Francis Lawrence (Red Sparrow) returns to The Hunger Games, directing the prequel film The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. Working from a script by Michael Lesslie (Macbeth) and Michael Arndt (Inside Out), he delivers an impactful film that hits harder and more deeply than the original four.
Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) is desperate to make his mark and save his family from the poverty they’ve fallen into since his father helped create The Hunger Games. Unfortunately for him, the Capitol is in crisis over their waning popularity. To solve this, the prize that Snow expected to win is now up for grabs to the student who helps save the games. Snow again comes out on top, impressing everyone but his father’s former best friend Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage). Most impressed is Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), whose own reputation is on the line as the master of the games. She takes particular interest in Snow’s suggestions, elevating him to be the clear winner regardless of who is the victor in the games. However, his entire success is put at risk first when he falls for his District 12 charge, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), and next when he’s forced to choose between Lucy and the power to see his plan through.
Lawrence’s previous work on the franchise was excellent, but he outdoes himself here. Every scene is meticulously shot, and every camera angle contributes to the overall feel of the moment. While the film starts a bit slow, Arndt and Lesslie are merely setting the stage to make the film even darker and more intense than the previous entries. This isn’t fare for the young adult audience. Instead, it is brutal, shocking, and sometimes horrifying. The story is far deeper and explores many nuanced themes, among them friendship, loyalty, love, ambition, and regret. Blyth does well as Snow, intensely showing his conflicts with others and within himself. Zegler continues to be impressive as an actress and near perfect as a songstress. While other cast members have brief but solid turns, Davis’s Gaul is impossible to look away from and the most memorable performance of all.
The special effects are clean and clear – a level of quality that is now the standard for all big-budget films. The use of light, shading, and color stand out more than the effects because they become part of the story in quiet and violent scenes alike. The film has a solid soundtrack, interspersed with songs from Zegler that add to the tale and expand her character.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is an impressive journey into what made Snow into the character we’ve met in the other films, with a lot of history that ties in directly with the Katniss Everdeen films. It has more bite than those, so the young adult audience members the originals were aimed at might be in for a jolt. Other than that, there’s a great deal in this film worth singing about.