Coriolanus Snow may be the most ruthless tyrant in all of Panem, but 64 years ago, before the events of the first The Hunger Games film and novel, he was Coryo (Tom Blyth), a book-smart and scheming Academy student at the Capitol, assigned to mentor singer-turned-tribute Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler).
This is the story of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, an adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ fourth Panem-set novel released in 2020, serving as the prequel of the dystopian film series that catapulted Jennifer Lawrence to stardom.
For those who need a 411 on the Hunger Games, it is an annual gladiatorial contest where one boy and one girl from each of Panem's twelve districts must fight to the death, with only one emerging a winner. It is broadcast across the nation, where tributes receive donations based on popularity.
Of course, there is more to it than a display of power over the other districts. So why do they hold the Hunger Games? This is the recurring question posed in the movie. Snow, alongside the viewers who haven’t read the books or watched the movies, learns what the Hunger Games are really for.
Being set during the 10th Hunger Games, the movie deviates from the usual tests in the previous films, which viewers may find fascinating. Think of it as a cross between retro-tech terror and mad science designed by Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), the head game maker.
Davis knows her assignment and plays a sinister, twisted villain well. Peter Dinklage of Game of Thrones fame is already experienced in portraying Casca "Cas" Highbottom, the dean who is astute in playing politics.
Zegler was cast with her musical background in mind and thus it was fitting that the actress sings live on the set. Song numbers might not be everyone’s cup of tea but there is no better way to rebel against oppression of human rights than to express your hopes and dreams with music.
Her character, Lucy Gray Baird, only becomes a killer because of circumstances but if there is a weapon she skillfully wields, it's her voice. Hunger Games fans would be delighted to hear her rendition of the signature rebel anthem from the previous movie. Those looking for a respite from a Zegler concert would be saved by Olivia Rodrigo’s original composition Can’t Catch Me Now.
The final act could use some spontaneity to ease the tedium. At that point, it has become a psychological thriller that ultimately pushes Snow to villainy, albeit a sympathetic one.
Directed by Francis Lawrence of the post-apocalyptic vampire movie I Am Legend, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is a solid prequel to the dystopian series. If you are new to the franchise or line of novels, it is best to start with this movie to better understand the history and world-building of The Hunger Games series.
The film successfully shows that the franchise’s main villain, Snow, is not a cutout cardboard antagonist portrayed with nuance and restrained subtlety by Blythe. His descent to darkness is layered, and sometimes you get to think that he is also a victim of circumstances, dragged into an invisible Hunger Games, off-cam, off-air, unknowingly battling his closest friends and lover.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes opens on Wednesday, Nov. 15 in Philippine cinemas.