I saw 'Phantom.' Don't hate me.

Everybody now. Just relax. Take a long, slow, deep breath. If we stay calm, we'll all get through this together just fine. Now, repeat after me: "It's only a movie."

Even George Lucas said so last weekend to the assembled media in New York gathered to get an early look at his new film, being dubbed by some as "the most anticipated movie of all time."

There was no Internet when "Gone With the Wind" came out in 1939, so maybe that's really true.

Forget Christmas or an exotic millennium New Year's Eve party. The biggest present a lot of Americans seem to want to give themselves this year is the earliest possible seat for "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace."

It's hard not to notice that something out of the ordinary is going on. Wednesday morning I looked out my office window and could see a line of people at the Sony Cheri theater a block away. I wandered over to find that it was a block long: people had camped out overnight with lawn chairs, sleeping bags, and blankets. One young man was even working at a desk. They were all waiting for the first tickets to go on sale at 3 p.m.

Now for the true confession. I've been to the movie - a press preview at that very theater, as a matter of fact, Tuesday night.

A number of publications have already printed their reviews of the film. But unless the Monitor's editor tells me differently, we'll run David Sterritt's review next Wednesday, the official opening day. We try to play by the rules around here.

That said, here are a few guesses and observations by a nonreviewer:

* It'll be a megahit for kids.

The story is easy to follow, dazzling to look at, and puts a child actor at the center of the action. Expect kids to want to see it again and again and to buy every toy Pod Racer and Battle Droid Mr. Lucas's marketing partners can produce.

*"Star Wars" fans will debate it. Endlessly. But I suspect most will embrace "Phantom" as a worthy part of the saga. Lucas has tried to keep them comfortable (maybe too comfortable) with lots of familiar characters and situations on screen.

*The special effects really are "special." This may indeed be the first movie of the 21st century.

*The most controversial character? Jar Jar Binks. Our newsroom's No. 1 "Star Wars" fan went along to the screening and was disgusted, finding his pratfalls humorless.

Finally, don't envy my early peek at the movie. It's going to mean a whole lot more to those folks who stood in line to "score" tickets. They really earned their new dose of "Star Wars," and they deserve to enjoy it. May the Force be with them.

* Send your comments on Arts & Leisure to entertainment@csps.com

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