First off, I’ve read and enjoyed the whole trilogy; I’m not a Suzanne Collins hater. I actually looked forward to this movie, as it seemed a relatively straightforward novel to adapt.
Jennifer Lawrence is moderately effective as Katniss and some of the effects were really well done. Donald Sutherland turns in an understated but masterful performance as President Snow, and the gamemaker Seneca Crane (who is an addition to the movie) works quite well.
But the direction feels like Gary Ross was taking his final at filmmaking school and felt compelled to show off his mastery of every trick in the book. Here’s a hint: An emotionally manipulative film in which I am aware of the manipulation is a failure. Ross is far too in love with the sudden cut to silence while action plays out; it’s like he watched John Woo too often and said “I gotta get me some of that”. It rapidly loses its impact and becomes an annoying cliche that takes you out of the movie. The music doesn’t help; it’s exactly what you would expect, at every moment, but it never really rises into real art.
The character of Rue is well played by Amandla Stenberg but lacks the screen time to be anything more than a cipher, a convenient placeholder for a character to care about. Peeta gets more time but is distressingly bland and Gale — who hardly appears here at all — falls similarly flat. I know the world is divided into Team Peeta and Team Gale but I don’t see why she can’t do better than either. (To be fair, I think this love triangle was equally forced in the books and did not really engage me.)
Anyway, it’s a harmless enough movie and a decent diversion, but it isn’t the breakout masterpiece that I’d heard of. I’ll probably watch Catching Fire, but only on Netflix. Maybe it will be that rare but wonderful thing, the surprisingly improved sequel.