Film: The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Hunter Schafer, Jason Schwartzman, Peter Dinklage, Viola Davis, Josh Andrés Rivera, Fionnula Flanagan
Suzanne Collins’ revisionist young adult novel is the main source for this prequel that clocks in at a rather swollen 157 epic length minutes. Director Francis Lawrence returns to helm this belated firestarter that hopes to expand the canon while honouring its origins and key themes.
The narrative begins with the 10th annual Hunger Games in Panem. Set approximately 65 years before the first ‘The Hunger Games’, Ballad introduces the teenage Coriolanus (Blyth), whose once-prominent family is now imperilled by impoverishment following the death of his well-respected father. As per games architect Highbottom’s (Peter Dinklage) new set of rules, Panem’s elite students are assigned to serve as mentors to the lowly tributes. The contest is live-televised and representatives/tributes from each of Panem’s 12 districts are selected by lottery to fight to the death in the dystopian death-match arena. Coriolanus is thus assigned to District 12 combatant Lucy Gray (Zegler), who belongs to the Covey, a gypsy-like nomadic tribe. Coriolanus attempts to strategise with Lucy to secure her victory, hoping that would enable him to rescue his disgraced family from poverty. But the games don’t play true to the course.
The narrative is sectioned into three chapters — ‘The Mentor’, ‘The Prize’ and ‘The Peacekeeper’. The gladiatorial action is just one part of it. Lesslie and Arndt’s script is more interested in delineating Coriolanus’ descent into evil. Not that we have any doubts on that score. The Coriolanus in the successful four films that came before this is compellingly evil. So we are already party to where Blyth’s Coriolanus is going. There’s little room to manoeuvre for mystery or suspense here. And minor questions regarding Coriolanus’ immediate actions don’t attract much attention. The narrative fails to evoke strong emotion while relaying the cruel arena death match and the sudden shift into creating a budding romantic connection between Coriolanus and Lucy Gray, which fails to work up steam, either.
Coriolanus, an obedient member of the Capitol’s Academy, matching up with Lucy Gray, a human sacrifice, is not a construct that carries much weight. He may have gone the extra mile to assist her, but his ambition eventually outweighs whatever emotion he feels for her.
Francis Lawrence renders the arena action with frenetic energy, but the lack of visceral life-threatening challenges seems rather daunting for DP Jo Willems’ cameras. The games lack suspense and edge-of-the-seat thrills. The confined bunker-like setting fails to capture your imagination. Even the contestants appear to be filling up numbers. The lack of dimension in their representation skewers the enjoyment. There’s not much momentum gain either. The messaging doesn’t come through and the themes play out in uninspired fashion.
‘The Hunger Games’ villain may have got his origin story but it’s an addled — though a grim and fairly compelling one. Zegler and Blyth fail to raise the bar with their performances and Viola Davis as Dr Volumnia Gaul, the overseer of the gladiatorial event, looks ridiculous rather than menacing. Tracing a pivotal period in the blossoming evil of young Coriolanus Snow’s personality, this passable action-romance is not exactly a thrill ride.