The Movies, a DVD-ROM in English by Lionhead Studios for Activision, distributed with a 52-page English-language user's manual by Hed Artzi Multimedia, requires Windows 98 and up and an 800 Mhz Pentium III PC or better, for ages 12 through adult, NIS 220. Rating: ***** Most computer games begin at point A and finish at point B, with players winning if they manage to survive the journey between the two; a minority of software gives you the freedom to create without having to abide by a linear storyline and a fixed map. The Movies is an unusual combination of both styles: Like Zoo Tycoon, Rollercoaster Tycoon and Railroad Tycoon, it invites you to build and control a mini-world, but it also allows you to independently create a unique work of art using a large variety of options and raw materials. The work of art in this case is a comedy, science fiction, horror, action or romance film - albeit of several minutes', rather than hours', length. It won't turn you into a Goldwyn, Hitchcock, Zanuck or Spielberg or win you an Oscar, but as you learn the ropes of moviemaking and devote many hours to it, your film can be amazingly competent. Players can even upload it for display in cyberspace on the game's Web site and boast: I made this! After learning the basics from the disk's tutorial, you can start the hard way by entering the Story mode and building your own Hollywood movie studio from the silent-film era of the 1920s. Alternately, you can go directly into The Sims-like Sandbox mode to generate actors - their faces, hairstyles, makeup, ages and expressions - plus directors, scriptwriters, researchers and sets. Create dialogue by speaking into your computer's microphone, shoot the action and watch the finished result. The Sandbox mode demands a great deal of hands-on input, but the story mode requires much more constant micromanagement. For the latter, starting with a generous $100 million in the bank, you take an empty plot of land and build the studio from the ground up. Among the facilities are a stage school, casting office, production and script offices, cafeterias and rest rooms whose plans you plop down on a parcel of land, only to pop up instantly as completed edifices. To make the studio esthetic, add landscaping, paved pathways and tours for visitors. Attractiveness is important, because success is also gauged according to your studio's prestige. Your studio films are reviewed by movie critics as they are launched in cinemas, and positive ones will usually earn you more money, but these reviews do not really judge their quality but rely rather on more capricious criteria. Like Lilliputian figures, tiny people emit squeals and flail their limbs when you pick them up with your mouse cursor and drag them to rooms where they become stars, supporting actors or managers. You can even turn a hard-working janitor who cleans up the grounds into a film director. You have to manage not only budgets, but also egos, as each individual comes with a mood meter that tells you whether he is happy or dissatisfied. Personal problems and interpersonal relations are also important factors in the game, as actors may become jealous of colleagues who get a raise, sink into alcoholism to drown their sorrows or accept a job in a rival studio. You begin at the most basic level, making black-and-white movies on a small set with ingenue actors and a bare-bones plot. It takes quite a while to graduate to bigger and better things, and you are likely to become discouraged as competing studios do better. But as you work your way up and get more experience under your belt, you can graduate to color films and more advanced, contemporary filming methods and gradually earn access to sets that serve as the background for war, Westerns, space films and more. The graphics engine is admirable, providing crisp, detailed images and allowing players to zoom in to face level or view scenes from a bird's eye view. A "sparkling stream" emanating from individual actors and other humans suggests where to drag them, but you can decide what to do on your own, and helpful menu and information bubbles suddenly appear on the screen. The interface is very user-friendly, making the process of developing your studio and making your movie very intuitive, and the soundtrack perfectly suits the historical era at hand. The game is close to a masterpiece, and you'll enjoy the challenge if you can devote your time, patience and energy to it.