'The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes' review: The odds were not in its favor
Courtesy of Lionsgate
No dystopian and young adult franchise can stay dead forever and a studio (Lionsgate) that doesn’t have the prowess of the majors (Disney, Paramount, Sony etc.) needs to keep milking their cash cow. And considering “The Hunger Games” saga yielded almost $3 billion in box office revenue when it ended almost a decade ago, it was only a matter of time before they would adapt Suzanne Collins’ 2020 bestseller “The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” for today’s audiences. Aside from that, there’s not much riding on this latest installment (titled “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes”) that necessitates mass audience consumption. Fans of the series (or those who read the book) will take the gamble, but even they might be shocked at how little they’ll care about the origin of Coriolanus Snow, who was played in the OG series with a ruthless tenacity by Donald Sutherland and is carried by the not so memorable Tom Blyth this time around, and his relationship with a District 12 tribute played by “West Side Story” breakout Rachel Zegler.
That central courtship is the crux of “The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” as it takes place 65 years before the events of “The Hunger Games,” which means the charisma of Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen is sorely missed and there’s hardly anyone worth rooting for. In a way, we’re supposed to root for Snow, but how can we? We already know he’s going to become a heartless tyrant in the fictional North American society of Panem and that it will only be a matter of time before he betrays those closest to him. At least the games themselves should be entertaining, right?
Sort of. Director Francis Lawrence (who directed all the previous entries besides the first one) puts his cameras right in the middle of the action, but as the 10th annual Hunger Games unfold in the movie, it leaves plenty to be desired. Especially with several of the characters being defined by their traits or diseases’ rather than, let’s say, a winning personality. When someone bites the dust (in a safeguarded PG13 way rather than pushing the boundaries of an R rating), it’s nobody’s loss because we simply don’t care.
And this puts the heavy lifting back on the shoulders of Blyth and Zegler who are forced to mold a believable relationship over the film's three parts and two and half hour runtime. To her credit, Zegler is perfectly serviceable playing a scrappy tribute named Lucy Gray Baird, who uses her singing talents to mask the destruction and turmoil caused by the annual games, which were started after the rebels lost the war and were implemented as a form of punishment. She’s been assigned Snow as her “mentor,” or, in better terms, a handler or publicist tasked with ensuring she’s a star worth watching. That isn’t hard for Lucy considering she’s basically the Taylor Swift of her impoverished district and her pipes sound good.
If she succeeds, Snow will win a monetary prize that’ll keep his family (played by Fionnula Flanagan and Hunter Schafer) from being evicted. That’s easier said than done and he’ll have to work within the confines set by his prestigious academy instructors, notably Peter Dinklage’s Professor Highbottom (what a name) and Viola Davis’ sniveling Dr. Volumina Gaul, who are both the braintrust behind the formidable games. The latter utilizes several techniques, including venomous snakes, to ensure the events are always a spectacle.
Except this version of the games (aside from a refreshing Jason Schwartzman who injects several moments of witty one liners into an otherwise bleak movie) aren’t that thrilling. For one, the confines of the arena lack the scope of the previous chapters and contain the action all in one space as opposed to the “Fortnite” like setting Katniss and crew had to work with. Credit to Lawrence and cinematographer Jo Willems for giving the camera a kinetic feel during the arena sequences, but it’s missing some flavor. Worse, it’s just not very involved.
What else do you expect from a movie about the rise of a C-level villian and despite Blyth’s best efforts to keep the train on its tracks, the chemistry between him and Zegler isn’t there in the same way Lawrence and Hutchinson was back in 2012. “Songbirds & Snakes” manages to sneak in subtext on our culture's unhealthy obsession with violence, public, and political notoriety, but it’s nothing we hadn’t seen before and that, ironically, makes an even bigger case as to why this series didn’t need to be resurrected in the first place.
THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS AND SNAKES opens in theaters everywhere Friday, November 17th.