Instead of excavating through the reserves of childhood photos and late-90s Polaroids (I think it was 1999 when Congress passed the Polaroids Are Cool Again Act) on my computer for a suitable Throwback Thursday Instagram, I thought I would go one step further. I went to see a movie. In IMAX.
Full disclosure, I have seen no more than five IMAX movies in my life and generally consider the 20-dollar ticket price legally actionable robbery. One of those five times was for a documentary about the military in elementary school (there weren’t even any explosions). Two of those times were for “Spy Kids” (the respective high points of my 2001 and 2002). One of those times was for a live Metropolitan Opera presentation of “Carmen” with my grandparents (even fewer explosions, but some PG-13 cleavage), and the last time was for “Gravity” or, as I like to call it, “George and Sandra take Sky-ami.”
But I was in that kind of mood, so I grabbed a friend, Ubered to Emeryville, kissed my two tens goodbye (somewhere in heaven, Alexander Hamilton wept) and headed in to see “Interstellar.”
I was immediately shocked. Not by the movie, which would not be rearing its $165 million head for another 40 minutes of what I am fairly certain is a world record and faith-in-humanity-shattering NINE coming attractions, but by the crowd. The theater was completely packed. I realized it had been years since I had been to a Saturday night movie (I don’t date and try to stay away from people who do) and even longer since I had seen a movie on opening weekend. But we scrounged two aisle seats and tucked in.
Then we watched “Interstellar.”
I left the theater with my mouth ajar, my brain on unpaid leave, my arms and legs tensed, my heart pounding and every cell in my body elated and with a new gospel to preach. This, I thought, is entertainment. This is how movies were made to be viewed and where my 20 dollars went. How could I have forgotten. Where on Earth had I been?
The sad fact is that I had been where everyone else has been lately: Not at the movies.
Which is upsetting, because movies used to be THE destination.
Whether with family in a night of silent, effort-free bonding — Dad bought a large popcorn to share with Mom, Jake got a cinnamon pretzel, Rachel got Red Vines, and everyone got a trash-can sized cup of Coke — or with the friends — pulling out the flip phone, texting the homies, picking a good comedy, wearing a hoodie, meeting up with other friends who came with their homies and hoodies — that was a Friday night. Nay, THE Friday night.
The movie theater was church after dark.
But that kind of movie experience is hurdling very quickly in the same direction as Blockbuster, print media (sorry, editors) and Chris Christie’s diet — which is to say, toward the past tense. And it’s not because movies are getting worse or because people are enjoying movies any less. Movies continue to break new ground, getting better, more thrilling, more interesting and more everything, and more people are watching them than ever before. That is what happens when technology improves.
But it is that same technology — the great, infatigable, double-edged sword — that is digging the grave for cinema’s most iconic and essential sanctuary.
Netflix. Redbox. On Demand. Pirating websites. All things that I love and utilize regularly. They’ve made my life — as a film major in particular — incredibly easy and also incredibly rich. Visual entertainment is literally everywhere. In almost all cases, it is available instantly and if not for free, then on a dime. But it has ushered in an era of movie consumption that simply doesn’t need the movie theater or doesn’t think it needs the movie theater.
Why spend 10 dollars on a trip to the theater for an experience that can be enjoyed from the comfort of the couch? For the bigger screen and retractable cupholders? That just doesn’t cut the cake for today’s millennials or, in fact, anyone else. Almost every demographic has retreated from cinema attendance, and future projections look more grim than Nicole Kidman at a kitten convention.
So here is my plea, world — the message Christopher Nolan and Baby Jesus put me on this earth to deliver: Don’t.
Don’t abandon the movie theater. You may think your MacBook is giving you — if not the optimal movie experience — at least a decent one. But, as usual, you foolish, young people are wrong.
Nothing can rival the cinematic environment of a movie theater. It’s as simple as that. The big screen can, with the right movie, provide an absolutely titanic sensory experience. Visuals so enormous, so vivid and so immersive that your own reality literally ceases to exist. Sound so explosive and evocative, that words (as is my current predicament) utterly fail you.
And perhaps the most important part is the audience. There is nothing that can replicate the sensation of 150 strangers all holding their breath at the same time, all laughing at the same time and all quietly wiping the tears from their cheeks at the same time. It is a chemical experience and also a deeply spiritual one.
It is the way movies are meant to be watched. Be it IMAX (which I highly recommend for “Interstellar”) or not, the movie theater is the place where art and entertainment can come together in a moment of irreplaceable and incredible escape.
In a sea of traditions being made irrelevant by convenience and technology, this is one that needs to stay. So keep watching movies at the theater. Except maybe “Leap Year.” God, that was awful.