At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes

MPAA Rating: PG-13/Genre: Dystopian Action/Stars: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Josh Andrés Rivera, Hunter Schafer, Peter Dinklage, Jason Schwartzman, Viola Davis, Fionnula Flanagan, Burn Gorman, Ashley Liao, Max Raphael, Zoe Renee, Nick Benson, Isobel Jesper Jones, George Somner, Mackenzie Lansing, Cooper Dillon, Hiroki Berrecloth, Dakota Shapiro, Vaughan Reilly, Honor Gillies, Eike Onyambu, Konstantin Taffet, Michael Greco, Daniela Grubert, Carl Spencer, Scott Folan, Dexter Sol Ansell/Runtime: 157 minutes

I think it can safely be argued that one of the more intriguing challenges a slice of cinema could attempt to take on would have to be making a prequel about a character, and a villainous one at that, we as an audience already know where they are going to wind up. I mean no matter how you shake it dear reader Cruella is still going to develop a twisted fetish for dalmatian homicide, Magneto will still both oppose and aid the X-Men, Vito Corleone will still rise to iconic mobster status, and of course Joker will still terrorize Gotham to say nothing of the Caped Crusader on a seemingly hourly basis. The reason I bring this up dear reader is because I think another individual who could be added to this fairly distinct group is none other than President Coriolanus Snow from The Hunger Games franchise. Indeed here is a man who, when we first meet him, could best be described as a malevolent grandfatherly type figure who is responsible for ensuring the titular event goes as planned to his, and the rest of the leadership within the Capitol’s, distinct whims whilst seemingly orchestrating things from the shadows. As the series goes on however, it isn’t long before readers/audiences get to see that this is someone who is actually more of a rip-roaring psychopath in how this man has straight up poisoned large groups of Panem citizens and even had winning tributes engage in acts of prostitution among other horrific atrocities in order to keep his power intact. Yet although this does make him a chilling and hiss-worthy villain in the finest way possible, it does present with one distinct creative challenge. That being how on Earth can you conjure up for audiences a story that focuses on this undeniable megalomaniac before he became said megalomaniac and is able to, knowing what you know about them already, make them both sympathetic yet also have certain pieces to their story still be a wee bit on the surprising side? It was this question that not only took Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins, but eventually all of us back into the world of Panem first with a prequel book, and now the same-titled cinematic adaptation of said book, called The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. A film that not only gives us an origin story for the character of Snow, but also an origin story for both the Games themselves as we all know them to say nothing of Snow’s rise to power in Panem. It is also a film that honestly didn’t really need to happen, but I still was able to walk away from feeling fairly satisfied. To be sure, the last third of this film is definitely rushed and yes it does operate with a lot of components you’ve seen before. However, with the aid of fairly engaging work on both sides of the camera, there is still no denying that this installment is a solid little homecoming to a world I could’ve swore we’d seen the last of back in 2015.

The plot is as follows: An adaptation of the novel by Suzanne Collins, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes winds the clock back a solid 64 years to when Panem’s favorite homicidal commander-in-chief was around the age of 18 and the top of his class in school. A good thing not just for him, but also for his cousin Tigris and Grandmother. This is because, prior to the start of our story, Coriolanus’ dear ol’ dad Crassus was tragically killed in action during the first rebellion amongst the districts. As a result, the family was left more than just a wee bit financially strapped even as they desperately try to keep up appearances that speak to the contrary. At any rate, we see that it isn’t long before the annual Hunger Games approaches and, in a distinct twist of fate, our young Snow is assigned to be a mentor to one of the 24 tributes chosen. Yet, unlike the other versions of the titular juvenile death match we have seen play out in previous installments, this one is a bit different in that it is shockingly not being viewed by as many people around Panem (I guess HBO and Showtime were still big things at the time). All jokes aside, we see that this is why Snow is rather reluctant to accept this charge especially when it looks like his designated mentee, a tribute from District 12 (oh the irony) named Lucy Gray Baird, doesn’t really seem like she has any talent or skill that is going to make helping her either keep the audience entertained, or even better, try to survive a worthwhile endeavor despite the promise of significant financial compensation for the mentor of the most entertaining tribute. However when his mentee displays a phenomenal degree of charm and is able to swiftly win over the vast majority of the viewing audience, we see that our protagonist is able to put two and five together and view this as a chance for both of their fates to change for the better. Thus with all of his prior successes and accomplishments hinging on this, we see as Snow teams up with Lucy in an effort to ensure that the odds of success are ever in their favor. An effort that will not only change the titular competition to say nothing of the lives of our dynamic duo, but most assuredly all of Panem in ways that both could never be imagined and will definitely still be felt a solid 6 decades later when a young woman by the name of Katniss Everdeen would come into the picture and really shake things up a notch or 5….

Now right off, it is worth noting that the work done behind the camera on this cinematic outing is not bad, but a wee bit lacking especially when compared to the work done on the prior installments in this franchise. To be sure, those purists out there amongst you can definitely breathe a sigh of relief because this slice of cinema is one that does manage to operate as an incredibly faithful adaptation of its source material. Yet this can prove to be quite problematic since even though this film’s director and its screenwriting duo do ensure that things operate at a fairly good rate of speed for the beginning and middle, it sadly all starts to become more than just a tad bit murky and befuddling in the last hour. Perhaps the most significant example of this can be found in how the film has, up to that point, tried to make Snow as sympathetic as possible until he just simply becomes a bad guy. Even worse is the fact that both his motivations and the segway over to “the dark side” not only are head scratching at best, but are barely given any explanation. Rather, it just occurs with nothing more than the character’s wish to give his family some of the fortune and glory they have lost hovering about in the background to try and provide the character with a motive for his actions as flimsy as it may truly be. That pretty decent-size stumbling block aside however, there is no denying that the majority of the work done behind the camera here is fairly, albeit unspectacularly, solid. For starters, I will say that when we are treated to the actual Hunger Games in this movie it does prove to be quite riveting. Indeed that is because, despite not nearly enough of the movie putting an emphasis on it, the Hunger Games in this manages to do a great job at keeping you both on the edge of your seat and surprised especially when it comes to some of the combat strategies on display with two of the more distinct moments managing to incorporate poison and a collection of the worst animal in the entire world (snakes….why did it have to be snakes?). As such, this slice of cinema might have story issues, but trust me when I say that for the moments during the titular competition itself this film is definitely worth at the very least a single viewing. Not just because they manage to be instantly iconic, but because these moments also do a fantastic job of showcasing for us just how the stakes are in the world presented to us in this film. Besides that, these moments are also fairly intriguing because they show what alterations would eventually be made to this battle royale with particular regard to not only where the competition takes place, but also in the media’s approach to the whole ordeal. Indeed it might have flaws, but at least this slice of cinema is able to show for us the evolution (or dare I say devolution) of the titular competition. Alongside that, there is no denying that the work done at the helm by the returning Francis Lawrence is, much like it was when he helmed Catching Fire back in 2013. I mean not only does all of it right down to the exceptional work done by the styling, set design, and costume/makeup departments just seep with style and flair, but it all feels like the team behind the camera did at the very least try in that regard rather than phone it in like other prequels have done in the past. Suffice it to say that when you also factor in some intriguing little winks and nods to the original 4 movies to say nothing of yet another absolutely stunning musical accompaniment from the immensely brilliant James Newton Howard it’s clear that the work done behind the camera could have been worse, but had the script been tightened up it also could have been a lot better as well.

Of course, the other big element that helps this slice of cinema work even remotely close to the level that it is able to would undeniably have to come in the form of the performances given by the undeniably talented cast of players in front of the camera. This starts with, in his first lead role at that, Tom Blyth who does a phenomenal job as the younger Snow. No I can’t fully see him becoming Donald Sutherland’s take on the character, but even so Blyth does a wonderful job at presenting this iconic villain less as a murderous psychopath and more as a brilliantly conniving schemer who simply will not permit anyone to get in his way. Along with that, Blyth also does a great job at giving audiences moments where Snow might seem like a decent guy, but even so is still able to both subtly and overtly plant enough seeds that you can eventually see how this guy will become the guy we remember from the earlier films. Indeed it is one heck of a performance and one that should lead to the start of a long and remarkable career for Blyth. Now, besides Blyth’s wonderful turn here, we also get a really good performance here from Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird. With that said though, I feel it must be said that her performance really soars less when she is singing and more when she is trying to stand up for herself and the other tributes or getting to know Snow better. I mean don’t get me wrong dear reader: Zegler without question has quite the lovely voice. However, when your character is time and time again pushed to make a point via a precise tune, it really does begin to cause her natural talent to give off a vibe of being purposefully crammed into the film. Alongside the work done by our dynamic duo, we also see that there are some truly wonderful support performances to be found amidst the older Capitol crowd as well. This starts with the always engaging Viola Davis who is having an absolute blast and then some in the role of head gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul. Indeed here is a character that feels like she could have been a classmate of Frankenstein’s back in the day right down to her wild and crazy hair style, laboratory with killer eels, and all whilst rocking some red gloves that constantly make you think she just dipped her hands in a full to the brim blood bag. Yet as wonderfully over the top as she plays it, we see that it all definitely fits when you hear her proudly espouse her fascist outlook on people in general. Suffice it to say it is a wonderfully twisted performance and Davis plays it perfectly. We also get another delightfully over the top turn from Jason Schwarzman in the role of first Hunger Games host Lucky Flickerman. Indeed Schwartzman does a wonderful job at being this absolutely ignorant yet dapper individual whose delightfully dark sense of humor-tinged analysis will definitely make you laugh even when what is unfolding on screen really is anything but. Besides these two however, we also get a delightful yet tragically underused turn here from Peter Dinklage who is terrific as the more than slightly bitter Casca Highbottom. No Dinklage might not get as much screentime as he deserves, but even so he does an amazing job here at playing a vital hinderance to our protagonist’s twistedly fervent odyssey to showcase he has what it takes to succeed in the ominous and dog eat dog Capitol landscape. Suffice it to say that when you also factor in solid efforts from such talents as Burn Gorman, Hunter Schafer, Josh Andres Rivera, and Fionnula Flanagan among others it’s clear that this slice of cinema might have issues, but the cast definitely does what it can to keep everything together.

All in all and at the end of the day is The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes the best of the best when it comes to this distinct franchise? Honestly that is definitely not the case by any stretch of the imagination. Having said that however, does that make this entry an absolute travesty in every sense of the word to say nothing of a slap in the face to everything that came before it? Truthfully I would by no means say that either dear reader. If anything, I would say that this slice of cinema is one that is very much a spot-on example of a mixed bag. This is because whilst yes, it is engaging and (by my own admission I must confess) surprisingly well-made, it also wraps things up in a manner that will have you going “huh” at best and at worst wondering just what exactly the point to everything was that unfolds. Along with that, the work done by the other departments behind the camera is fairly spectacular and you can definitely see how this is the same world that the first 4 films were set in albeit earlier in the timeline. Having said that though dear reader, the fact is that there really is no big surprise to any of this since we already know just where our main character is going to wind up and who he is going to become. With that said though, the cast of players in front of the camera on this do manage to give fairly engaging performances even though some definitely fare a heck of a lot better than others. Suffice it to say then that if you are someone who has missed spending time in this world since the 2nd part of Mockingjay back in 2015 then The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes will definitely fill that Panem-size void within you even with the 3rd act being quite a bit on the messy side. Make of that what thou will and may the odds be ever in your favor! On a scale of 1-5 I give The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes “2023” a solid 3.5 out of 5.