Ty Burr talks about why Hollywood is better at producing hype than quality movies

By Ty Burr
May 12, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
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The ‘Phantom Menace’ backlash has begun

The early reviews are in — and the backlash has begun.

But, by the lightsaber of Obi-Wan himself, what did you expect? The hype surrounding ”Star Wars” is the latest and most bloated example of our culture’s current spin-and-rinse cycle, in which the entertainment megacorporations, in league with the media (yeah, yeah, EW is guilty as charged), pounds every drum it can find in order to build up expectations for a particular pop object. Nothing can live up to the expectations set by an industry with billion-dollar-lust in its eye. I repeat: nothing.

And so we have the grumblings that leaked out of the first screenings of ”The Phantom Menace,” followed by an early wave of mixed-to-negative print reviews which were themselves a form of hype, although freeze-framed at the moment that the PR wave curls its lip into actual opinion.

Is the movie good? Please, who can tell anymore? As with all hype monsters (and I’m thinking of such varied stuff as ”Dick Tracy,” ”Godzilla,” The Beatles Anthology, the last episode of ”Seinfeld”), it’ll take several years before the gas dissipates and we can see the object for itself — as a movie, a record, a TV show, whatever.

The one thing I’m wondering about is what the public’s part in all this is. It’s dangerous to generalize, of course: For every hardcore freak rolling out the sleeping bag in front of the box office, there’s someone who hasn’t seen any of the ”Star Wars” movies and doesn’t care to. Most of us, admittedly, are somewhere in the middle on that scale — but who among us hasn’t been suckered in by the dull and constant roar of magazine covers, Internet trailers, rumors, and random Ewan McGregor quotes? Hype like this is entertaining, dammit — and it indicates that Hollywood has become better at manufacturing expectations than making entertainment end-product itself

But there comes a point when enervation sets in. For some it’s early in the process, for others later — for the cultists out there on the fringe, it may never come. (And for me, it was that endless Bill Moyers interview with George Lucas in Time — pages upon pages of verbiage such that you might have thought the interviewee was a world statesman or a great Platonic mind). When the Jedi image masters of Hollywood work it well, a heavily hyped movie opens just as our expectations are cresting (and, even then, it had better be good, or it’ll have a ”Godzilla”-like tumble). With ”The Phantom Menace,” the media machinery seems to have lost control of the process — but only by a week or so. Enough to tarnish the chrome, but not enough to damage the ship.

Still, I’m feeling a little bullied at the moment. I’ll see ”Menace,” of course, but not opening day. Maybe not even opening week. And the whole circus makes me appreciate a movie event like ”The Matrix” — where the hype came honestly, from people who had seen the film, and where Hollywood was left looking vaguely stupid for so thoroughly missing the boat.

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  • PG
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  • 134 minutes
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