“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
*This review is from my perspective, someone who hasn’t read the books these movies are based on.*
I mostly enjoyed the original The Hunger Games and genuinely liked its sequel, Catching Fire. After that I felt the movies dipped in quality ending in such a way that I couldn’t tell you how it finished if I had a gun to my head. In other words, for my money, it wasn’t a memorable conclusion. Now I realize the bottom line for a sequel popping up after eight years is money, money and oh yeah, money. But as I drove to the theater, about to watch The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes I couldn’t fully understand why exactly. When the original four Hunger Games movies came out it was at the height of the young adult novel craze that has thankfully expired. From the inexcusably awful Twilight movies to the completely forgettable Divergent series, lies the better than most, still nothing amazing, Hunger Games franchise. I would have argued until I was blue in the face that’s where it should have stayed, way back in 2015. I think a true sign of maturity is being able to admit when you’re wrong and I was in fact wrong.
The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is the best of the franchise since 2013’s Catching Fire. It is epic in scope and ambition making it not just one of the best but arguably the most original and refreshing of the entire Hunger Games series. Visually this is the most stunning of the bunch utilizing the strengths of the IMAX experience which I highly suggest watching this on. It all felt so massive and even imposing as character reveals, especially Lucy Gray’s introduction, are several stories tall making for a wholly enveloping experience. One of the hardest aspects of making a prequel to a series of films is making the new characters feel just as substantial and affecting as the originals. Jennifer Lawrence’s interpretation of Katniss Everdeen was a star-making performance for her and to live up that legacy is no small feat.
Of course the character of President Snow is well established and was convincingly brought to life by Donald Sutherland. The question becomes how do you create the younger version of him, malleable and reticent unlike his future self, confident and conniving. What does the formidable President Snow look and act like without the title of President? His path must lead him from his presumably humble beginnings to one of a man shaped into someone reluctantly altered and deformed by the very nature of the world around him. Tom Blyth is the young, ambitious Coriolanus Snow who wants to become better than the loveless man he and his sister, Tigris, called their father. He is determined but never without the focus on his family and trying to better their situation through a prize that he believes is all but guaranteed. As with all things in life, it’s about who you know and sometimes that’s not always a good thing. Sometimes it’s best not to be known. The creator of The Hunger Games is by all appearances a sinister, vindictive man who just so happens to determine who wins this auspicious prize and also kind of really hates the Snow family. Too bad for Coriolanus I’m afraid.
The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is about the early days of the Hunger Games. As with all established traditions, they tend to start out a little rough, janky even. For all the planning beforehand, unexpected situations inevitably arise making for future lessons on how to better these hopeful traditions in the future. After just over a decade of the games Snow and his fellow future leaders find themselves tasked with one final test in hopes of being considered for their life changing prize where only one can win. Their final task - To mentor the new lineup of unwilling Hunger Games participants in hopes of garnering better viewership numbers as the future of the Hunger Games hangs in the balance. More viewers means more games. Controversial to some, imperative to others.
Snow is pieced together with the unassuming Lucy Gray, played by Rachel Zegler who is a beautifully balanced woman of grace, talent and unbridled intensity when she absolutely must survive. Together they navigate the survival tactics needed to survive the games as well as its politics in hopes of finding financial support which could very well save her life. Snow unwittingly inspires the curator of the games, the maniacal Dr. Volumnia Gaul, played menacingly by Viola Davis, to incorporate his ideas on how to prolong the existence of the games for decades to come. These seemingly innocuous ideas he gives to the Doctor creates the beginning of his ultimate journey leading him to the notorious title of President Snow. His future, the future of Lucy Gray and the future of the games themselves all face the threat of extinction if drastic measures are not taken.
The best thing that Ballad does is differentiate itself from its predecessors. While so much focus was given to the games themselves in the first four movies, Ballad explores the nuances of what takes place outside of the barbaric tradition. It showcases the growing pains of a yearly ritual still finding its footing within the world of a once war riddled country. And even more so it focuses on what happens when the games have ended for the season and what they hope to achieve for the future of not just the games but for the districts as well. In the midst of the ever-shifting reality of the games and its viewing district inhabitants Snow and Gray find themselves at odds with their newly unwanted fame or in the eyes of some, a great infamy. Fascinating complications arise compromising their once promising futures setting them on the paths they were destined to fulfill. All the darkness and evil in tow.
Ballad surprised me immensely. I had zero excitement or even a mild interest in its existence. I saw it primarily to write this review you’re reading (and hopefully enjoying? Maybe?) to place some fresh eyes on the brilliance of Nerd Alert and all of its affiliates. What we’ve been given instead is a wonderful gift that feels like something worthwhile and well beyond the safely assumed cash grab it appeared to be. The acting is fantastic, the visuals grand in every way, the action epic and fierce, the story interesting and engaging. It’s a bit overstuffed but rarely ever drags. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s the surprise movie of the year but by all accounts I’d argue it’s one of the best.
Rated PG-13 For: strong violent content and disturbing material
Runtime: 157 minutes
After Credits Scene: No
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Starring: Rachel Zegler, Tom Blyth, Viola Davis, Hunter Schafer
Directed By: Francis Lawrence
Out of 10
Story: 9/ Acting: 9/ Directing: 9/ Visuals: 10
Buy to Own: Yes
Check out the trailer below: