The Strangely Normal Experience of Going Back to the Theater
On March 10, 2020, I did something I had done every single week for the past 15 years for the last time: I took the subway into Manhattan and went to a movie theater for a press screening. The film was Bloodshot. Ten days later, all non-essential businesses were ordered closed by the governor.
452 days after that, I finally went back to the theater for my first press screening in well over a year, F9: The Fast Saga.
(I swear I don’t only watch movies that star Vin Diesel. This is just a very strange coincidence.)
Even with the promise of Vin Diesel’s warm, comforting presence, I wasn’t sure how I would react to my first trip back to a crowded theater in over a year and a half. On the one hand, going to the movies is something I have desperately wanted to do every day since March 10, 2020. I love going to the movies, not only for the films themselves but also for the rituals associated with seeing them in a theater. I love perusing the posters in the lobby, watching the pre-show entertainment, and getting an Icee from the concession stand — cherry-flavored, obviously.
On the other hands, I’m a nervous person by nature, and germs are one of the biggest triggers for my anxiety. (As you might imagine, 2020 was a lot of fun for me!) According to most health experts, spending a prolonged period in a small indoor space with other people is one of the easiest ways to catch and spread Covid. When I went to see Tenet last fall, I struggled to keep my mind on John David Washington’s time-traveling travails, partly because when I arrived for my “private screening,” the auditorium was already occupied by a middle-aged couple furiously making out. So much for avoiding aerosols.
In normal times, the movie theater is my preferred place to escape from myself and my endless neuroses. It’s where I go to get lost in others worlds, imaginative stories, and uplifting messages. Obviously, we do not live in normal times. I’ve been fully vaccinated for about a month, so I should be fine, But when you’re a hypochondriac like me, “should be” is very different from “definitely will be to an absolute certainty.” I’ve also got two unvaccinated kids at home to worry about. Given my general level of insanity, a full-on panic attack was not out of the question.
To my surprise, one never emerged. Watching the Fast and Furious crew fly cars into space provided exactly the same escapist buzz going to the theater always did. I was wearing my mask the entire time, like most of the people around me. But after a while, I honestly forgot I even had it on. I got caught up in Dominic Toretto’s overheated rivalry with his long-lost brother Jakob, and the race to acquire some nonsense gadget that could destroy the world or whatever. Watching Vin Diesel drive his car off a cliff and then swing it, Spider-Man style, from a wire just felt so ... normal.
Near the start of the pandemic, I wrote a piece about the things I missed about movie theaters besides the actual films themselves; stuff like liquid butter topping, the giant movie standees, and their endearingly ugly carpets (see above). Fittingly, my favorite part of returning to the theater wasn’t F9 itself; it was talking about F9 in the lobby after it was over.
When I was growing up, there was a belief that audiences only cared about movies once they played on a big screen. A theatrical run supposedly lent a film an aura of legitimacy and quality. If something went straight to VHS, or later DVD and Blu-ray, that was considered a sign that a movie stunk; if it was good, it would have opened in a theater first. If that kind of thinking had largely been undone by years of major releases on Netflix and Amazon, the pandemic destroyed it once and for all.
But no matter how good the movies (or the audio and video quality of said movies) on streaming, they can never replicate the communal nature of theaters. After chatting with friends for a few minutes on the way out of the multiplex, I wound up bumping into another colleague on the subway platform. We spent most of the ride home discussing how F9 connected to earlier entries in the franchise, and laughed as we tried to parse the enormous holes in the plot. That conversation was probably more enjoyable than the movie itself. At the very least, it completed and enhanced the experience — and it’s precisely what I missed over the last year even as big movies continued to debut on Netflix, HBO Max, and elsewhere.
During the worst days of the pandemic, as exhibitor chains declared bankruptcy and took on enormous mountains of debt, I thought theaters really might be done for good. I’m relieved to say that this week’s trip to F9 made me a lot more optimistic about their future. Streaming services might have immediacy and convenience, but they have nothing on movie theaters for bringing people together.