“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is the newest film installment in the billion dollar “Hunger Games” franchise.

A prequel to the original trilogy, the film was adapted from the novel by Suzanne Collins which came out in May of 2020. The film follows Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), but most fans know him as the tyrannical dictator President Snow.

Set 64 years before the events of the Hunger Games, a teenage Snow is enrolled in a prestigious academy for Panem’s elite. Yet, Coriolanus’ wealth and status depend on how well he can ace his final test which would guarantee him enrollment into university. The test? Being assigned one of the 24 tributes from the districts reaped for the Hunger Games and mentoring them to put on a show for the capital citizens.

Snow ends up being assigned the female tribute from District 12 — Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). Coriolanus and Lucy Gray need each other to survive the games and as they get to know each other, they form an ill-fated connection not knowing the impact their pairing will have for decades to come.

This is undoubtedly the second-best movie in the entire franchise, only behind the beloved “Catching Fire.” The film remains faithful to the novel which was initially conceptualized by Collins as a screenplay turned novel. Therefore the story is executed brilliantly on the big screen with the film being split up into three distinct sections, each with its own title card.

While maintaining the same tone as the rest of the films, this film brings its own flair and style to the world of Panem. Most distinctly is the integration of songs sung by Zegler throughout the film. These songs never feel out of place and come at very pivotal moments throughout the story. The same way Katniss’ arrow was her weapon, music is Lucy Gray’s.

Blyth executes the complex character of Coriolanus perfectly. The film illustrates his steady transition from an ambitious teen to a dictator driven by power and control. Despite not being able to showcase Coriolanus’ internal monologue within the film, Blyth’s acting and subtleties throughout the film carry the intended impact. Blyth conveys Coriolanus in a way that at times you want to root for despite knowing who he becomes. But this is what makes following Coriolanus so enticing. He is a charmer who can hide his true intentions at all times.

Zegler is a true movie star. She shines in this film and gives the best performance of her career so far. She plays an eclectic yet endearing Lucy Gray — a character so far removed from Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss Everdeen. Lucy Gray is a performer first and foremost, and she is the first tribute to truly charm the capital and make them root for her. The duality of her and Coriolanus as the two leads in this film works perfectly to convey the philosophical messages the film is meant to showcase, such as the age-old question of whether or not humans are inherently good or bad and what that means for society as a whole. The chemistry between Zegler and Blyth is palpable and makes you want to root for them as a couple foregoing the clear power imbalance constantly at play.

The rest of the cast is also phenomenal with Viola Davis playing the sinister Dr. Gaul, Hunter Schafer playing Coriolanus’ compassionate cousin Tigris and the mysterious Dean Highbottom, played by Peter Dinklage. Each of these characters pulls Coriolanus in different directions and who he chooses to follow in the end is pivotal to who he becomes.

In regards to the games themselves, they are much more barbaric in this film than any other installment. This takes place before the glitz and glamor aspect was added to the games and so the tributes are just thrown into a plain arena with no training just tasked to be the last one alive. This makes each death we see on screen way more brutal and personal than most of the films beforehand.

The final act of the movie ties everything together in a tragic way. The viewer knows what Coriolanus becomes and seeing his final transformation occur is a punch to the gut. The inevitability of it all makes it worse but seeing the bodies that lay in his wake and his betrayal of characters you grow to love throughout the film is the only way this story could have ended. This is, after all, a villain origin story, and in this case, Coriolanus lands on top.

Rating: 5/5 stars