Blyth’s performance to keep us engaged as young Coriolanus weighs personal loyalty against his instinct for self-preservation and ambitious progress.
Blyth, who played the title character in the Epix/MGM+ series Billy the Kid, effectively enough balances sensitivity with growing steeliness. But Coriolanus is no replacement for Katniss as the protagonist, and his inevitable betrayal of Lucy Gray is too clumsily plotted to be anything other than a preordained script device. There’s no poignancy because we were never terribly invested in their romance in the first place. I mean, that guy has the word “anus” in his name, for God’s sake.
Francis Lawrence, who directed all the 2012 features that kicked off the series, delivers the action in the arena with plenty of energy, putting DP Jo Willems’ cameras to the test with plenty of frenetic movement. But the games prove less exciting and visually interesting in their confined bunker-like setting than under the expansive biodome of the chapters that come later in the chronology. In fact, the participants simply lack dimension. And Lawrence’s handling of the more character-driven drama creates rousing momentum at its best.
The film’s design elements are polished, including atmospheric physical settings by Uli Hanisch – his imposing recreations of Weimar Germany were a key element of Tom Tykwer’s neo-noir series Babylon Berlin — convincingly mixed with CG; and stylish, character-enhancing costumes from Trish Summerville. The burgundy unisex Capitol student uniforms, with pleated skirts over pants, look like something Thom Browne dreamed up for the crew of Starship Enterprise.
The orchestral thunder of James Newton Howard’s score pairs well with Lucy Gray’s songs, with executive music producer Dave Cobb crafting stirring tunes around Collins’ lyrics, further fueling the heroine’s rebellious spirit.
If only there was something truly new and innovative about this chapter to fully justify the revival of the world Hunger Games franchise eight years later Mockingjay – Part 2. The intention to highlight the political machinations of the Capitol and the importance of the Games in maintaining the divide between the ruling class and the powerless plebs results in little more than puffy gloom.
The points about cruelty being one of humanity’s basic instincts are hammered home by Snow in an emphatic dialogue that leaves no subtext unsaid: “The whole world is an arena and we need the Hunger Games every year to remind us who we really are .” Gory sacrifices in this equation are simply “the price people are willing to pay for a good show.” If only.