“It’s the things we love most, that destroy us.”
It’s actually a little hard to believe that it’s been eight years since last we visited Suzanne Collins’ future dystopian world of The Hunger Games. The last two films were shot and released as two parts of the final book in the saga, and I think most of us had laid the soul of Katniss Everdeen and her rebellion to rest. Of course, not without the franchise doing quite a bit of damage at the box office. Not counting home video releases, the franchise generated a total box office of about $1.4 billion. That’s a lot of scratch, and if you understand the movie business at all, you know that finishing a franchise for good is like leaving money sitting on the table. So after a nearly decade rest from the high morality of The Hunger Games story, it’s time to head back to the trough at least one more time. Collins was the first to understand this and had already set out to pen a prequel to it all. That prequel has now hit the megaplexes with The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds & Snakes, and it certainly lives up to the name.
The new film takes us back in time several decades. The rebellion war is still fresh in the memories of both the Capitol City and the 12 districts that make up the nation of Panem. The Hunger Games have only been around for a decade, and we’re about to witness events surrounding the events of the 10th Hunger Games. We meet young Coriolanus Snow, played by Tom Blyth. He is just about to finish his studies at the Capitol School, where he anticipates he will be rewarded with a generous amount of money through a prize that goes to the standout student each year. He’s in for a surprise. This year the prize has a bit more hoops to jump through. The 10th Hunger Games are about to begin, and the students will be given the task of acting as mentor to the participants. Snow ends up with the 12th District participant Lucy Gray Baird, played by Rachel Zegler. From the start she shows her spunk by springing a snake on one of her tormentors and begins to sing a song which captivates the audience and her mentor. He believes that she should use her remarkable voice to gain donations which will help her in the games.
“It’s a mystery, and mysteries have a way of driving people mad.”
Lucy is quite the complicated character, and I can’t rightly say if the events of her story are the result of some kind of evolution or deception throughout. She comes across as someone who really doesn’t want to hurt anyone else, but yet she proves herself to be quite conniving in the end. I actually appreciate that the film never really gives us a definitive read on the character, because her inconsistent nature is quite compelling as young Snow himself becomes ensnared in her charm. He ends up going all in and willing to cheat in order for her to survive and ultimately win even when the Panem President Dr. Gaul decides there shall be no winners. Snow doesn’t let that happen, and it causes him to be demoted to a district Peacekeeper, where he ends up in District 12 and once again caught up in Lucy’s orbit. The result can be read many ways, and it’s these unsure results, I think, that keep this film interesting.
If you’re looking for the things that made the franchise work, you’ll find them here. If you are keen to see how certain things came about, you will also be rewarded. The 10th Games are primitive and happen in an arena that is attacked by rebels before the games begin. You’ll see several of the elements, and now you know how they’ll evolve from here. The message is the same. The rich survive off the backs of the impoverished, and the stark contrast between these lives remains as powerful as it always was. What I think works here is that you meet the people who started it all and get to see this world from their perspective. There are two standout performances here.
Peter Dinklage steals every scene in which he plays as Casca Highbottom the dean of the school. He despises Snow, and for some pretty deep reasons. It was Highbottom and Snow’s father who came up with the Hunger Games, and Highbottom suffers from what it has become. The other is Viola Davis, who plays Dr. Gaul. She is both larger than life and subtle all at the same time. I think the appearance is more than a little distracting, but her performance cuts through all of that noise and brings us a villain who is all too easy to understand and to hate.
Rachel Zegler does her part well, and I just don’t think I’ve had a chance to truly appreciate all of the levels to that character in one screening. I suspect there are going to be new discoveries in future viewings. Now that’s always good for the box office.
Francis Lawrence brings the same sensibilities that he brought in the earlier films. He’s the glue that keeps this film firmly set in the same universe with plenty of reference points from a slightly different perspective that time should give these elements. It looks beautiful, and I think it fits nicely into that world. It’s seamless, actually, and even without the iconic faces from all of the other films.
Finally, Tom Blyth appears to be having a pretty good time getting from where we find him to where we know he’s going to end up. “Snow always lands on the top.”