Movie Review: THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS AND SNAKES
The early 2010s saw a massive paradigm shift in Hollywood. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was still in its zenith, of course, but with the Twilight franchise (unfortunately) becoming a massive worldwide phenomenon, other studios rushed to copy the formula, resulting in a flood of YA film franchises that basically felt like a Mad Libs: set in a dystopian environment, present a flawed but admirable lead, toss in a romantic lead from a different background (add another one for the not-at-all cliche love triangle), sit back and watch as two people with opposite personalities mesh and save the world, count your profit. The movement fizzled out after a few years, but not before we received a gluttony of YA dystopian film franchises: Divergent, The Maze Runner, The 5th Wave, The Host, and so on.
Of all of the YA action series, though, one managed to rise above the rest: The Hunger Games. Beginning with the first film’s release in 2012 and concluding with Mocking Jay Part 2 in 2015, the series was an absolute hit, pulling in roughly $2.9 billion combined; this was shy of the Twilight series, which pulled in about $3.4 billion but also antagonized humanity by adding a fifth film.
However, that was all almost a decade ago, which doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but in terms of attention span and pop culture, it’s an eternity. It remains to be seen if the audience is still there for the latest film, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Sidenote, in the interests of full disclosure, I never saw the final three movies in the series. I did review the original film, but I have not re-watched it since then. So I went into the theater with little foreknowledge. I did bring my friend Anastasia with me, who’s an avid fan of the films, and she tried to help fill in the gaps of my knowledge.
Thankfully, as Ballad is a prequel to the rest of the series, you don’t have to know a ton about the series to appreciate it. The film is set in…sometime in the future? It seems like author Suzanne Collins kept the exact chronology vague (more on this later). We do know it’s set 64 years before the first film, as it portrayed the 74th Games and Ballad features the 10th. As Katniss and crew haven’t been born yet, the focus of this film pivots to the original series’ antagonist, Coriolanus Snow, portrayed by Tom Blyth. Although the main character, he is anything but a protagonist; while he has a few sympathetic moments, particularly with his grandmother and cousin, they’re easily shattered by, well, pretty much the rest of the movie.
In the original series, Snow is played by Donald Sutherland and is an older man, the president of Panem, but here he’s a mere 18, hoping to win the Plinth Prize, a financial reward sufficient for him to attend university. It’s announced, however, that for the final assessment, each candidate must become a mentor to one of the candidates for the games. As the dean of the academy, Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), does everything he can to sabotage Snow, Corio is assigned to Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a girl from District 12 who’s an extraordinary singer (the movie knocks you over the head with this with her last name and by demonstrating her singing as much as possible throughout the movie).
I mentioned earlier that Collins kept the setting incredibly vague, as we have no idea what year it is, and it’s pretty much impossible to even tell it takes place in the future. The nation of Panem exists in North America where the US, Canada, and Mexico used to be, yet the peacekeepers use a German rifle that their army replaced nearly 30 years ago. The architecture of the districts and the dome in which the Games take place are incredibly reminiscent of the Brutalist movement found mostly in Eastern Europe. During the games, they make use of computer-dispatched drones that have facial recognition software, yet cell phone technology doesn’t seem to exist, and all of the televisions and monitors are old cathode models. I’m guessing this is subterfuge so Collins didn’t have to pinpoint a timeline, but I can see someone unfamiliar with the series being extremely confused.
The purpose of the film is to show the backstory of how the Hunger Games started as well as the origin story for its villain, Coriolanus (Collins must really like ancient Rome, as many of the names of characters have a Latin name – Tigris, Festus, Lucretius, Coriolanus, Volumnia, etc.), which it does well enough. But just like the other books and films in the series, the underlying theme remains the imbalance and class struggle between the super wealthy (those who run and bet on the Games) and the poor (who live in the rundown districts and are chosen to participate in the games). The Game itself is a battle royale free-for-all, a concept that’s exploded in popularity the last few years thanks to video games such as PUBG, Fortnite, and Warzone. Although the series is an exciting action thriller, it’s also a biting social commentary about the wealthy barricading themselves from the ruling upper class and the desperate hoi polloi, who scrape to get by and are literally picked to fight to the death for the wealthy’s amusement. It could not possibly be any more heavy-handed in its portrayal of what America has become.
[Sidenote: theater fans and historians may note the names Coriolanus and Volumnia. Gaius Marcius Coriolanus was alleged to have been an ancient Roman general who was eventually banished from Rome and joined the Volsci, with whom Rome had been fighting. His story inspired Shakespeare’s eponymous play; interestingly, in real life, Coriolanus married a woman named Volumnia, but in the play, the name is shifted to his mother.]
Presentation-wise, Ballads is top-notch, as one would hope to expect from a big-budget film. We don’t get a great look into how the uber-wealthy live, but we see the run-down residences of the districts, we see how quick the ruling class is to convict and execute the lower-class.
The cast features quite a few well-known stars, such as Peter Dinklage and Viola Davis, who play Casca Highbottom and Dr. Volumnia Gaul, the two principal characters responsible for the Games. Dinklage and Davis are tremendously skilled actors, and even though they aren’t the main characters, they play their parts well; if you don’t dislike them both after the first hour, you’re either not paying attention or you might actually be evil. Blyth also does an excellent job playing Snow, a man torn between his loyalty to his family and the love of a woman who absolutely hates everything his family represents. He’s treacherous and despicable with a very small side of humanity. I believe this is the first work I’ve seen him in, and I’m a fan. I’ll say this, when he cuts his hair, I’m not convinced he isn’t the secret love child of Paul Walker and Hayden Christensen. Zegler, his co-star, does well enough, although her attempt at a southern drawl seems to disappear from time to time.
My biggest gripe concerning the film is probably more of a personal nitpick than an actual flaw. Zegler is a tremendous singing talent who’s shown off her skills in other works such as West Side Story and will be appearing in two upcoming musicals, Spellbound and Snow White. So while I was kind of expecting a song or two in the film, I guess I wasn’t quite ready for just how much they have her character sing. (Editor’s note: the title contains the term ballad, so maybe it should have been more clear?) It almost felt at times that they made the film to be a vessel to showcase her talents; obviously this isn’t the case, but as I’ve previously stated, I’m not much of a musical fan, and by the second half, I was ready for it to stop. I’ll note that Anastasia, while a fan of musicals, also agreed that she “didn’t love the song/singing aspect,” either. Some say you can still hear Lucy Gray singing long after the movie ends.
Those who are expecting a lot of action might also be disappointed. While there are some tense combat scenes during the Game, once it ends in the middle of the film, that’s pretty much it. Even the climax is mostly bereft of action; there’s a bit of tension, certainly, but nothing overly satisfying.
Is it a worthy precursor to the original Hunger Games? I think it ultimately depends on how much of a fan you are of the series and want to watch the origin story of Coriolanus Snow as well as the Games as they appear. When I asked Anastasia for her grade, she replied with, “Maybe a B? I would have given it higher if Lucy didn’t fake her accent.” If you’re hoping for an action movie, it’s probably not the best option. However, if you’re a fan of the series or you want to hear a concert by Rachel Zegler in a movie, knock yourself out.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes gets a C+