Banish the truffle oil!

Luxury cinema is an insult to film, and our wallets - we should resist its pretentious temptations

Until the advent of luxury cinemas, I never realised that the moviegoing experience could accommodate quite so much pretentiousness. Having avoided such venues since an unhappy visit to the then-new, swanky-model Screen on the Green a few years ago (from punk to plush in just over three decades—that’s progress), I hadn’t allowed them to impinge on my life. But finding myself at a multi-screen London cinema a few weeks back, having set out to see This Must Be the Place without realising that it was showing in the venue’s sole razzle-dazzle auditorium rather than in one of the sticky-floored, rat-infested ones, I swallowed my pride, coughed up the premium ticket price and stole shame-facedly into the darkness.

The bar at the back of the auditorium glowed faintly, and the usher-turned-temporary-barkeep bade me a good evening. That was, for me, the first entertainment-killer. I don’t like being pampered: all it does is induce waves of guilt in me. I don’t like it in hotels, on planes, and certainly not in cinemas. It gets in the way. But that’s my problem. The real issue with the usher-turned-temporary-barkeep is that he had to stay on duty, sitting at the end of my row, throughout the screening, just in case I required an emergency mimosa with accompanying salted pretzels.

At one point, his walkie-talkie buzzed into life and he had to dash off, no doubt to mop up something unspeakable spilt by a low-ticket-price-paying ruffian in Screen 3. At all other times, there were three people in the cinema, and he was one of them. Consequently, I kept fretting about him. Was he enjoying the film? Was he wishing, as I was, that he was watching The Hunger Games instead? Did he find anyone in This Must Be the Place for whom he could muster the tiniest scrap of interest or empathy? Or did he, like me, find the whole movie insufferably winsome, painfully zany and without discernible purpose or direction? Sat there in my triple-cushioned, sofa-size seat, I almost wanted to order something from the bar menu just to give him a reason to divert his attention from the screen. But I couldn’t. You see, olives and focaccia and balsamic vinegar in cinema don’t go.

Cinema is all about what’s on the screen. Start introducing distractions, augmentations and embellishments, be they in-chair dining or mid-film full-body massages, and the emphasis is tipped away from what’s on screen to what’s happening in front of it; that way lies the indignity of the chicken-in-a-basket circuit, or dinner theatre. I’m not talking about the Secret Cinema screenings, which turn a film into an event in a way which honours what’s on screen. I mean the capitalist credo at the heart of luxury cinema. Buried beneath all the PR blather and the pampering is the realisation that while they’ve got you in that cinema seat, the cinema owners may as well play on your prejudices and milk your wallet.

It’s a little like the “Priority Boarding” idea hatched by the budget airlines: make conditions as grotty as possible for ordinary passengers and they won’t mind paying a surcharge on each leg of the journey in order to be treated like something approaching a human being. (Hilariously, this has backfired on the Priority Boarders: everyone clicks the “Priority Boarding” button when they’re booking, so the airlines will soon have to introduce a “Super-Duper-Priority Boarding” category to stoke our all-important feelings of smugness.) Luxury cinema represents the exhibitors mocking us for all the crap we’ve put up with in their establishments over the decades.

To use another analogy from air travel, luxury cinema is doing well because its patrons know from experience that a rum deal lies in wait for them at common-or-garden cinemas. Just as it’s considered hard to go back to economy class once you’ve flown in any other section, cinemas are banking on hooking customers for the long haul after the merest taste of luxury. Although to fully exploit the feelings of superiority that bring the airlines so much money, cinemas need to find a way to make the luxury cinemagoer’s pleasure visible to the cheapskates in the other screens, just as the major airlines’ pamper packages (which go by names such as World Traveller Plus and Prole-Hater Deluxe) force the plain old economy dwellers to trudge past the pseudo-exclusive seating area, marvelling at the extra few centimetres of legroom, the mealtime napkins in Egyptian cotton and the complimentary copies of What Snob? magazine.

But, to continue the analogy to breaking point, if the plane goes down, you haven’t really bought yourself access to a better class of fireball. And no matter how many courses are available to the cinemagoer, nothing can disguise the fact that you have chosen, in your foolishness, to spend the evening watching, say, Battleship. Or This Must Be the Place. Luxury cinema makes the choice of the movie even more precarious. My Screen on the Green experience a few years ago at least hinged on a film which suited the plushness—Tom Ford’s A Single Man—to the point where half the audience seemed to have come dressed as characters from the movie. There needs to be as small a disparity as possible between the images on screen and the comfily upholstered, truffle-oil-drizzled reality of the auditorium. To watch Shoeshine or the Dekalog or Tyrannosaur in that setting, while a tiptoeing waiter serves you halibut, would be to open up an irreparable chasm between art and life.

I don’t think any of this has occurred to the architects of luxury cinema. And even multiplex cinemas are getting in on the boutique business, ploughing money into fancy-pants auditoria that are off-putting to the riff-raff. Those funds might be better spent improving the piss-poor facilities that most of us have to endure if we want to see films without trekking several hours beyond our postcodes. Pay an extra member of staff to stand sentry in one of the lowly non-exclusive, non-bruschetta-serving screens, the better to root out anyone disrupting the movie, or to curtail the mid-movie mobile phone conversations that still persist, and fewer potential audience members would be giving multiplexes a wide berth.

But that won’t happen because the cinemas, chains or otherwise, have got a whiff of the money that’s theirs for the taking. The films themselves are incidental. This sector is selling the snacks, the meals, the beverages; the reclining, gadget-festooned, Bond villain-esque armchairs; the thick carpets in which you could lose a relative. Should cinemagoing really be so laboured-over, so sculpted? One of the great things about it is its immediacy and casualness. Max Cherry, the bail bondsman played by Robert Forster in Jackie Brown, puts it best when asked what he’s going to see at the local multiplex: “Something that starts soon and looks good.”

Too posh for popcorn: a luxury cinema

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.