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Why Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar Was the Best Movie Theater Experience Of My Life
There are some images from Interstellar that I’ll never forget: Coop’s hazy, windswept dream of a failed mission from the film’s opening sequence, the tiny Endurance spacecraft drifting in an infinite sea of dark, dark black, and, of course, the wormhole. I saw the movie at a midnight premiere in 2014 at the AMC Lincoln Square IMAX Theatre in New York, where it was screened on glorious 70mm film. There I sat, six years ago, completely swallowed up by this operatic work of science-fiction, transported far, far away, to the deepest regions of space. It was the best theatergoing experience of my life. And today, when the once-uncomplicated tradition of going to the movies would require traveling back in time through some sort of multidimensional wormhole, I desperately wish I could relive it.
That’s not to say I think it’s safe to open movie theaters right now. Of course not; the pandemic continues to claim upwards of 50,000 new cases per day. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime offer a reliable–and more affordable–alternative to the pricey theatergoing experience, bursting with new talent and the kind of risk-taking filmmaking that’s been sidelined by multiplexes for years now. As warm and fuzzy as it can be to snuggle up with the cat in front of the latest true crime show on your Roku, there is no replacement for the experience of going to the movies–especially not the IMAX theater at Lincoln Square. I don’t know if cinemas as we once knew them are a thing of the past. But like so many of the simple joys from our lives that we’ve lost during this pandemic, I’m not ready to imagine a future without them. Movie theaters are worth saving. God, I hope they come back.
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Interstellar was the sort of movie you had to witness on the big screen. It may not be Christopher Nolan’s best film, but the hyperspace environmental drama is the one that I think about when I lay awake at night, staring at the blank white ceiling above my bed. The film towers over you; it’s an awesome experience full of old-fashioned majesty and wonder. Taking place during a sort of dust-caked, not-too-distant dystopia, the world of Interstellar is a hopeful one. “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars,” Matthew McConaughey says before blasting off on his voyage to find a habitable planet for the future of human civilization. “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.” It’s a forward-gazing story, one that resonates right now, when the future feels, at worst, apocalyptic, and at best, uncertain.
Movie theaters, even the gargantuan multiplexes like Regal or AMC–which reportedly lost $561 million this past quarter–could soon go the way of the dystopian civilization in Interstellar. Since March, the global box office has hemorrhaged billions of dollars, with virtually all major upcoming blockbusters–chief among them, Nolan’s upcoming Tenet, delayed, released on streaming services, or in some cases, halted altogether. Film festivals like Cannes faced unprecedented cancellations this year, yet another nail in the coffin for an industry that relies on these sort of marketplaces to provide the lifeblood for cinemas across the world. And, of course, the little indie theaters, the arthouses, have weathered the brunt of this storm, many of them diverting their resources for virtual screenings, private theater rentals, or just closing their curtains for good. I never thought the return of the drive-in movie would be so bittersweet.
“I am sure there is a whole group of people who say, ‘I cannot live without going to the movies,’” Governor Cuomo told reporters earlier this week. “But on a relative risk scale, a movie theater is less essential and poses a high risk,” he said, explaining that New York movie theaters will not come back along with gyms, museums, and malls for the state’s Phase 4 reopening on August 24. But New York, while a crucial hub in the theatrical ecosystem, does not reflect the state of the rest of the country. Deadline reports that cinemas have already reopened in 41 states across the country–all while the hundreds of Americans die everyday from COVID-19. AMC, the nation’s largest movie theater chain, plans to celebrate its 100th Anniversary by reopening more than 100 facilities nationwide on August 20 for the ticket price of 15 cents per movie. What could go wrong?
While the experience of watching Interstellar on my 15-inch Macbook doesn’t quite capture the grandiosity of the film’s spectacular–and largely practical–effects sequences, or the Cathedral-scale organ soundtrack, a career best for Hans Zimmer, the film nevertheless feels relevant again today. It’s about the climate crisis (a catastrophic issue that is, of course, still very much dire today) but deeper than that, it’s about time, as Nolan’s films always are. In fact, you might call Interstellar a horror movie–or perhaps a disaster film–where time is the monster. Time terrorizes the astronauts, demolishing months, years, even decades of their lives as they tear across time-bent stretches of deep space on their search for a new home for the human race. Today, when everyday feels like a lost one, when the choices of our leaders could result in more months quarantined away from the people we love, Interstellar feels more haunting than ever.
Despite my yearning to be sucked into the infinite void of space again, I have to agree with Governor Cuomo–cinemas should not open until a vaccine is available, or at least until conditions are safe enough for two-hours-plus indoor congregations. But when they return, and when it is safe, I’ll be the first in line to see whatever big-screen offering is about to premiere. Wonder Woman 1984, Tenet, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, you name it. But rather than watching it in a state of pure joy, after all this time away, I think I’ll be rather subdued by the gigantic screen. I’ll be like Coop, seeing his daughter grow up on the Endurance video monitor, tears swelling as all the decades he missed roll across his eyes.
Before the pandemic, you could watch movies like Interstellar in a theater and they’d take on a special meaning for you. I spent my childhood building spaceships out of LEGO with my older brother, who has since moved from the East Coast, now residing thousands of miles away in L.A. We watched Interstellar together that night in 2014, the bright light of the IMAX screen striking memories of my brother’s gleaming adolescent face into my periphery. I knew it’d be one of the last times we’d watch a movie like this together; until he left New York, we’d never lived more than an hour away from each other. And so my memory of Interstellar is not just one of dimension-crossing bookshelves or gravity-defying riptides–it’s also a time capsule for the last time my brother and I went to space together.
Dom Nero is a staff video editor at Esquire, where he also writes about film, comedy, and video games.
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