In a world rife with real-life horrors, the idea of escaping into a movie dystopia is tempting, and more than understandable. Fantasies about tyrannical governments and sharp divisions between the haves and the have-nots strike a chord for good reason: no matter how bad things get in our own world, it could always be worse somewhere else. But how desperate are we, really, for a dreary prequel that jettisons a series’ best qualities and replaces them with recycled sawdust stuffing? The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, directed by Francis Lawrence, strives to offer spectacle, drama, and excitement. But it’s really just a tired rehash, albeit an extravagant one, this time with less appealing characters. As dystopias go, it’s a real bummer.
In The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes—adapted from Suzanne Collins’ 2020 novel of the same name, set some 60 years before the events of the Hunger Games series—Tom Blyth plays the young Coriolanus Snow, the teenager who will grow up to be the malevolent ballbuster played by Donald Sutherland in the earlier Hunger Game pictures. (The last of these was 2015’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2, also directed by Lawrence, the filmmaker behind three of the four movies in the series.) But Coriolanus is not yet a baddie; he’s a principled kid who hopes to follow in the footsteps of his esteemed father, who died during the long war following the uprising of the downtrodden districts against the hoity-toity Capitol. But his family has fallen on hard times. As the 10th annual Hunger Games approach, he is, like his fellow Capitol University students, matched with a Tribute, a contestant from the districts. Coriolanus really needs the money that will be awarded to the winner, and the stakes are higher than usual, because viewer ratings have dipped. Luckily, he’s been matched with the Tribute with the mostest, a Loretta Lynn-style balladeer in a tattered peasant dress who holds her head high despite the fact she’s from the lower orders. This is Lucy Gray Baird (played by Rachel Zegler, the dynamite performer who broke out in West Side Story), and she has little interest in cooperating.
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Eventually, though, Lucy Gray realizes it’s in her best interest to do so, and she and Coriolanus become close. Soon, a romance brews. Here and there, she sings a song or two. Lucy Gray—who is never referred to as plain old Lucy—has a clear, strong voice, and it stirs the masses. This makes sense: Zegler is the most charismatic presence in the movie. But you also wonder how on Earth her Lucy Gray could be attracted to the faux dignity of Coriolanus—this kid is just a dud. His transformation into a true baddie is hardly a surprise, and the movie sets it up clumsily.
In the Hunger Games, as you know if you’ve read the books or seen any of the previous movies, the Tributes are pitted against one another in a series of death matches. Their Capitol counterparts advise them and cheer them on from the sidelines—nice work if you can get it. But as Lawrence stages them, the matches in The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes are unpleasant and grisly; I’d hesitate to take little kids to this movie, especially given the harsh demise of the smallest and most innocent Tribute, Wovey (played by Sofia Sanchez). No one needs that much dystopia in their entertainment.
Meanwhile, an array of ill-tempered evildoers chomp their way through the story. Viola Davis, as devious gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul, cranks up the grand-lady acting while dressed in a series of costumes that look to be made of sofa fabric. (It's Volumnia who has amped up the games' stakes by introducing an army of menacing blue serpents to the proceedings.) Peter Dinklage is the school’s Dean Casca Highbottom, who stomps around huffily enforcing the rules. Jason Schwartzman is Lucky Flickerman, the games’ emcee, inflicting his big personality on his viewership, and on us. There are more heroic characters, too, like Coriolanus’ friend Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), who comes from one of the Capitol’s richest families but whose idealism leads him to believe he can make life better for those in the districts.
This is a movie stuffed with too many characters and, sadly, none of them are played by Jennifer Lawrence, who was the best feature of the earlier entries: she was so likably vital that she made you feel there was something at stake in this fantasy world. Zegler is charming, but no single performer can carry a movie this unwieldy. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is divided into three (long) chapters, which feel more like 20. It’s the kind of product designed to send audiences off feeling like they’ve gotten a real bang for their buck. But it’s really an endurance test disguised as a movie.
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