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This is a spoiler-free review.
I never thought I’d be saying this, but the new Hunger Games film is perhaps the best prequel we’ve had to a major blockbuster since Matthew Vaugn’s X-Men: First Class in 2011. Offering an expansion of the world of Panem and a fresh perspective, it surprises with a character study that treks unforeseen depths. The conceit of the film goes: what if we trick you that President Snow from all those Hunger Games films was actually good for a time? And you’d believe it, even root for him at times, only for us to sweep the rug from under you and you’d be like: “Wait, right. Why did I ever root for this guy?”
Obviously, this isn’t a flat-out exception in tentpole Hollywood filmmaking. It’s still muddied by a staggering amount of unrealistic CG distractions that diminish the impact of the film’s action. But the exception it does create is in the reimagining of its Young Adult (YA) novel fantasy; a love story between a privileged and ambitious Capitol boy and a rebellious rural girl. It’s a tale as old as time. A formula that might already give you the ending you pictured the moment you first heard of it.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes a sinister turn, reminding us this franchise isn’t just about the love story, but about the dangers of fascism and the politics of revolution. It’s haunting without losing the balance of its sappy romance and battle royale shenanigans. It sparks renewed enthusiasm for a more mature audience, providing focus on the story’s astute power dynamics and the unraveling of bureaucratic hypocrisies.
We meet our new protagonists in the year of the 10th Annual Hunger Games, where a young and yet-to-be-President Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) is motivated to restore his family, and his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer), back to prosperity. This stirs an ambitious psyche for the teenage Snow, submitting proposals and recommendations in order to make the games much more appealing to the viewers of Panem.
Viola Davis stars as Dr. Volumnia Gaul, the head gamemaker with a morbid fascination for snakes and duplicity. Casca “Cas” Highbotto, portrayed by Peter Dinklage, employs his trademark drunkenness to conceal his genius. Jason Schwartzman takes on the role of host as Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, whose character feels and acts as though lifted from a Wes Anderson film.
An unexpected change arrives when the tributes are now assigned to have mentors from the Capitol, intertwining the fates of Snow and Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), the District 12 female tribute. The arena sees chaos, with rebel attacks and violent deaths, but Coriolanus’ suggestions boost Capitol viewership. Lucy leverages her singing talent to charm the audience, forging not just support but also an unprecedented emotional bond, a phenomenon previously unseen in the games.
Things take a darker turn after, which is when the film is able to slow down and examine what makes its characters tick. There’s a lot of internal conflict shown in the last act, as if the franchise is finally graduating from the love triangle that has overwhelmed its original trilogy. While there is indeed a romantic angle, the distinction lies in it not being the end-all, be-all of the plot. Instead, it serves as the tragic genesis of Snow’s shift toward malevolence, as he confronts his toxic aspirations and makes self-serving decisions despite having alternatives within reach.
Director Francis Lawrence, who has helmed all of the Hunger Games films since Catching Fire, returns with an eye for realism. The real, often fully-built, sets feel tangible. The unseen history of war and rebellion that forms the backdrop of the Capitol feels more pronounced. The emphasis on performances and granting freedom to the actors, often an overlooked aspect in the Jennifer Lawrence films, appears more evenly distributed here, allowing each actor the opportunity to shine.
The film’s pacing, arguably its most substantial weakness, stems from its accelerated speed. It lacks the luxury of being divided into two halves: the first serving as the setup before the game, and the second, typically the final hour, dedicated to the game itself. Instead, the battle royale proceedings are done by half of the film’s runtime. Connecting with the other tributes and their mentors became more difficult due to this factor; they were essentially sidelined, nameless, or outright forgettable.
The success of this storytelling gambit lies in the audience’s investment in the relationship between Snow and Lucy, and fortunately, their chemistry is compelling. Zegler is perfectly cast as a singer with humble roots thrust into a brutal maze of betrayal and murder. But because the film doesn’t put us into her perspective, we’re treated to an entirely different film. What we get is Snow’s relentless manipulation, pretending to be noble and dutiful while openly advancing his personal agenda in broad daylight. This is quite possibly the strongest narrative choice Suzanne Collins has made in writing.
To my surprise, a sequel isn’t lined up for this film (yet). The ending sets up the possibility of tying up loose ends, and who wouldn’t want to see Tom Blyth unravel even more evil machinations? Blyth is ridiculously good in the role because at one moment he looks like a dashing replica of a Harris Dickinson-type good boy, only to morph into the epitome of a dangerous power monger willing to sacrifice his soul in the name of success. But in terms of the film being a standalone addition to the Hunger Games mythos? This is as good as it gets.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is as thrilling as it is psychologically interesting. It generates tangible tension in the confrontation between the rural districts and the affluent Capitol classes, as seen through the perspective of a man whose ambition frequently contradicts both human life and ethical principles. – Rappler.com
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is now showing in Philippine cinemas nationwide.