The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (2023)
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (2023)

Genre: Adventure and Fantasy Running Time: 2 hrs. 37 min.

Release Date: November 17th, 2023 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Francis Lawrence Actors: Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Viola Davis, Hunter Schafer, Ashley Liao, Josh Andres Rivera, Peter Dinklage, Mackenzie Lansing, Jason Schwartzman

 


 

“H

unger is a weapon.” During the Dark Days, three years before the first annual Hunger Games, starvation has become so prevalent that people resort to cannibalism. Many citizens of Panem, including children like Coriolanus and Tigris, roam the frozen wastelands in search of scraps of food, though they’re often chased away by equally voracious dogs. About thirteen years later, after the wars, Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), his cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer), and his grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) are still struggling to survive, though Corio attempts to blend in with wealthier classmates in a prestigious academy at the Capitol – an institution that he hopes will enable him to become rich enough to escape his secretive privation. But instead of awarding money to the pupil with the highest grades, as has been done in the past, Dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), the creator of the Hunger Games, announces that the prize will instead go to the best mentor to a tribute (one boy and one girl from each District, chosen at random, to be thrown into an arena to a fight to the death on a live television feed) in the upcoming Games, as audiences are starting to lose interest in the barbarous event. The top mentor doesn’t necessarily need to govern a survivor, so long as they turn their tribute into the greatest spectacle.

“You can’t buy class.” Corio, unwittingly becoming something of an architect in sprucing up the competition, is assigned Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), an orphan raised by a band of singing nomads – essentially a gypsy – from District 12, whom he plans to shape into a celebrity, a marketable product. But Lucy is a tough woman; she’s not exactly the type to play along with trivial outward imagery when lives are at stake. “If it’ll help the ratings, why not?”

Once again, the supporting characters are over-the-top in costuming and manner (there’s even a nonsensical announcer to match the one from the previous films, here in the form of amateur magician Lucky Flickerman, played by Jason Schwartzman) to contrast the pauper-like designs of the tributes – who are very much the heroes, battling against a broadly oppressive, cruel and corrupt regime, desperate to stifle rebellion and revolt. It’s all about control, as it always is in these sorts of youthful postapocalyptic thrillers. The villainy is led by one of the most comically exaggerated – Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), the Head Gamemaker – who often appears as a goofy Bond baddie, growling her lines as if she knows she’s a monster (or a comic book supervillain) rather than a real person.

Despite the considerable number of characters and details, the premise isn’t that much different from before; downtrodden, resourceless survivors must do everything they can to overcome the odds and the tyrannical authorities in gladiatorial trials. It’s still just a slightly modernized, teen-oriented take on “Rollerball” or “The Running Man.” Some of the violence might have escalated a touch, augmented by an appropriately dark tone, but the personas don’t have the same potency as when Jennifer Lawrence commanded the series; seeing an unexpectedly tough endurer transform into a warrior is simply more inspiring than watching a dainty singer run and hide from danger at every turn. “The Games must go on.”

At the same time, a love story brews, though just like the other generic parts of this plain dystopian thriller, it’s about as commonplace as it gets, following a predictable “Romeo and Juliet” pattern. Worse, however, is its unconvincing nature; it’s too unlikely and fast to come across as genuine (it doesn’t help that one of the participants is the same character that would become the odious enemy leader in the prior series). They don’t have the time necessary to build much chemistry.

Of course, the running time (which is entirely too long; when the third act arrives, the movie should have been over already) isn’t as much of an issue as the pacing, considering the picture is separated into intertitled “parts” that protract the production to the point that any suspense evaporates. Even the arena layout doesn’t seem conducive to excitement, as it provides countless, unknowable areas in which to escape and move about freely. Meanwhile, a rat poison plot device and recording spy birds prove so clunky that characters must waltz around them to prolong their involvements. In the end, if this episode was meant to rejuvenate or reboot the franchise (it’s a prequel in the timeline), it surely won’t; it’s just too forgettable and unoriginal to make much of an impact. Even the finale lacks the artistic ambiguity it could have offered, opting instead for an outrageously interminable, chaotic, convoluted mess of confused allegiances, betrayed trusts, and rushed ideas, effectively destroying any earlier moments that possessed the slightest glimmer of entertainment value.

– Mike Massie

  • 2/10