The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes
M. 157 minutes
Prequels are funny things. Like sequels, they can be pure cash grabs, trying to wring more money out of a property, or, more charitably, provide fans with more of what they enjoy. Sometimes they fill in a story's background, providing new perspective and background on characters (like the scenes about Vito Corleone's rise to power in The Godfather Part II).
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (let's just call it S&S for short) is based on Suzanne Collins' 2020 novel and is the first Hunger Games movie to come out since 2015. It will be interesting to see if it does as well as its predecessors. The film does provide a good entry point to newcomers. While there's quite a bit of violence, it's not too graphic.
For those who came in late, the films are set in Panem, a dystopian future country in what used to be North America. Each year, the oppressive Capitol forces each of the 12 districts to send two people - a boy and girl, both aged between 12 and 18 - to fight to the death in a nationally televised event, the Hunger Games, that is part entertainment, part method of control.
Rather than going back to the origins of the event, S&S is set at the time of the 10th Hunger Games. Its focus is on the young Coriolanus "Coryo" Snow (Tom Blyth), the man who will eventually become the president of Panem (seen in the movies made earlier but set later).
The family of the 18-year-old Snow has fallen on hard times. He's very intelligent, having done well at the Academy, but to go on to university and save his family's apartment he needs money. An opportunity presents itself but it's not an easy one.
Snow is chosen to mentor one of the Tributes, who turns out to be Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). She's a member of the Conney, a group of travelling musicians, which doesn't sound promising when it comes to fighting for survival.
Succeeding at this will mean winning a coveted financial prize that will help him and his family, so he decides to throw himself into helping her, going above and beyond (ie breaking the rules) to do things like slip her food and water and find a place she can hide in the arena.
He realises it's not just about her winning, it's about presenting a good show, so he encourages her to use her singing talents. At first she's wary of him but as time goes on their relationship strengthens and becomes more personal.
Snow seems to have qualms about the Hunger Games, as does his friend Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera), who's also mentoring a Tribute. But anyone familiar with the older Snow will be looking for signs of the person he will become.
The film is reminiscent of the Star Wars prequels that charted Anakin Skywalker's journey from innocent child to promising young Jedi to evil Darth Vader. And there are echoes of Game of Thrones - the title, the name Snow, the political machinations and, not least, the casting of Peter Dinklage in a key role, as Dean of the Academy and the Games' intellectual author. But while it's not wholly original, it's fun if you're a fan of dystopian stories (as many seem to be).
Peter Dinklage is quality casting and so is Viola Davis ,who seems to relish her sinister role as Dr Volumnia Gaul, the head gamemaker. Blyth - who in the early part of the film bears a slight resemblance to David Bowie - is good as Snow, helping to make the character's varying motives and accompanying actions believable, and Zegler, who played Maria in the Steven Spielberg film of West Side Story, gets to show off her vocal and acting talents.
The worldbuilding is impressive and the production looks good with a lot of effort made to create the physical environments (question: why don't more people go off to live in what looks to be a lot of unspoiled wilderness?)
There are flaws: at more than two-and-a-half hours, the film is long and a bit slow in parts. labouring some points and skipping over others. It also feels a bit rushed in the latter stages, though the ending works.
For Hunger Games fans, it will be a must-see and newcomers will get something from it too.