Friday, November 24, 2023


If you needed a reminder that The Hunger Games remains a bracing and bleak blockbuster series with sharp-angled political ideas, here’s a prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, to make its dystopian metaphors resonate anew. It takes us back to the world of Panem—a future United States where the gaudy one-percenters in the Capitol rule the rest of the country’s districts through intimidation. The centerpiece of their plan is the regular Hunger Games competitions wherein tributes chosen randomly from the youth of each district are forced to fight to the death in gladiatorial combat broadcast propagandistically, reality TV style. This new movie, once again based on a Suzanne Collins’ novel, is set in the early days of the Games, when their evil rules and cruel complications are still being codified. Where the later movies are vast sci-fi spectacles with high-tech arenas and a powerful undercurrent of rebellion fomenting in the districts, this one takes place in the shattered aftermath of a war. Freedoms have only recently been curtailed for the masses, and, despite their overwhelming victory, the wealthy capitol citizens still feel a poisoned, righteous anger at the violence incurred by the recently beaten-down people in the heavily-policed cities, open-air prisons effectively, that have become the tightly controlled and patrolled districts. This positioning relative to the original series of films gives the proceedings a sick, pit-in-the-stomach feeling of an inevitable slide into authoritarianism that won’t be substantially confronted for a few generations.

Making matters more morally complicated: the protagonist is an 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), who will grow up to be a central villain in the original stories. We meet him as an impoverished, disadvantaged capitol boy struggling to get a foothold in the elite of his society. To do so, he’s throws himself into a new job: mentoring a tribute in the year’s games. He’s quickly infatuated with his assigned player, a fetching, scrappy, singing underdog (Rachel Zegler), and the film’s tension is suffused with a stifled romantic tragedy. Will he cling to his sympathies for her, no matter how tinged with selfishness, and help her survive, or will he get lost in the dictates of the games as his only ticket to a wealthy life? The games here are simpler, harsher, more contained and personal for the players. Cruel gamemaster Viola Davis with an enormous frizzy grey wig, two different eye colors, and blood-red rubber gloves—she chews every line like it’s a bitter hard candy—just wants to put on a violent spectacle to keep the oppressed and oppressors alike hooked on the show. (The footage we see of the pre-game interviews looks like watching old American Idol clips on YouTube.) The school’s sharp-tongued, alcoholic dean (Peter Dinklage) semi-reluctantly serves up his rich students to guide the slaughter for a televised event (hosted by a perfectly smarmy Jason Schwartzman) for the first time. They represent a status Snow desperately wants, and though he has a close friend (Josh Andrés Rivera) who voices dissent about the morality of the games, we can see this flickering conflict in his conscience slowly ice over in his eyes. In his plight, we see how the institutions of fascism encourage a steady erasure of empathy. The cruelty is the point.

Returning director Francis Lawrence frames this in a familiar style, fitting the series’ usual slick imagination and populist Hollywood aesthetics. It’s gripping, exciting, propulsive stuff, but done with a slower melancholic sense of creeping despair. The prequel status runs the imagery back, though, trading the high-tech future metropolis of the earlier films for a more mid-century look—contrasting a bluegrass folksiness of the districts with a palatial dilapidated art deco decadence in the hyper-capitalist capitol. As the film stretches on, it starts to feel like a darkly doomed romantic epic, with scenes in backrooms and clandestine meetings, especially once out in the wilds of the rural hideaways, that start to gather shades of World War II resistance dramas and grey Soviet thrillers, a gnarled sense of a character study ground down in the inevitable march of historical forces beyond any one’s control. These figures are caught up in systems larger than themselves, in a world that takes their impulses to rebel, and to care, and turns it against them in service of the system itself. Betrayal and spectacle run the plot, and the world, in this dystopian vision that leaves hope a fragile, flickering flame that’ll wait decades to spark anew. We can see it in their eyes, and in the echoing screams resonating through the forest. Zegler sells the folkloric resistance pricking at the conscience of the capitol, while Blyth plays the creeping cruelty that threatens to thaw before growing all the colder. They both want the best, but fear, assume, the worst. Here’s a big-scale Hollywood entertainment about how difficult it is to stop an authoritarian noose already tightening. Would that we learn its lessons in time.

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