“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is one of the more radical franchise blockbusters to have emerged in quite some time, positively reminiscent of the recent “Star Wars” series “Andor” in how it explores the foundations of a rebellion viewers innately know is doomed to fail. What makes it even more striking, however, is that this is viewed entirely through the eyes of 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), a character we know will grow up to be the despotic ruler of this world, the franchise’s ultimate big bad. He won’t threaten to dismantle a system he’ll one day rule, and director Francis Lawrence — returning to the world of “The Hunger Games” after directing each of the big-screen sequels — trusts in the intelligence of his young audience enough to be able to explore the nuances of Snow’s tyrannical persona, hiding more subtly than you’d expect behind the appearance of a conventional YA protagonist.
Set 64 years before the first novel, “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” whisks us into a Panem increasingly wary of the games, which viewers are largely appalled by in the decade since their debut. Told by the creator of the annual ritual — played with a theatrical menace by Peter Dinklage — that this year’s contestants will be assigned mentors for the first time, Snow is partnered with a defiant country singer from impoverished District 12, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), an amalgamation of several recognizable icons of the music genre. She’s an outspoken menace to authority figures and a voice for the underclasses, like Johnny and June Carter Cash morphed into one, and spotting her ballsy persona, young Snow has an idea to get viewers to tune in for the first time; build the games around the popularity of the contestants, getting to know them in-depth before they begin. Head gamemaker Dr. Gaul (Viola Davis, winningly channeling Tilda Swinton’s tyrannical leader from “Snowpiercer”) likes the innovation — she only asked for the games to be founded when quizzing her underlings for a cruel punishment that would stop the capitol’s “enemies” from uprising against them, and this tweak adds a polished, televisual sheen to the annual atrocities, only normalizing them further.
As with the original trilogy, there’s a doomed romance at the center far less interesting than the political maneuvering around it — only this time, screenwriters Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt are keenly aware that this is the least dramatically engaging aspect of the lead character arcs, using it purely as a jumping off point to expose the limits to Snow’s flirtations with revolution. He’s much less invested in changing the system than his best friend Sejanus (Josh Andrés Rivera), and the movie is at its most arresting when underlining the ways in which he can’t fully commit to fighting for a more equal society. It’s here that the film is at its most prescient, as like “Andor,” Suzanne Collins and the two adapting screenwriters possess a keen historical awareness, drawing parallels to various authoritarian governments and failed uprisings against them, fleshing out the world beyond the Capitol with a greater depth than the original cinematic tetralogy. Many viewers may be baffled that the games themselves end at the halfway point here — with the film’s only spot of comic relief, a wonderful Jason Schwartzman, disappearing along with them — but they’re just one part of a rotten system they’re keen at exploring in greater depth.