ORDINARILY, studios and distributors hold several previews of each new movie for the press. Exceptions rarely happen, except when a company is downright ashamed of a picture and assumes that press previews would invite only bad notices. Most movies have several advance screenings in New York, giving busy reviewers a fair chance to see, think over, and write about the film before it opens. ``The Hunt for Red October,'' the new submarine epic from Paramount Pictures, was screened exactly once for the New York press. Paramount has every right, of course, to play hard-to-get with its latest offering. But it's unusual for a major film to have only a single preview, and this sends a clear signal to everyone concerned: The studio feels that reviews simply don't matter in this case.
And that's probably true. Long before ``Red October'' was even completed, editors and reporters fell all over themselves doing features and ``think pieces'' about it, thus becoming part of the movie's energetic public-relations machine. After all that free publicity, the studio sensibly reasons, America is itching to see this powerfully hyped adventure - based on a powerfully hyped novel, moreover - and reviews, good or bad, aren't likely to make a dent in its initial box-office prospects. After the first few days of release, ``word of mouth'' will take over anyway, for better or worse. So why cater to the critics?
As it happens, Paramount guessed right. Critics who attended that one-time-only preview are giving ``Red October'' very mixed notices. Variety, the entertainment trade paper, loved it. But the influential New York Times, in an admirably brief and pithy review, poked mischievous fun at its lazy and mechanical contrivances. Although far more people read the Times than Variety, its pan hasn't slowed the picture's juggernaut so far. Audiences are flocking to ``Red October.''
I had the good fortune to see the movie not with critics, but with real people - that is, they paid for their tickets and didn't have to write reviews when the lights went up - shortly after it opened. Their responses ratified my own. We chuckled at some of the jokes, jumped when a sudden surprise flashed across the screen, and followed the story with as much attention as it demanded. And when it ended, we trudged out with mostly blank looks on our faces. Excitement was nowhere in evidence.
Audiences are famously unpredictable, and the very next showing might have found everyone roaring with laughter, gasping with suspense, and cheering lustily at the finish. I doubt if many crowds are reacting that way, though. Like the nuclear submarine it's named after, ``The Hunt for Red October'' is big, shiny, and expensive. But it's also hard, cold, and cumbersome, just when it's trying hardest to be likable and even friendly.
THE plot of ``Red October'' is steeped in Cold War paranoia, lending the picture a grim historical interest that gives you something to think about in the absence of dramatic and psychological depth. The last would-be blockbuster with an all-out Cold War orientation was ``Rambo III,'' with Sylvester Stallone saving Afghanistan from Soviet domination. Rambo is no intellectual, of course, but audiences proved disappointed with his inability to read simple newspaper headlines - which could have told him the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan during the production of his movie. It ended up as one of the 10 biggest money-losers of the 1980s.
The makers of ``Red October'' play their cards more cleverly - specifying that the movie takes place in 1984, just before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, and hinting that the events of the story might have caused the shakeup that put Mr. Gorbachev into his high position. This gives the picture a modicum of credibility, but it doesn't erase a sense of Cold War nostalgia that left a bad taste in my mouth.
True, the Soviet commander is quickly revealed as a peacenik (a Bible reader, even!) with a poetic streak in his personality, at least when he isn't busy slaying political officers who could stymy his nonviolent agenda. But the Soviet characters in general are either gullible or ruthless, and the plot is set in motion by a Soviet scheme to build a first-strike weapon and deploy it against the US in a bid to ``settle things'' once and for all. That's the kind of story that helped fuel Cold War thinking for decades, and I'm sorry Hollywood isn't yet ready to leave it behind.
THEN again, I suppose you can't blame Hollywood for following its nose when it smells big money in the air. In book form, ``Red October'' sold some 5 million copies during two years on the bestseller lists, and there was every reason for moguls to hope the film version would sell equally well. Especially in the hands of director John McTiernan, who turned a building into a star in ``Die Hard'' and does his best to accomplish the same feat with submarines here.
The movie has its virtues. In the pivotal role, Mr. Connery is as winning as his wooden dialogue allows, and the camera flatters him with endless close-ups. Sam Neill is appealing as a second Soviet officer, and Alec Baldwin is solid as the CIA agent, although he's vastly more interesting in ``Miami Blues,'' a down-and-dirty cop movie due next month. Richard Jordan also shines as the slick presidential advisor. The rest of the cast is competent. Ditto for the technical values.
But it's a monotonous affair, for all that. The d'ecor consists largely of radar, sonar, and computer screens; the editing consists largely of brisk cuts between stiffly arranged close-ups; the acting consists mainly of square-jawed men fixing each other with steely gazes. There isn't a round jaw, or a woman, in sight. The same goes for imaginative filmmaking, creative storytelling, and - most sorely missed of all - any hint of truly felt emotion.