The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes
By: Adam Freed
The rarest gift one can receive is the opportunity to atone for past mistakes. As uncommon as this bestowal may be, in Hollywood it is nearly unheard of. Given this scarcity, Francis Lawrence, director of the three The Hunger Games sequels, is attempting to make the most of his rare opportunity. While there has never been any question about the global profitability of the film adaptations of Suzanne Collins’ young adult novels, the style of the filmmaker’s prior work far outpaces the substance. Despite the gravitational appeal of Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games saga rumbled to a halt eight years ago, leaving in its wake the disappointing feeling that enough had finally been enough. The once beloved franchise had seemingly used its growing budgets and ballooning box office results to abandon what made the 2012 Gary Ross film a success, in favor of creating grandiose yet hollow CG spectacles. Which is why the selection of Francis Lawrence to return to helm the series reboot prequel, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, is enough to give many critics pause. Thankfully, the world occasionally allows for individuals to make amends.
The suggestion of rebooting The Hunger Games franchise sans Jennifer Lawrence borders on lunacy, as the Oscar winner’s name atop the marquee remains one of the only reasons to watch the final two installments of the saga. Yet, with a new cast in an old location (Panem 60 years in the past) Songbirds & Snakes stokes the old fires and reminds audiences of many of the reasons they fell in love with Collins’ concept in the first place. Stepping into the massive shoes of leading lady is Rachel Zegler (West Side Story), who may not be a perfect fit for the physical demands of the role, but makes up for any shortcomings with the show stopping beauty of her voice. While Songbirds & Snakes isn’t a musical, the production goes to great lengths to allow Zegler to play to her notable strength. Alongside Rachel Zegler’s Lucy Gray is the infamous Coriolanus Snow played by the physically striking, albeit slightly wooden, Tom Blyth. Where Jennifer Lawrence once became the poster child for female empowerment in action filmmaking, the newest iteration of the franchise shifts the physical balance back to Blyth and his disreputable Snow. The premise that Snow is in some way worth rooting for, despite the existing lore of his future misdeeds, feels like a stretch even by science fiction standards.
A great deal of what makes The Hunger Games (2012) feel special is the tactile approach with which it is shot on a relatively modest budget. The remote District 12 is given a gritty and knowable texture as it is captured using primarily handheld camera work. Much like the Stallone survival classic First Blood (1982), the natural surroundings of the outermost district become both a character and a training ground for the games themselves. Francis Lawrence seems to have taken inventory over where his prior films go astray as Songbirds & Snakes joyfully returns to a far more tactile approach, filming in natural environments in lieu of green screen studios. The greatest compliment to Lawrence’s direction is that when his film matters the most, audiences can feel the earth beneath their feet and therefore immerse themselves in the story as there are very few CG hills to climb.
Adding to the sophistication and prestige of the proceedings is the sublime Viola Davis (The Woman King, Fences) at her sinister best. There are few greater joys than watching immensely talented actors have the latitude to enjoy themselves in their exploration of a role, which pays twofold as Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) joins Davis in this pursuit. The gravity of the Dinklage and Davis partnership transitions The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes from mediocre, into the realm of memorable. While this is not a film that will likely need to block out Oscar weekend on its calendar, it is certainly a great deal of fun. Songbirds & Snakes falls victim to diminishing returns as the outcome of the protagonist’s dissent into villainy is inevitable from the start. Yet, the production is wise enough to offer a successful counterpunch in the form of Rachel Zegler, who graces the film with vulnerability and leans into the beauty of her voice to lift both Lucy Gray and the entirety of the story. As it turns out, Francis Lawrence is the right man for the job after all. The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes casts aside many past mistakes and offers the second best effort in the fistful of Hunger Games films. Thank goodness for second chances.
Target Score: 7/10 - In what may be the most surprising film of the year, Francis Lawrence’s fourth attempt at Suzanne Collins’ science fiction saga proves to be his best. Despite the trappings of a predictable prequel story arc, Songbirds & Snakes is lifted by the wonderful performances of Viola Davis, Peter Dinklage and rising star, Rachel Zegler.