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"The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" 4K Review

After The Hunger Games tetralogy (what Alien fans know as "quadrilogy" after that 4-film DVD release) wrapped up in 2015, it's been quiet in the young adult dystopian future business after the Divergent series flamed out one movie short of its conclusion. (Divergent was the GoBots of Hunger Games books/movies. I tried to read the first one and bailed halfway through because the writing was so bad.) So when the trailer for The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes dropped, my reaction was puzzlement as to where this came from and who exactly was asking for a prequel movie about President Snow, who was played by Donald Sutherland in the original series? Apparently series author Suzanne Collins had published this in 2020 and here we are.

 Set 64 years before the events of the first Hunger Games film, BoS&S (not typing that full title) tells the story of Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blythe in a star-maker performance), the 18-year-old son of General Crassus Snow whose father was killed in the civil war between the Capitol of Panem and the Districts. He lives in poverty with his sister, Tigris (Hunter Schafer), and Grandma'am (Fionnula Flannagan) while attending the Academy, but any hopes of attending University ride on winning the Plinth Prize scholarship.

But on the day he expects to be named winner, a whammy is dealt in the form of an announcement by the Academy's dean and creator of the Hunger Games, Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage sporting a goatee that doubles his body mass), that the Plinth won't be awarded to the top student as Snow expected, but there would be an additional judging criteria, namely the 24 students would be assigned mentorship roles to one of the tributes from the Reaping for the upcoming 10th Hunger Games.

Adding to the pressure is the appearance of current Head Gamemaker, Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis, eviling it up), who complains that the ratings are down and the citizens of Capitol are bored of the Games, so ideas for boosting ratings would be appreciated. Meanwhile, Highbottom has saddled Snow with the girl tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a musician whose reaping may've been rigged by the Mayor of the District.

 Snow comes up with a proposal for people to sponsor the tributes and donate funds which could be used to supply food, water, medicine, etc. to those in the arena and visits Lucy at the zoo where the tributes are held prior to the Games. While visiting the arena to plan strategy, rebels set off bombs which kill several tributes and mortally wounds the President's son.

But the Games go on and while Highbottom instructs the mentors to concentrate on making their tributes entertaining, Snow wants to keep her alive, which he does by providing assistance which when discovered leads Highbottom to expel him from school and sentence him to 20 years as a Peacekeeper in a District. Initially assigned to District 8, he bribes someone to ship him to District 12 in hopes of finding Lucy.

 Which he does and begins to have a surreptitious relationship with her, but her possible involvements with the rebels along with his friend Sejanus (Josh Andres Rivera) seeming to go native to the cause puts Snow in a bind between friendship, love, duty, and wanting to get back to the Capitol or escape with Lucy to freedom in the wilds.

BoS&S has an odd three-part, but not three-act, structure with each chapter given titles - The Mentor, The Prize, The Peacekeeper - and contributes to a 2h 37m runtime that feels like half of a sequel has been appended onto this prequel. Previous installments had structures with the first half leading up to the Games and the second showing the Games with the 2nd and 3rd films ending on cliffhangers to pique interest. I didn't note the time, but it felt like there was another 45-60 minutes of story after the Games conclude and what happens didn't really illuminate what turned Snow from an empathetic young man into the cruel monster Sutherland embodied.

The hook of the Star Wars prequels was we would learn how a little boy would grow up to be a Jedi Knight only to turn to the Dark Side of the Force and become Darth Vader. Since we know where he ends up, in an walking iron lung, the trip is everything as he is meant to be a tragic fallen hero. But we know he wasn't always bad because Obi-Wan Kenobi mentioned that Luke Skywalker's father was a good friend (while hiding the connection to Big Black Badness until The Empire Strikes Back) so we go in knowing we'll see a good guy break bad. What was the hint that President Snow had a softer side when he was young?

Still that we're even interested in this superfluous tale rests on the performance of Blyth who handles the spotty script's turns ably. The missus was taken by his resemblance to David Bowie, even calling out his closing costume as a direct homage to Station To Station-era photos - someone book the biopic stat! - while apparently the Internet found his buzzcut Peacekeeper look more Eminemesque. I have no idea if they're going to make more Hunger Games Snow Saga movies, but they've got the right guy for the job.

Zegler's performance is more problematic - not because of her off-camera antics being a spoiled brat and mouthing off so much about Snow White that she's cost Disney untold tens of millions of dollars to reshoot their cursed live-action remake to undo the damage caused by their woke take on the material and her unhelpful comments - but because she plays Lucy with a syrupy twang that sounds like a modern girl mocking Dolly Parton. She has a great singing voice - she was Maria in Steven Spielberg's unnecessary West Side Story remake - but Lucy is written too thinly and cryptically for her to embody what it is that makes Snow go to such lengths to save her then try to be with her only to, well, you'll see.

Dinklage is money, as usual, making us wonder why he seems to have it in for Snow while constantly reminding us how he was his father's best friend. The revelation of just why he visits the sins of the father on the son is a twist at the end.

Davis chews the scenery as Dr. Gaul, reveling in the "muttations" she makes for the Games like the titular snakes and the living tape recorder jabberjays. It's a coin toss as to which villain Davis plays - Gaul or Suicide Squad/Peacemaker series' Amanda Waller (which is basically Oprah right down to the murdering) - is the bigger bad, but she's having a ball. 

Honorable mention goes to Jason Schwartzman who plays "Lucky" Flickerman - presumably related to Stanley Tucci's Caesar Flickerman in the original films - the weathercaster who also hosts the Games broadcast. He is our representative of the vacuity of Capitol's residents.

Director Frances Lawrence, who directed the last three Hunger Games movies, does a good job with the material and it's interesting to see how modest the early Games were with combat in a rather small enclosed arena (not the massive outdoor environments we're accustomed to) and the tributes held in a zoo pen to be gawked at instead of styled and showcased like contestants on Panem Idol before being sent to die for the entertainment of the Capitol. But with small scale games and way too much intrigue in that third chapter, there's not much he can do for excitement.

While an odd cash grab telling an unneeded story, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes isn't especially bad, but bloated and unfocused, paying too much attention to some things while short shrifting others. But if there was another installment, I'd give it a look, so we'll see if the franchise's odds are in their favor.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable/streaming.


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