It’s been over a decade since the initial Hunger Games mania gripped the world. Now, with the release of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, people are flocking to theaters once again to be transported to the dystopian landscape of Panem.
The new movie tells the backstory of President Snow, adding an even more sinister layer to a character who was unquestionably evil in the original series.
While there are perfectly placed parallels and callbacks for returning fans, the movie can stand on its own for viewers who are new to the franchise. The story itself does not feel unnecessary and blends seamlessly with the existing universe.
Francis Lawrence, the director of the previous Hunger Games movies, returned to the series for The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, offering audiences a mix of both old and new when it comes to the style of the film.
The new retro style used to depict the rebuilt Capitol, including fashion and technology reminiscent of the ’60s, contrasts the dystopian events taking place, and it manages to create a deeply unsettling atmosphere that works perfectly with the dark tone of the movie. But the new retro elements do not take away from the familiarity of the setting, which returns to locations both in the Capitol and in the outlying District 12.
Meanwhile, the chemistry between the film’s two leads is what makes the movie work as well as it does. Rachel Zegler’s portrayal of the free-spirited and musically inclined Lucy Gray Baird was superb. Tom Blyth could not have played President Snow any better, making it hard not to sympathize with a character who you know turns out to be nothing but pure evil.
The rest of the cast was also phenomenal. Viola Davis is perfectly deranged as Dr. Volumnia Gaul. The stand out, however, was Jason Schwartzman as “Lucky” Flickerman, whose performance as the host of the 10th annual Hunger Games flawlessly blurred the lines of comedic relief and insanity.
Thematically, the film is about the corruption of people through society, with the audience watching as President Snow’s decisions become less and less justifiable despite their basis in the need for survival.
“We all do things we’re not proud of to survive,” Snow says to Lucy Gray in the film’s first act, foreshadowing the events of the movie and providing insight into the character’s motivation for every action he takes from that moment forward.
Snow’s character arc is ultimately the tragic culmination of actions that he is justifying as necessary for survival.
“People aren’t so bad really,” Lucy Gray tells Snow later in the film. “It’s what the world does to us.”
Similar to the original series, the prequel offers commentary on class divisions and systematic oppression, which is made even more grotesque when presented through the lens of a Capitol citizen—someone who can knowingly justify and support the wrongs that are built into the system.
The audience is forced to watch as the children of the districts are locked in a cage, starved, and treated like animals in a zoo for the entertainment of the Capitol people. Further, Snow’s perspective on the production of the games themselves showcases the censorship and propaganda used to create division between the classes.
The film ends with a line spoken by Donald Sutherland, who played President Snow in the original series.
“It is the things we love most that destroy us” is echoed over a black screen. Snow points out that if it had not been for his desire to save his family and Lucy Gray, he may not have ended up the way he did. It is a conclusion meant to leave the audience with an uneasy feeling.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is notably darker in tone, content, and messaging, which was hard to accomplish because it follows four films about children being forced to kill each other for spectacle.
The film accomplishes this flawlessly and leaves the audience stunned and unsettled. With themes of morality and heavy social commentary, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a movie that will, and should, keep the audience thinking about it long after they leave the theater.