Francis Lawrence (Catching Fire, Mockingjay films) continues to realise Suzanne Collin’s Panem and the aristocratic machinations of that fictional, dystopian future. Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes acts as a prequel to the much loved Hunger Games saga, following an adolescent Corolianas Snow (Tom Blyth- Billy the Kid) as he comes into this world an already downtrodden and bitter individual, with much ambition.
Panem isn’t yet the overpopulated, materialistic centre of excess that’s coming. Still navigating a fragile post-war era, control of the districts isn’t absolute and everybody is a potential rebel. Political power is held by Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis- Suicide Squad) and Dean of the academy Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage- Game of Thrones). Together they lord over Panem and the tenth annual games, as puppet masters of everything they survey.
In its tenth year, faith in the games is waning as the capitol masses have lost interest. Rather than this year’s academy best receiving a coveted cash injection and spot in higher learning, a team of the academy’s best are given the opportunity to be the game’s first mentors. The aim of a mentor’s tribute is not to survive, but to entertain. To gain a following and renew interest in the games.
Enter Lucy Grey Baird (Rachel Zegler- West Side Story), the songbird, who encapsulates stardom from the get go and seizes more than a few opportunities to fall on top of the heap. Under guidance from Snow a fledgling romance forms, but who is using who.
Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a decent entry, but like the sequels, unable to match the dramatic intensity of the original entry in the series. Much of the conflict throughout the plot threads holding this weave together, along with execution of events, feel forced. Scenes are equally plodding and rushed, a chore to sit through while waiting for spectacle. A cinema sin being that we don’t really know people by the time they’re violently dispatched, so there’s no impact. No heart.
Director Lawrence has stated he considered splitting the film in two, opting instead to run with a single film of two and a half hours. This may be a mistake, there’s enough unexplored left to have easily satisfied a pair of two hour films. It’s around the two hour mark, where it feels like a different movie altogether.
Hollywood, we need to have a serious talk about unnecessary two hour plus movies. Like Strunk Jnr always said, “Omit needless words!”.
Viola Davis clearly has the most fun, making an over-the-top and one-dimensional character enjoyable to watch. Peter Dinklage spends his minutes doing what he usually does, portraying a scholarly version of himself with an addiction problem.
Other cast members, Snow’s classmates, are as equally forgettable as they are pompous and annoying. Serving only as competition with little development to add substance. If that was the goal, well played. Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andrés Rivera- Cat Person) acts as a passionate agent to Snow’s often skewed moral compass, until he’s worn out his welcome and disposed of along with everyone else. Andrés Rivera’s performance at times is more animated and engaging than anyone else joining him in a scene.
Of note is the more base arena, where the inhumanity of the tributes gets to shine. A broken down concrete structure, no bigger than a basketball court, which leads to a more intense and punishing game. No waiting it out in trees, every combatant is forced together in combat.
At the end of it, Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a little too anticlimactic, with about forty minutes that could be discarded or better served in a more thought out sequel. Despite this, it isn’t the worst, it’s serviceable. On par with the rest of the series, there are worse ways to spend thirty bucks. In cinemas from the 16th, Songbirds of Snakes rates 7/10 hits of Ratsak, just be prepared to wiggle your toes a little to keep the circulation going before the credits roll.