Young Coriolanus Snow attends a university in the Capitol of Panem, desperately competing to earn a monetary prize that’ll give him the resources he needs to help his struggling family, finds himself in a strange situation when competing for the prize requires him to mentor a tribute in the 10th Annual Hunger Games. Assigned to be the mentor to singer Lucy Gray Baird, the two form an unlikely bond as Snow and many of his classmates find themselves in a state of conflict of the very nature of the games. The young man, who will one day become President of Panem, must find his place in the world, determining what matters most amid the conflicts.
I was certainly a fan of THE HUNGER GAMES franchise despite having never read any of the original novels by author Suzanne Collins. The films were entertaining and amazing, feeling like what one would get if they threw dystopian living conditions and reality television in a blender, while also drawing influence from a myriad of other sources. While I found the latter two movies weaker than the first two, I was certainly entertaining by the franchise as a whole, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that Collins had written a prequel novel revolving around Snow (the tyrannical President of Panem played by Donald Sutherland in the later-set films), and that the novel would be getting a film adaptation, was intrigued. I can’t say the earlier films necessarily left me wanting more, but an opportunity to return to Panem on the big screen wasn’t something I was going to pass by.
Now that SONGBIRDS AND SNAKES is here, how does the fifth HUNGER GAMES movie and prequel measure up? It’s certainly the longest and most ambitious film in the franchise, and it largely succeeds thanks to an amazing cast, great plot developments, world building, and the opportunity to flesh out a major character from the earlier films, though its excessive running time does serve as a weakness, causing it to lose some momentum in its third act.
The world of Panem has been one of the most interesting locations in fiction since Suzanne Collins dreamt it up over a decade ago, featuring 12 poorer working-class districts and a Capitol that houses the elite and wealthy. It many ways its very existence is an interesting commentary on the state of the world. The earlier films gave the impression that the Capitol was a perfect, super-elite place where everyone agreed and looked down on the lower class. One of the greatest strengths of SONGBIRDS AND SNAKES is that we see this isn’t always the case. Seeing Panem in the past is particularly interesting, from earlier versions of technology and even ancestors and preludes to the characters who would come to be in the later-set films. All the sets and costumes are fantastic. This film gives us the best version of Panem to date; it’ll be interesting to rewatch the older (and later set) films after this.
The screening I attended was at the IMAX theater at AMC Town Square here in Las Vegas, featuring expanded aspect ratio for certain scenes that were filmed in IMAX (an earlier film in the series, CATCHING FIRE, received similar treatment). I can truly say that this is a film that should be experienced on the biggest and best screen possible. Not every movie demands the IMAX experience, but here it actually enhanced the film and worked to its benefit.
As with any HUNGER GAMES movie, there’s an ensemble cast of actors, and everyone fills their role nicely. The star of the show is Tom Blyth, playing the younger version of Coriolanus Snow, in later-set films the President of Panem who was played by Donald Sutherland. The previous films show him as a rather uncaring dictator, but this movie is a great look at how he went from being a young idealist to the hardened man we see in the future films. Bond he forms with Lucy Gray Baird, the singer tribute from District 12 portrayed by Rachel Zegler, is an interesting and complicated relationship, and the two shine together in every scene that they share. Zegler’s Southern-style accent never quite sounds authentic or believable, but she makes for an interesting character who has an impact on everyone in the film, not the least of whom being Snow. The cast also includes Peter Dinklage as something of an antagonist being the man who co-created the Hunger Games, Viola Davis as a cold-blooded game maker, and Jason Schwartzman as an announcer/television personality who serves as much of the film’s comic relief; the screening I attended had the audiences in stitches every time this guy said or did anything, and rightfully so.
I certainly questioned whether THE HUNGER GAMES needed a prequel, but was pleasantly surprised to see that the end result was much better than I ever could’ve expected. The only true weaknesses of the film are its overlong run time; it tells a story with three distinct chapters, but the last one of the three does drag on longer than needed, and its difficulty juggling certain plot points and its cast’s stories does become noticeable as it goes along, again particularly in the third act. Still, I would easily rank this as one of the better movies in the series.
SONGBIRDS AND SNAKES is the return to Panem audiences have been waiting for. Tom Blyth’s performance as Snow is a revelation. Rachel Zegler gives one of the best on-screen performances in her career so far. The world building is the best in the franchise to date. Yes, it’s too long and does struggle a bit with its many plots and characters, but the good far outweighs the band. The odds are in this one’s favor. Very highly recommended, just know that you’re in for a long ride!