The games begin again, and they are actually kind of glorious. I’ve never been shy about my admiration for the film adaptations of The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. Compared to the glossiness and some flavor of the week approaches to other YA novel series, these films focused on the themes at play and complimented them through solid craftsmanship from directors Gary Ross and, more notably, Francis Lawrence. Now we have The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, a prequel story following series villain Coriolanus Snow as a younger man. Could a film appropriately depict a compelling arc for someone we know will make a turn to the dark side? Based on the results seen here, I was right to never feel as though there was a risk of taking one trip too many to the world of Panem.
Set 64 years before the legend of Katniss Everdeen would begin, we follow an 18-year-old Snow (Tom Blyth), who is hoping to bring the fading image of his once-proud family back on top. The 10th annual Hunger Games are approaching, and Snow and other members of the highest class are now tasked with mentoring the lower-class tributes chosen to compete in the games. Snow is assigned to Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a musician more equipped to sing and perform than battle. Whether or not the odds are in her favor, Snow will do what he can to ideally hold his favorable position and perhaps use whatever tricks he can come up with to keep ahead of the competition.
At over two and a half hours, a lot of story is being crammed into this film, and I can understand why. Rather than create another 2-part film event, which would be risky, we are given a complete vision based on the book that allows for a fitting resolve were we to never revisit this franchise. With that in mind, even with a second and third act that feels a little long, this has to be one of the more satisfying cinematic prequels I have seen as far as holding onto a consistency found in the originals and still forging ahead on its own terms. Perhaps that has to do with essentially dwindling down the plotting of the Star Wars prequels to their essential parts and forming a structure around that.
Regardless, this film has a clear commitment to its ambitions and the components gathered to deliver on them. It may sound crass to say this movie only cost $100 million. However, given everything on display, Lionsgate deserves plenty of credit for being a studio that may still sit just behind the true majors but has the tools needed to place its features among the other big blockbusters. The winning results of those efforts come in the form of many areas, starting with the casting.
I’m, frankly, unfamiliar with Tom Blyth as an actor, but he’s excellent here. It’s less about finding a way to channel a young Donald Sutherland and more about trying to make the lead character not come off as a bland gateway to the others surrounding him. As such, there’s a lot of conflict in this role, and watching Blyth sort out the aspects that make him inherently good versus those indicating someone far more conniving is intriguing, to say the least. Add to that a standout moment near the end, where certain inevitable actions must occur, and you have an actor I’m prepared to see more from in the future.
Zegler, who broke out in Spielberg’s West Side Story, similarly has an interesting role that needs to be different than what Jennifer Lawrence brought to her lead character. This film makes it simple by essentially flipping the script on who this District 12 tribute is. Where Katniss was a hunter and not at all a performer, Lucy Gray is all about showmanship despite lacking the killer instinct. Making that register is simple enough, but buying into this character and the relationship drama between her and Snow means finding the right way to play specific nuances or otherwise find oneself cast into a pit of clichés.
Outside of these two, there’s a terrific set of adult performers who all play right into the movie they are a part of in the best ways. Peter Dinklage is quite good as a droll dean and the author of the Hunger Games. Jason Schwartzman is a riot as “Lucky” Flickerman, the TV host for the Hunger Games whose obliviousness knows no bounds, even when horrible violence is moments away. Best of all is Viola Davis as Dr. Volumnia Gaul, an actual mad scientist who was responsible for implementing the games in the first place. Her dry deliveries, matched with her outrageous wardrobe (a common trope for all the high class), make for a film that continues to be in on its own joke yet still feels so thematically satisfying.
As a filmmaker already well-versed in depicting this world, the returning Francis Lawrence gets plenty of mileage out of what the actors have to offer and the screenplay by Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt. While having a bit of bloat may be one of the only flaws I found in this feature, it’s not as though anything else is lacking when it comes to how to sketch out the majority of the essential characters, let alone establish what Panem is like in this earlier time period.
From a visual standpoint, this film is quite a site to behold. Shot by longtime Lawrence collaborator Jo Willems, there is a lot to like about a reliance on wide shots to show the true scope of this world and the intensity that comes from crucial closeups. The middle section of the film focuses on the Hunger Games, which really gets across the more rudimentary version of this event at this time, emphasizing a lack of space for these characters to retreat to. It’s a more primal depiction that further helps distinguish this entry from the other films. With that, the movie’s place in time speaks well for the production design, as we get a retro look for the technology and key indications of how this society is evolving.
With so many choices being made to accommodate for backstory, what these various districts look like, how the Hunger Games play out, and what the fallout from that would be, I found it impressive to be able to take in so much and feel as pleased as I was with where we leave these characters. That speaks to a franchise that has yet to fall short of what it has set out to do. Being one of so many series that relies on various tropes to make for a marketable bestseller, there’s a continued strength that comes with how these films acknowledge the ideas behind these games and de-glamorize the viciousness so clearly present in an event not so different than seeing slaves do battle in a Roman gladiator arena. As a result, as much as these films work as entertainment, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is the latest entry to also show a harsh reality buried within what could be deemed a fantasy. Thanks to the quality put forth to make this all work, I say game on.