2.5 out of 5 stars (decent)
While I never wrote full reviews of them on release, The Hunger Games is one of my favorite film franchises. Coming out when I was a teenager, these films helped me grow as a critic, making me realize the value of strong characterizations, the exploration of dark, sometimes uncomfortable themes, and of course, great action to go along with my sappy love triangles. As such, I was nervously excited when a prequel was announced, hoping it would maintain what I loved about the series but also ready for utter disappointment. Frustratingly, I found The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes to land squarely in the middle of those two extremes, lacking the depth of character or conviction to explore its tantalizing ideas that defined its predecessors, but still technically well-crafted with some solid performances. It’s not the worst prequel ever, but the pieces were in place for it to be so much more.
A totalitarian government has split the world into Districts and renamed it Panem. Ten years ago, a rebel uprising was extinguished by that government and The Hunger Games began, a televised contest where one boy and girl from each district (called tributes) would fight to the death in an arena. We follow Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), a high school senior hoping win a fortune by mentoring his tribute well enough to win the games. That tribute is district 12’s Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler, West Side Story), a feisty and outspoken young woman who likes the games as much as I like bad movies. With the Gamemaster (Viola Davis rocking a Mad Scientist hairdo) and his professor (Peter Dinklage), watching him, Snow tries to prepare Lucy Gray as much as possible, with the two forming a romantic bond that will be tested the longer time goes on.
There isn’t a film this year that I’m more conflicted on than The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. To start with the positives, Tom Blyth is physically well-cast as a younger Snow (previously portrayed by Donald Sutherland) and works fine in the early section of the movie as a young man driven to win in a world he disagrees with. Rachel Zegler makes a good first impression and has some solid emotional moments here and there, and Peter Dinklage and Viola Davis once again show why they’re two of the best in the industry today with their strong supporting work. The costuming and production design are also great, the musical score is effective, Jason Schwartzman is fun as the Games announcer and the design of the arena is well-realized. The cinematography is sometimes beautiful and the nods and set-ups for future films always feel organic to the story rather than distracting from it or alienating potential new viewers. In fact, a friend of mine who hasn’t seen any of them besides this one is now intrigued to check out the rest of the series.
Sadly, there’s a snake in this potential garden of Eden that holds it back from greatness: The script. The most frustrating aspect of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes to me is how underwritten its script is. The characterizations aren’t strong or memorable this time around and the romance we’re meant to be invested in doesn’t sizzle because of the leads’ lack of romantic chemistry together. Blythe looks the part, but lacks the desired screen presence or range for his character transition to resonate (though again, the script flips his switch so fast it’s almost laughable). Zegler fares better both in performance and on the page, but employs an out-of-place southern drawl shared by no one else in her district. This could have been used as a cultural signifier (she’s part of a tribe that used to be prominent in the area before it was given a district number), but the film never tells us if other people from that culture are still alive or if she’s the last one.
The film flirts with exploring themes of spectacle, dehumanization, rich vs poor, and the seduction of political power, but only dips its toes in before running away to get a towel. For example, upon selection, the tributes are literally put in a zoo cage for others to gaze at, but are allowed to wear their own clothes. Why not force them to wear matching uniforms to further drive that point of dehumanization home visually? Snow is shown to be poor (how he’s affording his rich school is beyond me) and has a well-off friend (played well by Josh Andres Rivera) whose daddy always bails him out, but the film rarely mines their class differences for tension, something that should have been done given where the characters end up. Lastly, the film initially draws parallels between the Games and reality TV in how both need to be keep upping the insanity to keep people hooked, but drops that angle once the games actually begin.
The lighting is also hair-raisingly inconsistent, with daytime scenes looking beautiful thanks to the strong cinematography, but nighttime scenes being nearly impossible to make out (one character death fell flat because I literally couldn’t see it onscreen). Rachel Zegler showed she could sing in West Side Story, but you could make a deadly drinking game out of how many times she sings here (I had to get up for some air at one point). There are two instances when her songs make sense (one to establish her character and the other for plot reasons), but all others just drag the runtime out. The film’s action sequences are serviceable, but not as memorable or creative as the arena they take place in and the final act is full of characters making decisions so counterintuitive to their own survival that they could have wandered in from a Friday the 13th rip-off. Apparently the book goes deeper into the characters’ reasoning for their choices and feelings, but this adaptation wasn’t up to snuff.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is not a bad film, just a frustrating one. The character relationships aren’t as strong as they should be, the themes are half-baked, and the ending drops the ball. However, the production design and costumes are still strong, the score is effective, and some of the cinematography and performances are solid. I wish I loved The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, but for me, it’s one game that fails to reach the heights of its excellent predecessors. Rent it.
Rated PG-13 for Strong Violent Content and Disturbing Material