The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes review – A satisfying prequel
There’s a lot that impresses about this bleak and sprawling prequel – but there are a few issues with pacing and tone.
The Hunger Games, it turns out, weren’t always as slick, epic and audience-pleasing as the 74th Games showcased in the first film in the franchise. Though they were always as sick and brutal.
Surprisingly, though, this fifth Hunger Games movie – based on the best-selling prequel by Suzanne Collins – doesn’t take us back to the origins of the Games, but is instead based around the 10th Games, a period of seismic change for the bloody gladiatorial spectacle.
It’s a clever move, allowing the film to concentrate on the rise to power of the young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), the dodgy Panem President played by Donald Sutherland in the previous films.
Because after 10 years – with the Games originally designed to emphasise the Capitol’s powerhold over the 12 districts that dared to rise up against them – baying audiences are beginning to tire of the bloody but samey event.
So the powers that be decide that the next generation of political hopefuls need to prove their worth by mentoring the Games' contenders to make them more TV-friendly.
Snow lucks out when he’s paired with District 12’s Lucy Gray Baird (West Side Story’s Rachel Zegler) who has charisma, spunk and a hell of a singing voice she uses at any given opportunity. No exaggeration. She even sings while being attacked by snakes at one point.
Snow sees an opportunity to reinvigorate the Games big time and impress his superiors. But is he using Lucy for his own ends, or is he actually falling in love with her?
There’s a lot that impresses about this bleak and sprawling prequel, despite some major issues of pacing and tone. In fact, its greatest strength could also be its greatest weakness: despite its heritage, it’s not actually a young adult (YA) action movie. It’s a fully committed character study with an extended action sequence in the middle.
That’s right, no blockbuster finale, just an emotional one. A brave choice indeed. And sadly, while intentions are noble, that final third of the movie is also the weakest and least focused, although still with some gut-wrenching twists and a haunting final sequence of scenes.
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Yet having committed to this approach, director Francis Lawrence (who helmed all but the very first Hunger Games movie) has assembled a cast more than capable of elevating the material.
Blyth is magnificent and fully convincing as the young Snow, while Viola Davis is suitably arch as bonkers Gamesmaker-cum-evil geneticist Dr Volumnia Gaul, and Peter Dinklage is reliably world-weary as the drunken architect of the original Games, Casca Highbottom.
Zegler’s Lucy is a little cartoony and idealised (and perhaps sings a little too much), but she has bags of rustic charm.
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Oddly, since he has the experience of three former Hunger Games movies, plus films such as I Am Legend (2007) and Constantine (2005) behind him, Lawrence also feels on surer ground with the character- and world-building than the big action set-pieces, which occasionally feel like they crept in from another movie.
This may have more to do with trying to marry the almost social realist approach (or as socially realist as an authoritarian fantasy world can be) of much of the film with some really quite corny pieces of cinematic artifice that liberally punctuate the action.
But then, if a film can accommodate a character as camp as Davis’s Gaul, then why worry about a few over-the-top contrivances?
And while it perhaps works better as tragic love story than an examination of totalitarian government using bread and circuses to manipulate the masses, there are plenty of sly satirical digs at the current state of the media to enjoy. And a very amusing weather forecast.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is released on 17th November 2023. Check out more of our Film and Sci-Fi coverage, or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to see what’s on tonight.
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