It’s hard to build much intrigue into whether a love-struck teen with a seemingly gentle heart and firm moral compass will betray those who trust him and cross over to the dark side when his name is Coriolanus Snow and we know from four previous films that he will grow up to be an evil overlord played with chilling authority by Donald Sutherland. Even less so once he joins the fascistic “Peacekeeper” ranks and trades his floppy blond locks for a Hitler Youth buzz cut.
That’s just one of the limitations of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, a lumbering prequel to the blockbuster battle royale series based on Suzanne Collins’ YA novels, the global grosses for which are nearing $3 billion.
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Beyond the fact that Collins penned a 2020 follow-up 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 installment to exist.
Certainly not the grisly but unimaginative death-match arena action in which dutifully diverse but thinly drawn characters identifiable chiefly by their disabilities or degrees of brutality meet their makers in front of a live TV audience. And definitely not Viola Davis devouring the coldly futuristic scenery as a malevolent doctor with a fright wig, one piercing ice-blue eye and Drag Race-strength makeup, cooking up increasingly cruel torments to unleash on the games’ hapless contestants. As an archvillain, she’s too campy to be disturbing but not sufficiently so to be fun.
The main takeaway from The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is the realization that a critical element of what made the four previous Hunger Games films enjoyable — even the concluding entry, unrewardingly stretched over two parts — was the natural pluck and charisma of Jennifer Lawrence. Her Katniss Everdeen was someone to root for, not to mention something of a rarity at the time in terms of resourceful female action heroes whose battle smarts never crush their humanity.
An underdog from District 12, the impoverished coal-mining sector of fictional North American autocracy Panem, Katniss brought formidable archery skills honed while hunting to put food on the family table. But she became just as notable for her compassion, conveyed in the first film by her alliance with Amandla Stenberg’s preteen Rue and her grief over the latter’s death. There’s arguably been no more affecting 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’ District 12 counterpart in the 10th annual Hunger Games, West Side Story discovery Rachel Zegler is feisty and appealing, pointedly summoning echoes of Katniss with a defiant curtsy at The Reaping, the ceremony during which two involuntary “Tributes” are chosen from each district to compete in the games by the oppressive Capitol that rules Panem.
Her chewy Appalachian accent can be distracting, but the stirring folk songs and foot-stomping jigs she performs — Lucy Gray is a member of the Covey, a community of itinerant musicians forcibly assigned to a district by the regime — at least lend the character vitality and help make her more than a rote reprint struck from the Katniss template. But unlike Katniss, who was very much the beating heart of the earlier films, Lucy Gray has to compete for narrative primacy with the young Coriolanus (Tom Blyth). And the longer the movie trudges on, the more she loses.
Like other students from well-heeled families in the Capitol, Coriolanus is required to mentor a Tribute through the training and promotion period and then the contest itself, where viewer sponsorship determines the amount of survival provisions that can be sent via drones to the mentees.
But unlike most of his mentor colleagues, Coriolanus has a lot at stake. His once-elevated family has fallen on hard times since the death of his father in the long war sparked by the uprising of the districts against the Capitol. As the sole remaining breadwinner, he needs the Plinth Prize cash awarded to the winning mentor in order to keep his Grandma’am (Fionnula Flanagan) and his cousin, the future Hunger Games stylist Tigris (Hunter Schafer), above the poverty line.
The 10th games are also a turning point in the gladiatorial event overseen by the heartless Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Davis). Audience interest has been waning, so Dr. Gaul has figured out ways to up the stakes and increase involvement, including the use of mutant creatures bred in her lab, notably a massive canister of venomous iridescent snakes. The parallels between this sci-fi version of sensationalized entertainment and contemporary ratings battles are emphasized in Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt’s adapted screenplay.
A more ambiguous figure than the cruel doctor is the Capitol University’s Dean Highbottom (Peter Dinklage); his morphine addiction is gradually revealed to be the result of his guilt over setting the original games in motion, which is also the root of his hostility toward the young Snow.
Then there’s Lucky Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman), a family forebear of Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman from the previous entries, tasked with hard-selling the gruesome event to home viewers — and injecting some strained comedy into the mostly humorless film. That includes coming up with catchy nicknames as the most vicious frontrunners emerge — Cunning Coral (Mackenzie Lansing), Merciless Mizzan (Cooper Dillon), Treacherous Treech (Hiroki Berrecloth) — much like Trump mocking political opponents at a rally.
On the unequivocally good side is Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), idealistic scion of one of the Capitol’s wealthiest families and a classmate who views Coriolanus as an ally. When Dr. Gaul insists on forging ahead after a rebel “terrorist” bombing on the eve of the games kills a handful of contestants and all but destroys the arena, Sejanus’ loyalty to the Capitol is tested. His stomach for the barbarous games is also challenged when he finds himself mentoring a former school friend, Marcus (Jerome Lance).
Divided into three chapters — “The Mentor,” “The Prize,” “The Peacekeeper” — 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 ramp up his efforts on Lucy Gray’s behalf to make her not just a survivor but a winner? And will he remain true to her once love blooms out of their shared experience in the Hunger Games spotlight?
Given that Snow’s persona in the earlier films leaves little doubt about the answer to those questions, a lot is riding on Blyth’s performance to keep us engaged as the young Coriolanus weighs personal loyalties against his instinct for self-preservation and ambitious advancement.
Blyth, who played the title character in the Epix/MGM+ series Billy the Kid, balances sensitivity with growing steeliness effectively enough. But Coriolanus is no substitute for Katniss as a protagonist and his inevitable betrayal of Lucy Gray is too clumsily mapped to be anything but preordained script mechanics. There’s no poignancy because we’re never terribly invested in their romance in the first place. I mean, the dude has the word “anus” in his name, for God’s sake.
Francis Lawrence, who has directed all but the 2012 feature that kicked off the series, handles the arena action with the required energy, putting DP Jo Willems’ cameras through their paces with lots of frenetic movement. But the games prove less suspenseful and visually interesting in their confined bunker-like setting than under the sprawling biodome of the chapters that come later in the chronology. More than that, the contestants just lack dimension. And Lawrence’s journeyman handling of the more character-driven drama provides sputtering momentum at best.
The film’s design elements are polished, including atmospheric physical settings by Uli Hanisch — his imposing re-creations of Weimar Germany were a key element of Tom Tykwer’s neo-noir series Babylon Berlin — convincingly blended with CG; and stylish, character-enhancing costumes by Trish Summerville. The burgundy unisex Capitol student uniforms, with pleated skirts over trousers, look like something Thom Browne whipped up for the Starship Enterprise crew.
The orchestral thunder of James Newton Howard’s score marries well with Lucy Gray’s songs, in which executive music producer Dave Cobb crafts rousing tunes around Collins’ lyrics, adding fire to the heroine’s rebel spirit.
If only there were something truly new and innovative about this chapter to fully justify resurrecting the Hunger Games franchise eight years after Mockingjay — Part 2. The intention to illuminate the political machinations of the Capitol and the importance of the games in maintaining the divide between the ruling class and the powerless plebs yields little beyond turgid gloom.
The points about savagery as one of humanity’s base instincts are hammered by Snow in emphatic dialogue that leaves no subtext unstated: “The whole world is an arena and we need the Hunger Games every year to remind us who we truly are.” Gory sacrifices, in this equation, are simply “the price people are willing to pay for a good show.” If only.
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