Originally created 05/08/99

Buzz begins after first audiences see `Star Wars' prequel



LOS ANGELES -- Summer blockbuster? Without a doubt. A sci-fi masterpiece that will please all its fans? Probably not, but it's got some cool effects.

That's the buzz on the new "Star Wars" movie, now that it has been finally seen by a select few.

"Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" was screened Tuesday night in eight North American cities for movie theater executives, their families and -- apparently -- a bundle of "Star Wars" fans who somehow finagled some tickets.

Almost immediately, early reviews hit cyberspace, followed by the reactions to the reviews, then the reactions to the reactions, along with all manner of counterclaims and insults over the movie, which opens nationwide May 19.

"Guys, it's a movie!" responded Tom Sherak, distribution head of 20th Century Fox, which is releasing the film for George Lucas. "It isn't the Bible! It's fun, it's enjoyable, it's escapism. But it's a movie."

Uh huh.

In what was titled "What I believe to be the FIRST review anywhere on the Internet," Ronald Epstein wrote on his Home Theater Forum Web site (www.hometheaterforum.com) that while he was impressed, the movie may not satisfy hard-core "Star Wars" fans.

"It looks like `Star Wars,' it smells like `Star Wars' and it feels like `Star Wars.' However, is it a `Star Wars' that we are going to walk away satisfied with? Well ... perhaps, but not for everyone," Epstein wrote.

While the amateur critics loved the action sequences and most of the effects, including what they found to be an incredible underwater sequence, some reviewers thought the two-hour-plus movie dragged a bit in places, that it was a little too kid-oriented and that one of the computer-generated characters, Jar Jar Binks, was annoying.

Such views were quickly countered by those who, like Jerry Rhoades on Home Theater Forum, pronounced movie "PHENOMENAL!!!!"

"Don't watch it to analyze and match other people's reviews and thoughts to the film, just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride," he said. "I did."

On a leading "Star Wars" Web site, www.theforce.net, a writer using the nickname BetterJedi wrote: "Wow! What a film. I'm going to have to see it about 10 or 15 times to take it all in."

But another writer, going by Job21, wasn't as impressed. "It was a dream come true at first but quickly turned into a nightmare," Job21 said.

That was countered by a fusillade of reaction from fans, many of whom questioned whether Job had even seen the movie, pointing out his review lacked the details that would suggest he was there.

Financially, the early buzz -- or for that matter the reactions from the professional critics who see "Phantom" Friday night -- won't mean a thing initially, said Paul Dergarabedian of box office tracker Exhibitor Relations Co.

"This movie is critic-proof," he said. "I think it doesn't matter what anybody says, good, bad or indifferent. The film is going to play big in those first two weeks without question."

After that ... only the Force knows.