By Bob Garver
I’ve been referring to this movie as “Hunger Game of Thrones.” It’s a prequel to “The Hunger Games,” but the influence of a certain HBO fantasy series is pretty apparent with the casting of Peter Dinklage and the “Song of Ice and Fire”-like subheading. I’ve seen it as little more than an attempt to combine two franchises that were wildly popular in their 2010’s heyday, but audiences have since left behind, frankly with a bad taste in their mouths after underwhelming finales. Watching the whole movie as opposed to gleaming the advertising does make it feel like less of an ill-advised cash grab, but still not great.
We follow young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), the son of a former President of Panem (formerly North America), as he struggles to restore his family’s name in a government that has barely rebuilt itself after the rebellion that killed his father. The rebellion ultimately failed, and every year each of the twelve remaining “Districts” have to send two child “Tributes” to the “Hunger Games” where they’ll battle to the “Death.” Sorry, I used quotes on that last one out of habit, they’ll battle to the death.
The good news is that Snow lives in the Capitol, which doesn’t have the problems of the Districts, and he has the highest grades in his class, so he’s looking at a promising career. The bad news is that he and his remaining family are on the verge of financial ruin, and the school’s dean Casca Highbottom (Dinklage) has declared that lucrative grants are no longer given just for good grades. The only way to get a grant now is to mentor a Tribute into becoming the biggest spectacle of the Hunger Games – not necessarily the winner, but the biggest generator of public interest.
Snow is randomly (or perhaps not – Highbottom hates him) assigned Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) from District 12, the district with the lowest chance of winning. There’s no way she’ll last long in the Games, so Snow has to focus on making her popular in the media while she’s still alive. Lucy Gray has a nice singing voice, maybe Snow can exploit that. The Hunger Games have been going on for ten years at this point, yet somehow Snow’s idea of turning the Tributes into likeable characters is considered revolutionary, so much that it impresses Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), the Games’ sadistic overseer. She has a nasty surprise in store for the Tributes this year. It’s there in the movie’s title, and it’s not a ballad. Snow strives to make Panem fall in love with Lucy Gray, and in the process he falls in love with her.
The film is divided into three chapters: Snow preparing Lucy Gray for The Hunger Games, The Hunger Games themselves, and… the events following The Hunger Games. I won’t get into spoilers, except to say that the third act is lengthy. I expected the movie to wrap up maybe ten minutes after the Hunger Games, which are its selling point, but it kept going. I suppose I should be grateful that this “Hunger Games” movie even contains the actual Hunger Games – both the third and fourth movies went without them – but the movie plods along afterward for an unnecessarily long time, especially considering that we know certain things will and won’t happen.
The prequel aspect takes a lot of the suspense out of “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.” We know Snow will be alive 64 years in the future, and he’ll be President, so things will work out there. We can be less optimistic about the fates of his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer), his District-sympathizing friend Sejanus (Josh Andres Rivera), or Lucy Gray. Some of the action scenes work, some of the scenery-chewing from pros like Dinklage and Davis and Jason Schwartzman as the Games’ host is enjoyable, but mostly this movie is the unwelcome slog that I expected.
“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is rated PG-13 for strong violent content and disturbing material. Its running time is 157 minutes.
Contact Bob Garver at firstname.lastname@example.org.