Vinnie Barbarino gets hit by a flash of light and becomes the most intelligent auto mechanic ever. Flowers for Algernon II? You bet, Mr. Kotter. From dancer to gangster to Air Force pilot gone bad, actor John Travolta once again stretches himself, this time to become George Malley, a small town auto mechanic with an I.Q. of, oh, say, 2 million. Viewer discretion advised.

WARNING: This review may include spoilers!

John Travolta, long-time disciple of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology movement (religion? cult?), must have loved the script of Phenomenon. It’s like a primer from Scientology 101. Who needs to read Dianetics, when you can see the movie? Unleash your full human potential, scene 5; learn new languages swiftly, scene 12; cure male-pattern baldness, scene 3…

Travolta plays George Malley, a small-town auto mechanic who gets hit by a burst of light on his 37th birthday. This lightning strike has the interesting effect of making George the most intelligent human being ever to walk the face of the earth. Sorry, Einstein. Happy birthday, George.

The plenty intriguing plot-line chronicles (1) George’s pursuit of a divorcee (played by the heretofore unknown Kyra Sedgwick) with two kids and (2) the townspeople’s reaction to their good friend George becoming smarter than the lot of them combined. The townspeople include Robert Duvall as “Doc” and Forest Whitaker (from Good Morning, Vietnam and The Crying Game), and all supporting cast performances are good if not exceptional.

Similarly, one can have no complaints with Sedgwick or Travolta’s work. Both deliver strong, heart-felt performances, something that most of have been particularly easy for Travolta, since he actually believes this stuff. He’s come a long way from Welcome Back Kotter, Grease, and Saturday Night Fever, but he’s maintained his rather indescribable “star power.” He’s got a great on-screen presence.

Nonetheless, Phenomenon has its share of problems.

Thomas Newman’s beautiful soundtrack is capped at the knees by an MTV approach to anything which resembles an emotional scene. Instead of Newman’s brilliant orchestration, we get a minor league pop music videos. Viewers can hardly miss the “Buy the Phenomenon CD at Tower Records Today!” message implicit in these scenes, and it comes rather too close to rendering parts of the movie unwatchable. With the exception of Eric Clapton’s “Change the World,” it doesn’t appear to be that great a soundtrack anyway. (Newman’s complete score, if available, might be worth considering.)

More significantly, I found this movie to be one of the more depressing in recent memory. Although it is thematically excellent, I felt like I would if George Bailey had died at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. People go to movies to escape and to dream, and lord alive, was this escapist fantasy crushed at the end. Granted there will be those among you who do not have, like I seem to, this sort of hang up about death and dying. Fine. See Phenomenon and have a nice day. It’s a well-made picture, and one which I’d recommend if I weren’t now headed to a sanitarium because of it.

If they’d given this the traditional happy Hollywood ending, I probably would have loved this movie more than anything I’ve seen in a long time. Why did this have to be yet another “weepy” in the Harold & Maude tradition? As it stands, I need to go watch something else to take my mind off the grief. The power within, the sense of human possibility, the terminal tenacle-like brain tumor…what a testament to humanity. Where’s my Prozac?