The joy of returning to the cinema after lockdown

A big, stupid blockbuster can only be so big and so stupid from your own living room. But what does a cinema experience look like now?

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During the UK’s first lockdown, some friends and I started a film club. Once every ten days or so, we would watch a film together online over Netflix Party, and the films would be what we came to term “romps” – loosely defined as any film that’s so bad it’s good again. We expected the club to be a temporary arrangement, but much like a certain global pandemic, it is somehow still going on. We’ve watched about 50 movies together now, from the impenetrable twists and turns of Dan Brown adaptation Angels & Demons to the abject horror of seeing Tom Hardy pretend to crap himself while playing the titular role in Capone.

The reason I think the club has survived so long is because there is an itch that we’ve been unable to scratch. What we’ve really wanted, for well over a year now, is to go to the cinema. Last summer, although some screenings did take place, it still felt too risky. But by the time cinemas finally reopened again this week, I was more than ready – and I knew what I wanted to watch. A big, stupid blockbuster can only be so big and so stupid from your own living room, and I was looking for the biggest, stupidest blockbuster going.

I wanted to feel the amount of money that had been spent on the special effects pressing down on me like a physical weight. I wanted to see a speedometer needle shakily creep up to something like “800 space miles per second”. I wanted a world-weary military general to sombrely remove his sunglasses and say “but… that’s impossible”. I wanted maverick scientists leaning over 3D holographic renderings of the dumbest thing you’ve seen in your entire life.

Looking at the quite sparse listings, there was one clear choice: Godzilla vs Kong. What could be bigger, or more stupid, than two of the most celebrated mega-monsters in Hollywood history hitting each other in ever more contrived ways over the course of 120 minutes? I booked tickets for me and a couple of friends at a central London Odeon, but I did so with trepidation. Would it be the same? What does a cinema experience look like, at this uncertain stage of the pandemic?

First, and it gives me no pleasure to report this, there is no pick ‘n’ mix. This should not have been a surprise, really; ramming a communal spade into plastic tubs lightly greased by other people’s fingerprints is probably a very efficient way of spreading a virus. In an effort to restore normal cinema etiquette, I turned to my friends and complained about a Sprite costing £4.59 and then paid it anyway because I wanted to sip from the big cinema cup while holding it in both hands and imagine I was both a lamb being bottle-fed and the farmer feeding it – but it felt hollow.

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We hovered awkwardly in the deserted foyer, unsure whether we were allowed to take our masks off. An usher told us that we didn’t have to wear them during the film, and as she said so another woman, fresh out of another screening, made a low, pained noise as she realised she’d sat through the whole of Peter Rabbit 2 with her mask on for no reason. The mood, throughout the building, was decidedly unmagical.

Inside the screen itself, my heart sank further. Other than the three of us, there were nine people in the room, mostly boys under the age of 25 and a mousy-looking couple. As the lights went down, I steeled myself for disappointment.

But I needn’t have. Even in a near-empty room, and even with the lingering awareness that you were breathing other people’s air, the cinema’s still got it. Was Godzilla vs Kong a good film? I really couldn’t say. I was so desperate for loud noises and a change of scenery that I honestly think standing beside a motorway would have done the job. But I did leave the cinema buzzing. I still got to hold my Wine Gums up to the light to see which flavour they were, like a jeweller examining his gems. The air vents still rattled when the blockbuster brass section blared particularly loudly. I still got to hear a stranger a few rows over say “oh shit” in a mild voice as a mythical ape fell into the centre of the Earth through a gravity vortex. And all of my party let out an involuntary cheer the first time the big monkey punched the big lizard full in the face.

In other words, there were plenty of moments when it felt like being at the cinema before the pandemic. The big screen is back, and I for one will be going to see as many blockbusters as possible this summer. Jungle Cruise starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is out in July. It looks terrible, and I can’t wait.

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