Is the best way to survive the arena to work together or go it alone? We get both methods in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a propulsive, if somewhat formulaic, Hunger Games prequel.
Directed by franchise veteran Francis Lawrence, it’s the first film in the series to go without Jennifer Lawrence, and the absence of its powerhouse star is keenly felt. Instead, Ballad appears designed as a showcase for Lawrence’s replacement, Rachel Zegler (West Side Story). To their credit, her co-stars make room for her outsized performance without ever feeling small themselves.
The film is set decades before the birth of Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen, after a war has left the capitol of Panem nearly as ravaged as the districts it controls. Among those scrambling to survive is Everdeen’s future nemesis: 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow (English actor Tom Blyth), who will grow up to look like a patrician Donald Sutherland and act like a more sartorial Darth Vader. But he’s still in Anakin mode here, as a naive, secretly impoverished student at the elite Capitol Academy.
President Gaul (Viola Davis) and Snow’s academy dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) want to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Hunger Games – in which teen tributes are thrown into a stadium to battle for their lives – with a special twist. As host ‘Lucky’ Flickerman (Jason Schwartzman) announces to the audience, each tribute will get a mentor from Snow’s class.
Snow is assigned to District 12’s feisty Lucy Gray (Zegler). While other tributes dress to avoid attention, she arrives in a rainbow gown, sporting a sweet-tea Southern accent and a propensity to break into song at every opportunity. Snow is smitten, and vows to save her.
The parallels between Panem’s world and ours retain their unsettling power
At a leisurely two hours and 40 minutes, there’s time for a whole other narrative once the Games end. This is when Michael Leslie and Michael Arndt’s script slackens, and things get jumbled. Anyone who hasn’t read the Suzanne Collins bestseller on which the movie is based may need to do a quick Wiki scroll on the ride home. Ballad is meant to be the story of Snow’s transformation from earnest do-gooder to evil emperor, but his journey feels rushed and unfocused.
Nevertheless, Lawrence understands his primary mission: to hold a mirror up to his audience even as he entertains them. The action scenes remain well-shot and tightly edited, and even without the provocative political energy of the Katniss years, the cultural parallels between Panem’s world and ours retain their unsettling power.
Davis, Dinklage, and Schwartzman have a grand time chewing scenery, and provide essential distractions to the grim Games. But it’s the relatively unknown Blyth who serves as the steady centre here. Many will be charmed by Zegler's theatrical performance, but it shouldn’t overshadow Blyth’s opposing approach: he shares a stronger chemistry with his co-stars, and handles his biggest role to date with understated charisma. Hopefully there’s room enough for both of these up-and-comers to walk away as winners.
In cinemas worldwide Nov 17.