Principal Cast : Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Peter Dinklage, Jason Schwartzman, Hunter Schafer, Josh Andres Rivera, Viola Davis, Fionnula Flanagan, Burn Gorman, Ashley Liao, Max Raphael, Zoe Renee, Aamer Husain, Mackenzie Lansing, Cooper Dillon, Hiroki Berrecloth, Kjell Brutscheidt, Vaughan Rielly, Lilly Cooper, Nick Benson, Sofia Sanchez, Dakota Shapiro, Isobel Jesper, George Somner.
Synopsis: Coriolanus Snow mentors and develops feelings for the female District 12 tribute during the 10th Hunger Games.
Proving that the YA dystopian future subgenre has run its course, Lionsgate’s ill-advised Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes, is a tortured, vaguely promising sci-fi outing that for some absurd reason puts the climax of its film in the very middle of the movie, and spends the last forty five minutes (or hour or three, I honestly lost track of time I was so fucking bored) delivering one of the worst final thirds of a film I’ve seen in… years. What Songbirds and Snakes lacks in Jennifer Lawrence it makes up for with Rachel Zegler, an actress I have a vast amount of time for and who is absolutely given short thrift with her astoundingly one-dimensional character here, and while the film attempts to turn franchise villain Coriolanus Snow into some kind of anti-hero or Anakin Skywalker-proxy archetype, the destitute nature of its tone and the dire screenwriting and characters turn this yawnfest into a disaster quite early on.
As somebody who detested the final two or three Hunger Games films starring Jennifer Lawrence, I had no expectations whatsoever going into Songbirds And Snakes. I figured if I had even the smallest good time it might make up for the dour trash I had to sit through with Julianne Moore, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Donald Sutherland in the past. Sadly, this film is an absolute chore; the first and second act mirror the original film in many ways, offering a tantalizing glimpse into the past as we see a young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) fight for a place in the Capitol by “mentoring” young Panem District 12 tribute Lucy Gray Baird (Zegler), while trying to help his friend and fellow mentor Sejanus Plinth (Zegler’s fellow West Side Story alum Josh Andres Rivera, who looks surprisingly like a younger Josh Gad if I’m honest). Against the backdrop of Panem’s ubiquitous annual “hunger games”, in which each District sends a young tribute to fight to the death in combat as a form of punishment for a briefly seen conflict decades before, Snow must battle his own moral code as prejudice and gleeful death are brought into conflict with each other.
The first two thirds of Songbirds And Snakes is passable young adult sci-fi entertainment. It’s not particularly intelligent, lacks grace and has almost nothing subtle to say about the world in which its set, but it draws you right back into the dystopian nightmare of Panem’s elite continuously jackbooting the plebs and nobodies of the world to a degree you can’t believe it was 76 years before Katniss less the successful uprising against the Capitol. That it took so long for an oppressed people to rise up is surprising considering how quickly people pick up the pitchforks these days, but in the early days of the Hunger Games the social pariah status of anyone who thought they’d made a mistake instituting the event makes it an intriguing prospect and ripe for mining sociological, philosophical subtexts. What subtexts are contained within this film, derived from the lets-cash-in-on-the-film-franchise novel by Suzanne Collins, is buried beneath and avalanche of awfulness, as once more I’m forced to endure the torture and murder of teens and children, watch as grown adults yelp on about how satisfying the games are, and sit through some half-assed love story that can’t work out if it’s a love story or not.
As much as I am loathe to admit it, perhaps this is an exceedingly rare example where it might have been better to split the book into two films; Songbirds And Snakes is split into three parts by returning franchise director Francis Lawrence with parts one and two dealing with Snow and Lucy Gray’s rise through the Games and eventually her cathartic victory in her event. The third act of the film (and the point at which I would beg the filmmakers to reconsider including, were I the studio) is a spectacularly awful descent into the Districts of Panem to follow an outcast Snow and a recently released Lucy Gray trying to restore their various honours in the aftermath of the Games, coupled with a stupid-as-hell subplot involving Sejanus’ casual affiliation with a short-lived rebellion that puts him in the frame of the hangman’s noose, and where at least the Games themselves had some measure of tension and euphoric release with all the killing and shit, this film’s third act is the most unpleasant, dispiriting thing I’ve watched in quite some time. A character arc that just goes nowhere, one of the major characters just walks off frame and never reappears in the film – and nobody tries to explain where they went or what their eventual fate was – and Snow himself turns into the Snow we will come to know and hate in the original quartet of films…. ugh.
There was a point about twenty years ago where I declaimed my annoyance that George Lucas was going to take three whole feature films to show us how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, the end result of which were two pretty ghastly kids films and one problematic (but thematically rich) finale. I stand by my assertion that I didn’t think there was three films worth of storytelling there, but Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes makes me reconsider that a single film would have done it justice either – this film tries to do in one film what Lucas did in three: that is, take a franchise villain and somehow turn his Bad Guy-ness into a tragic human “fallen hero” arc that never works because the character is innately an asshole. Even worse for this film: the character of Snow was never that great to begin with, salvaged only by Donald Sutherland’s snakelike performances. Had they rejiggered the book’s structure to fit a feature film, and have the climax of the story actually be at the end of the movie where it belongs, or fleshed out the minutiae of the prequel world and split it across two films somehow, things would have flowed better, I think. Still, for a film with two of its major characters having the word “anus” in their names, what can you expect? When she’s not cringingly shortening her on-screen love interest’s name to “Cori”, at least Rachel Zegler gets to show us how great her singing voice is again, with the film containing a couple of musical numbers that I felt were badly misplaced. Grey-toned dystopian anarchy doesn’t really lend itself to the Hollywood musical, and I can see why.
The Ballad of Songbirds And Snakes is a terrible movie experience; awfully paced, stupidly written and filled with a sense of its own self-importance that flies along as barely concealed arrogance, this is a film that has trouble overcoming the absence of Jennifer Lawrence (oh, don’t get me started on the Katniss reference in this film… it’s laughably bad) and Josh Hutcherson, and has one of the worst hours of storytelling as its final act I’ve seen in quite some time. Just… what were they thinking? Avoid this one at all costs.