CAMBRIDGE — Hundreds of people — some defiant, some sheepish, some just looking for a laugh — descended upon Apple Cinemas to watch the Christmas Day Boston-area premiere of the movie at the center of weeks of high-profile international intrigue.
Sony Pictures’ “The Interview,” a Seth Rogen comedy about celebrity journalists caught up in a Central Intelligence Agency plot to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, drew capacity crowds. The theater’s 1:30, 1:50, 6:45, and 8 p.m. screenings sold out by early evening, according to Apple Cinemas.
Few moviegoers seemed worried by threats of violence, believed by some to come from North Korean-linked hackers who allegedly took down Sony’s computer system. A Christmas release of the film was nixed last week by Sony after major movie theater chains decided not to show it, but was subsequently revived with an independent theater and digital release. It was set to be screened on Christmas day at over 300 venues.
By Thursday, it had become something more than a flick with middling reviews. It was a celebration of American freedom of speech.
“It’s my right to come see whatever movie I want and Sony’s right to show it,” said Judi Burten, a retired advertising account executive from Newton — echoing the view of many others in the sellout audience.
As for the hacker threats of violence reminiscent of the Sept. 11 attacks against theaters that showed it, she said she wasn’t nervous at all and doesn’t like to live her life in fear.
“We’re here to exercise our constitutional right to see a movie,” said Barry Sheingold, a Newton resident waiting in line with his family.
“To see the highly rated ‘The Interview,’ ” his wife, Carol, said with a smile.
Many critics have panned the film, which stars Rogen and James Franco. The Globe’s Ty Burr called it “a dopey bro-com that piddles along delivering mild laughs.”
But the saga of the film’s release — pulled under duress by Sony and then revived following criticism, including from President Obama — left some Christmas Day moviegoers drawn by all the media coverage, and the day.
“Family, Christmas, fun, and some publicity,” pulled in Sharad Widhani, a 30-year-old London resident visiting his family in Andover.
Others said they felt moved by something more potent and profound.
“I’m here to be part of history, I guess. To watch people come out in support of free speech and not be bullied,” said Lee Herman, 56 of Natick. He expressed “a little” worry about the threats, noting the theater wasn’t checking customers’ backpacks, but then hustled into the 1:30 p.m. showing.
Some theatergoers appeared a bit conflicted.
“I almost feel like it’s a patriotic duty to see it, at this point,” said 61-year-old Acton resident Gerry Bluhm, who then grimaced, perhaps slightly chagrined at what he had just said.
Inside an afternoon screening there were intermittent guffaws from the audience as the plot, at once puerile and profane, unfolded.
“The Interview” tells the tale of celebrity interviewer Dave Skylark (Franco) and his producer (Rogen), who score a televised sit-down with the North Korean dictator and are subsequently drawn into a CIA plot to take out Kim. Hijinks, some guffaw-worthy, some groan-worthy, ensue. Skylark, no Tim Russert, is charmed by the leader — who has cars, women, and booze aplenty — before his eyes are opened to the reality of the harsh authoritarian state.
That leads to a North Korean climax filled with gunfire, bloody violence, an adorable dog, and the dictator’s fiery demise.
So how did moviegoers find it?
Martin Ostro, 68, a Jamaica Plain resident leaving the film with his wife, Toby Vogel, called the flick over the top and a complete farce.
“The only reason we came,” he said before heading to Legal Sea Foods, “is we felt that it was important to show that despite all of the threats, they weren’t going to keep US citizens from seeing any movie in our own country.”
Barry Sheingold, the Newton resident at the theater with his family, found it funny. His son, Zack, said, “Kim Jong Un likes movies. I hope he sees this one.”
Locals aren’t the only ones weighing in on the film.
Kim Song, a North Korean diplomat to the United Nations, condemned the release Wednesday, calling the movie an “unpardonable mockery of our sovereignty and dignity of our supreme leader.”
At a Dec. 19 press conference, President Obama said he thought Sony had made a mistake in pulling the movie. He weighed in again after Sony changed its mind.
On a golf course in Hawaii Wednesday, the president was asked by a reporter if he plans to watch “The Interview.”
Obama thought for a moment then said, “I’m glad it’s being released.”