Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Viola Davis, Jason Schwartzman, Peter Dinklage, Fionnula Flanagan
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… subverts the conventions of its predecessors to create a work of glorious and heart-breaking ego death.
Much like Harry Potter’s magical child adventures under the skin of the real world, and Twilight’s supernatural romances, The Hunger Games’ post-apocalyptic settings, full of young adults trying to fix the world that adults left them in, was a generational cornerstone with an entire wave of cousin franchises. It was big for its time, and still holds up today, but considering the proceeding trends within this demographic (sicklit romances, and once-removed fanfiction adaptations), there’s a definite question mark on the notion of bringing this staple back, especially after Maze Runner: The Death Cure served as a meta-denouement for the entire sub-genre. But returned it has, and it might make a depressing amount of sense.
The story is framed as a pseudo-biopic about Coriolanus Snow, the main antagonist of the previous films, made famous by Donald Sutherland, here played by Billy The Kid’s Tom Blyth. Using a narrative structure that actual biopics could take notes from, it follows his character arc across three acts, set before, during, and after the 10th Hunger Games, showing his progression from social climbing mentor of tribute Lucy Gray (Rachel Zegler finally getting a role worthy of her talents) to the poisonous despot that audiences are more familiar with.
As gripping as it is as a continuation of the main series’ political machinations and juxtaposition of celebrity spectacle and warping the human survival instinct (much like fellow Lionsgate property Saw), what makes this particular addition so brilliant is that it’s basically a rebuttal to how the other films portrayed such things.
Early on, we see Snow arguing with Dr. Gaul (Viola Davis somehow finding an even slimier villain to play than DC’s Amanda Waller) about why people watch the Games: Gaul argues that we don’t need to care about people to enjoy watching them die, whereas Snow thinks that they need emotional investment to stay engaged.
It serves as an interesting meta-argument about the nature of fiction focusing on death (horror movies and slashers in particular, often struggle with that very dichotomy), but as the story carries on, it becomes clear that the distinction doesn’t matter. Not when the reason for the engagement is still death.
The production qualities build on this idea, from its stripping back of special effects to show what fighting in the Hunger Games really amounts to (while still allowing for some gorgeous retro-futuristic worldbuilding), to its twisting of the rousing use of music like ‘The Hanging Tree’ for more ambiguous purposes, right down to Jason Schwartzman’s worryingly consistent laughs as TV host Lucky, whose wealth of glib and out-of-pocket remarks bely genuine darkness.
It’s the same death spectacle as before, but now we don’t even have the pretence of a young hero who can fix everything; instead, we’re watching the Darth Vaderization of the guy who found a way to make it all even worse. Enjoy the show.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes subverts the conventions of its predecessors to create a work of glorious and heart-breaking ego death. Even as a prequel, as lead-up to a quartet of films where good does indeed win out, it reflects the years that have passed since Mockingjay Part 2 in 2015, or even Death Cure in 2018, and how the promised power fantasy of the new generation being able to right the sins of the old feels more like a sick joke nowadays.
It works for all the same reasons as the main series, to the point of potentially making people realise just how freaking good the average is for this franchise (The Hanging Tree sequence in Mockingjay Part 1 is one of the greatest scenes in any movie), but without the gloss. Without the fantasy. And quite frankly, without the hope. It’s depressing as all hell, but it comes from such a grounded and honest place that it wholly earns its melancholy.