Directed By Francis Lawrence
Starring – Rachel Zegler, Tom Blyth, Viola Davis
The Plot – The story of Coriolanus Snow (Blyth), years before he would become the tyrannical President of Panem. He is handsome and charming, and though the Snow family has fallen on hard times, Coriolanus sees a chance for a change in his fortunes when he is chosen to be a mentor for the 10th Hunger Games only to have his elation dashed when he is assigned to mentor a girl tribute named Lucy Gray Baird (Zegler) from the impoverished District 12.
Rated PG-13 for strong violent content and disturbing material
Returning to Panem a decade after Katniss Everdeen conquered it, brings us a giftwrapped opportunity to experience life behind its lavish walls, with a corresponding character study that chooses to focus on the antagonist of the previous films, instead of one of its many hard-edged veterans of the sport. Doing this not only vividly articulates how Snow came to be the coldly unforgiving mastermind that serves as the cause for so much of the district’s internal sufferings, with his own high stakes sacrifices stacking as logs for the proverbial fire, but also an engagement that sees the imperfections of the games themselves, long before they became the televised spectacle that everyone in Panem tuned in to see. Lawrence returns with his most impactful direction yet, with a fine usage of IMAX cameras that stretch depiction as far as the eye can see, crafting an immersive element to intense action sequences that never sacrifice depiction for exhilaration, despite the air of their ambiance persisting with claustrophobic capture that we can practically feel the winds of their actions as they fly by. Beyond this, I love the attention to detail in both the simplicity of the broadcast presentation, with its collection of analog TV’s and single camera angle to convey the games in their infancy, which all but illustrate a lagging interest to their current appeal. Panem itself is obviously luxurious without feeling overindulging, and even though their citizens serve as the richest of the corresponding communities, there’s still an underlining hierarchy and class system within the upper one percent that constantly conveys the need for its citizens to be superior. Cap this off with the Games’ contestants quite literally being treated as animals while living inside of a zoo cage, instead of the lavish accommodations that Katniss and her crew were given before their final send off, and you have an experience that intoxicates us effortlessly with the air of ominious dread and foreboding emphasis that each one of its kids are forced to face head-on. The performances are hit and miss, but the credible side of that equation comes from Blyth, Peter Dinklage and especially Jason Schwartzman, who as an elder ancestor to Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman during the original series, makes the most of the occasion with sarcastically dry and offensive remarks that only further articulates the ignorance of the story’s upper class. As for Blyth and Dinklage, they each command a series of heavyweight emotional impact for the occasion, with the latter offering a mournfully somber menace in a film that is constantly working against his efforts, and the former tapping into the nuance of a conflicted and imperfect protagonist, with layered complexity that speaks volumes to the internal battle to solidify legacy that is made all the more complicated with the influences of the environment that he has lived in all his life. Because of such, the film and Snow’s outline play vividly into the confines of nature over nurture, with an unseen airborne toxicity constantly serving as the motivations to the character’s often imbalanced motivations.
As for diminishing efforts, the film constantly feels like it is in a rush to include so much from the book, despite a nearly two-and-a-half hour run time that should be enough to thoroughly tap into every aspect of the fandom. This is felt throughout the duration of the experience, with flat characterization during the opening act leading to an uninteresting games, where characters whom we barely know never give us a reason to invest in the urgency of their bleak and dire situations. Even worse, the third act rushes through developments so forcefully that they often completely obliterate character momentum or intention in ways that often confused my interpretation, and in the case of Snow made him go from this redeeming protagonist with momentary lapses of immaturity, into a full-blown devil, within a matter of a couple of tonally disjointed scenes. In addition to this, there are so many instances where the dialogue lacked any semblance of humanity or believability, with lines of hip lingo and metaphorical punchlines that are only missing Pete Townsend’s yell towards being featured in a “CSI: Miami” compilation. Considering the film is set ten years after the kind of society that we ourselves are familiar with, it’s appalling that characters speak in tongues with lines like “Finally Snow is falling” or “There’s a natural goodness in us all”, which all but spell out the intention of what each scene is trying to tell us, and while the original films occasionally had this problem during tense and crucial scenes, the consistency of them here overwhelmed to the point that it became difficult to remain faithfully invested to vital interaction, making this feel every bit the worst kind of Young Adult fiction that defines most of the genre’s installments. Finally, the weaker side of performances stem from Zegler, but also surprisingly Viola Davis, who hands in the first performance of her career that I truly didn’t care for. As a villain, Davis does rise to the occasion in giving herself wholeheartedly to the material, but her energy here feels a few steps above cartoonish, with devilish deliveries that are only missing a sinister laugh and mustache twirl to reach conventionalism. Zegler is somehow much worse, both in the air of her inconsistent southern delivery, which felt so forced that I found myself straining my face each time she spoke, but also the complete lack of on-screen presence, which came so naturally to Jennifer Lawrence during the original films. As a protagonist in the games, Zegler feels too snarky to be sincere, and between a complete lack of chemistry with Blyth as their relationship turns romantic, her efforts directly underwhelm the importance of their dynamic, in turn leaving it feeling like a flirtatious fling instead of the irreplacable obsession that each of them served to the other in the novel.
“Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is another scope-spanning immersive invasion into the world of The Hunger Games, but one that unfortunately falls short of its iconic predecessors, both in the absence of depth from its uninteresting characters, as well as the sloppily rushed execution of its storytelling, which substitutes motivations for meandering. Though Lawrence’s direction has never been better in the confines of intensely urgent in-game action sequences that vividly articulate the overwhelming vulnerability of its contestants, its abrupt and underwhelming climax after two-and-a-half hours leaves its audience as cold and bitter as snow.
My Grade: 6/10 or C