The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Is a Decadent Hunger Games Retread

Sharp world building and a strong central performance can't save this dystopian disappointment.


When the first Hunger Games movie was released in 2012, it had some problems: It was winding and episodic, and its story—of children thrust into murderous games by an authoritarian central government—was founded on ad hoc sci-fi world-building that didn't entirely stand up to scrutiny. But the film was bolstered by memorable design work, a chilling concept (albeit one that quite obviously echoed the lesser-known Japanese film Battle Royale), and a star-making lead performance from Jennifer Lawrence. 

Even more than that, however, it seemed to both capture and foretell a political and cultural moment. The Hunger Games was set in Panem, a far-future version of the United States that had been divided into a dozen districts, organized by tier and class. Denizens of the Capitol lived in decadent luxury, frolicking in elaborate-to-the-point-of-absurd formalwear and taking great pleasure in the annual games that forced children to murder each other as part of a reality TV competition. In the outer districts, rural residents suffered in poverty under police-state rule as their labors were repurposed to facilitate the luxuries of the Capitol. The futuristic setting channeled anger about political and economic inequality, and the games themselves transmuted the era's sense that childhood itself had become a brutal winner-take-all gauntlet performed for the benefit of uncaring authority figures. 

The movie and its sequels resonated in part because they were smartly crafted, but also because because they captured a prevailing sense that something—perhaps many things—was deeply, fundamentally wrong with society, with politics, with government, with growing up, and that children and teenagers were expected to bear the brunt of that broken system. The critique was a mishmash of ideologies and anxieties, from libertarian concerns about oppressive government to progressive worries about inequality to more prosaic worries about the increasingly impossible expectations for ambitious teenagers. But it was a hit because it blended all of these things into one big quasi-metaphorical package that skewered the disarray of an early 10s America that seemed to be at the precipice of its own sort of dystopia.  

Now, a little more than a decade later, there's another Hunger Games movie in theater, a prequel once again based on a book by series author Susan Collins: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. 

Directed by Francis Lawrence, who helmed three of the four previous Hunger Games films, it is once again exquisitely crafted. The movie is set 64 years before the events of the first film, when the Hunger Games were still new and the Capitol of Panem was not as developed as when we previously encountered it. Instead of outrageous reality TV chic, the vibe is more muted, a mix of 1950s American futurism and more ominous imagery echoing the Third Reich. 

And like the previous films, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is anchored by a strong and likely star-making performance from its young female lead, Rachel Zegler, who plays Lucy Gray Baird, the female tribute from District 12 who spends much of the movie fighting other children in an attempt to survive. 

But instead of focusing on Zegler's tribute, much of the story is built around the journey of a young Coriolanus Snow, who we know grows up to be the ruthless dictator behind the expansion of the games and the future Panem of the initial run of films. It's the story of Snow's path from a put-upon kid—his family lives amongst the denizens of the Capitol, but has money troubles—to totalitarian monster, and we already know how it ends, if not every detail along the way. 

This ultimately means that the new film lacks both meaningful narrative stakes and the sort of metaphorical heft of the original films. It's not a story of survival and social change, of a hero rallying against an oppressive government and a callous system. It's just the background information about a repressive state and the man who would grow up to be its leader. It's not just that there's nothing to root for here, Zegler's winning performance notwithstanding, it's that there's nothing to care about, nothing to latch onto. It's lavish, yes, and Zegler works wonders with an underwritten character. But this movie feels empty and inevitable and decadent—more like the sort of beautiful, soulless thing that would come out of the Capitol of Panem than an effective skewering of it. It's a dystopian disappointment. 

CORRECTION: The games are run by residents of the Capitol, which is distinct from District 1.