Review: Strange things did happen here… ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songs and Snakes’ made me nostalgic for YA dystopia

Review: Strange things did happen here… ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songs and Snakes’ made me nostalgic for YA dystopia

Eight years after The Hunger Games finale, director Francis Lawrence returns to the director’s chair for the fifth and final entry. Lawrence apparently absorbed all types of critical feedback, because The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes presents the series at its most confident and comprehensive. 

Set 64 years before the trilogy, this prequel to Suzanne Collins’s sensational young adult dystopia unravels Coriolanus Snow’s descent into tyranny, of the ruthful choices that would one day lead to his presidency of Panem. It’s the perfect character to explore the war-torn Capitol, desperately clinging to a snake’s grip on all 13 districts.

As a struggling Capitol native, an 18-year-old Coriolanus struggles to maintain the facade that his family remains in high standing, unlike the rest of his privileged, uppity classmates. Upon announcement of the 10th Hunger Games, Snow and his class are tasked with the unenviable job of mentoring that year’s tributes. When Coryo is assigned Lucy Gray Baird, a rebellious District 12 nomad, this tees up the construction of the world we know through Katniss Everdeen’s eyes.

From tone to setting, Ballad of Songs and Snakes nails the responsibility of a prequel’s relationship to its original source material. All hats off to Collins, who developed a fascinating, deeply complex protagonist, arguably the most despised in the series — and one with whom the audience shouldn’t necessarily want to empathize. But the cast and crew depict Panem in the world’s most impressive depth, compared to its past theatrical counterparts. 

From the set designs to the location scouting, Ballad of Songs and Snakes depicts worldbuilding at its finest. In particular, designer Trish Summerville’s attention to the Capitol’s genderless, retro-futuristic fashion sense absolutely nails the series’s most prominent theme: Morality in the wake of spectacle. While still posh, the Capitol operates in post-war recovery mode; the city’s still under construction, and so too is the political society’s understanding of social control through glamour and spectacle (one morbidly hilarious example is Jason Schwartzman’s amateur weatherman, Lucretius Flickerman). As a result, Summerville opts for drab, dark reds and gaunt greys, rather than the flamboyant explosion of colors and excessive makeup seen in the trilogy. 

Image via Lionsgate

On the other hand, the one character adorned in color is none other than Lucy Gray Baird, the beacon of hope for a society teetering on the edge. Lucy Gray is the stand-in for an alternative reality; one where the struggling Hunger Games fail to capture an audience, and where the Capitol loses. But the audience already knows the future; the government devours Gray’s color, retooling its purpose not for rebellion, but for complacency. The details in this film are a wonder.

Split into three acts, at two hours and 37 minutes, Songbirds and Snakes mostly earns its runtime. Two-thirds of the film presents a nail-biting thriller, delivering the Hunger Games brutality, aka half the reason audiences show up. The last act, however, loses steam, feeling more like an epilogue that started far too early. Lawrence attempts to tie up every loose end within a single, digestible movie. Act 3 simultaneously lingers around fan service — both baity and awesome — yet speedruns through major plot beats at the expense of consistent pacing.

But it’s still well worth sticking around. As previous districts are re-introduced in a new era, Ballad of Songs and Snakes is an example of a franchise director intent on upping his game one last time. You can feel Lawrence’s mastery of the world, perhaps even executing upon the past criticisms surrounding uneven representation. From rural nightlife, to the grittiness of coal mining, to gorgeous lake houses, the director’s world-building skills truly catch fire, right down to the intentional dialects of district natives.

However, one glaring element disrupts the detailed portrait: Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray. To be clear, I don’t condone any nasty online rhetoric targeting Zegler. In fact, as a new actress on the scene, West Side Story is proof of her undeniable talent. This particular casting decision, however, appears to fall on the laurels of Zegler’s singing credentials. She belts a damn fine tune, yet at the risk of overcompensating for skills the actor isn’t quite ready to harness. 

Image via Lionsgate

As a young actor, Zegler hasn’t yet mastered the raw intensity required for the role. There are two sides to Lucy Gray Baird’s character; the aura of a princess doomed to a tragic fate, which Zegler nails, as if using this role to prep for Snow White. And then there’s the fierce, sharp-edged rebellious attitude that should cut her foes like a knife, and Zegler doesn’t have it. Facial expressions feel forced, the Southern dialect sounds off, and it’s too immersion-breaking when you constantly see the actor, but not the character. Considering Lucy Gray is the specter across the entire series, there’s so much pressure here, and even if Zegler feels miscast, she’s still on the road toward improvement. 

To be fair, Zegler isn’t the only distracting element. Fellow West Side Story alum Josh Andrés Rivera delivers an inconsistent performance as Sejanus Plinth, a character wracked with the guilt of his own privilege. Tense scenes oftentimes veer towards the unintentionally insincere, and at times remind the audience of the hokier young adult genre stereotypes. Of course, Hunger Games is YA, but when the majority of the movie supersedes the CW angst,  it’s hard to overlook.

One talent to watch for is Coriolanus himself, Juilliard graduate Tom Blythe, who hard-carries the film. Blythe showcases the sincerity, naivety, and menace of a hero turned villain, but truly disturbs during his fateful descent; played with an ominous closeness to any of the latest, deranged American mass shooters infecting the country. 

Image via Lionsgate

This is an actor I kept wondering where I’d seen before, only to learn of his emerging talent — and it’s a testament to an actor’s presence, to feel in his first giant role like he’s already part of the Hollywood establishment. Whether Blythe pursues more franchise entertainment in the new, or leverages his talents with more selectiveness, the way of Jacob Elordi, Timothée Chalamet, or Austin Butler, (or chooses both!), like Zegler, Blythe is the next actor on the rise, who you’re bound to hear more from soon.

Despite uneven pacing and inconsistent acting, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a triumphant prequel, and the most impressive depiction of Panem — one representative of a director firing on all cylinders. If you’re nostalgic for the dystopian YA craze of the late aughts and early 2010’s like I am, then it’s worth revisiting the Hanging Tree one last time.

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