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'The Interview' basks in attention -- both good and bad

The comedy about bumbling journalists trying to assassinate North Korea's dictator enjoys its day in the sun as online streaming and a small but closely watched theatrical release subvert the ban that hackers demanded.

James Franco (left) and Seth Rogen face lots of trouble in "The Interview," but their real-life problems with the movie may be behind them. Sony Pictures

Regardless of its quality or eventual revenue, "The Interview" can be deemed a hit so far.

The comedy about an assassination attempt on North Korea's dictator opened in about 300 independent movie theaters on Christmas Day to many sold-out crowds, with another 85 theaters already lined up by January 2. After 24 hours of online streaming on four websites, the movie has attracted tens of thousands of mostly supportive reviews and was listed as the No. 1 movie on both YouTube Movies and Google Play. It's been trending on Twitter. And it's been illegally downloaded more than 750,000 times, according to TorrentFreak.

Up to now at least, the hackers who originally tried to prevent the movie's release by infiltrating Sony's servers and promising violence on Christmas Day haven't made any new moves -- cyber or otherwise.

And finally, Google made a rare gesture, giving up a bit of prime territory on its home page on Christmas Day to plug the movie with a link to its stream on Google Play.

Screenshot by CNET

It's a rather remarkable feat that the hackers -- whom the FBI has linked to North Korea's government -- managed to turn an average, rather juvenile comedy into a freedom-of-speech phenomenon.

The movie would simply have been another Christmas Day release until hackers, in late November, stole thousands of private documents and emails from Sony's servers, released them online and humiliated the company with unseemly revelations. After the hackers threatened physical violence against movie theaters on Christmas Day, major chains backed out and Sony pulled the film's release. Sony's decision was criticized throughout the entertainment industry and by President Obama as self-censorship.

This week, the situation suddenly turned around when Sony announced that the film would be released on schedule. About 300 independent theaters stepped up to the plate.

Then Wednesday morning, Sony announced that the movie would also begin streaming as of 10 a.m. PT that day on four sites: Google Play, Google's YouTube Movies, Microsoft's Xbox Video and a Sony-built website,

Later Wednesday, President Obama -- who is on vacation in Hawaii -- was asked whether he would watch the film. After pondering for a moment, he smiled and responded, "I'm glad it's being released," the Los Angeles Times reported.

At one of the first theater showings at 12:35 a.m. PT Thursday in Los Angeles, star Seth Rogen and co-director Evan Goldberg showed up to thank moviegoers, according to Variety.

"If it wasn't for theaters like this, and for people like you guys, this literally would not be f---ing happening," Rogen told a cheering audience, using an expletive that pops up scores of times in the movie.

The response of online streamers and reviewers -- both amateur and professional -- has been mixed, though supportive of Sony's decision to release the film.

Of the more 8,800 reviews on Google Play, the movie has racked up 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Among the amateur reviews:

  • "Great film. You can never really go wrong with the guys in a film together! Unless you don't get their humor."
  • "On par with The Green Hornet :( This movie was just bad. I tried to like it but there were very seldom funny moments."
  • "Tastes like freedom. This will forever be the movie that defines American freedom of speech/the movie that stood against censorship...for better or worse."
  • "Outside of the controversy, it's kinda bland."
  • "One of capitalism's greatest accomplishments! If you're a commie loving, terrorist supporter, it's simple: don't watch this movie. But if you're a true American Patriot that loves the amazing work of capitalism then by all means rent this or buy it as you please. The movie itself was actually pretty good too."
  • "Incredible marketing of a B movie if ever I saw one - this movie was a waste of film. Sony hyping the breakin and Korea 'forbidding us' from watching it? OMG, I regret the fact that I got sucked into watching 2 hours of poor writing and mediocre acting."

On YouTube Movies, the number of streams weren't available and comments were disabled. But the movie has more than 72,000 thumbs-up versus more than 11,000 thumbs-down.

Of more than 32,000 audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, 70 percent liked it overall and it ranked 3.7 out of 5 stars.

Professional reviewers were harsher. With 44 reviews compiled by Rotten Tomatoes, only 48 percent gave it a good review.

Among the professional reviews:

  • "Imagine 'Harold and Kumar Go to North Korea,' or 'Bill and Ted's Excellent North Korean Adventure' or even 'The Road to Pyongyang' starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. You get the idea." -- San Francisco Chronicle
  • "The Interview has the comic batting average of a mediocre-to-average Saturday Night Live sketch." -- Hollywood Reporter
  • "In their third film together, [James] Franco and Rogen have a terrific banter and an underlay of affection. This kind of rapport is rare." -- New York Daily News
  • "About as funny as a communist food shortage, and just as protracted." -- Variety.
  • "Hate to say it, but this film ain't half the satire it could have been." -- New York Post
  • "Like their affable, ignorant characters, Rogen and Franco seem in way over their heads with 'The Interview.'" -- Newsday

Meanwhile, some of the back story about the streaming of "The Interview" has begun to trickle out.

David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, said in blog post Wednesday that his company started speaking with Sony a week earlier.

"Last Wednesday Sony began contacting a number of companies, including Google, to ask if we'd be able to make their movie, 'The Interview,' available online. We'd had a similar thought and were eager to help--though given everything that's happened, the security implications were very much at the front of our minds," Drummond said.

"Of course it was tempting to hope that something else would happen to ensure this movie saw the light of day," he added. "But after discussing all the issues, Sony and Google agreed that we could not sit on the sidelines and allow a handful of people to determine the limits of free speech in another country (however silly the content might be)."

Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, also blogged about his company's decision to stream the movie via Xbox Video.

"Despite the effort to block this movie, it will now be shown in many theaters and will be available online. This is good news. A cyber-attack on anyone's rights is a cyber-attack on everyone's rights, and together we need to defend against it," Smith said.

"After substantial thought, we decided to stand up with Sony and work with others to ensure that freedom of expression triumphs over cyber-terrorism," he continued. "We of course appreciate that there are varied views regarding this film. That's true of many works and many issues. We're not endorsing this movie or any other. We are supporting the Constitutional right of free expression, and we hope that by acting together, we will help deter other attacks."

Sony did not respond to a request for comment.

Rogen and co-star Franco, who kept mum online after Sony initially pulled the film, gushed about the film's turnaround on Twitter.

Rogen, who is Canadian, sent a tweet after Sony was able to begin streaming in his home country late Wednesday.

"Canada!!! You can now watch The Interview!" he tweeted.

Franco, likewise, sent gleeful tweets including this one: "Thank you SONY!!!!!!!!"