After four months of viewing films on my living room television or my tiny laptop screen, my fingers bristled on the smooth metal handle of Cineplex’s (Canada’s most prominent movie theater chain) towering doorway. I watched as guests ahead are offered masks from staff and followed the roped walkway from the door to the snack bar. No music or trailers were playing, no brightly colored lights swirling and snaking over the floors. The sound of a lone popcorn machine (not even enough to emit the scent) and hushed voices of staff and attendees were all that echoed through the open foyer. Apprehensive excitement is the best phrase that comes to mind; there are smiling eyes and obvious enthusiasm subdued by quite tension. The few of us that are here walk well more than two meters apart; there’s more than enough space. We meander down the near-empty hallway, the freshly cleaned and fluffed carpet muffling our steps. There are no 3D-glasses to be worn; that would be way too risky to attempt so soon- the pandemic is not over, after all. Similarly, the films played are only box office hits and a handful of newer ones. No films that have been long anticipated, but films we know we love. For $5 per ticket, I selected Steven Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK (1993), having always wanted to see it on the big screen. Some other options include Spielberg’s JAWS (1975), Alfonso Cuarón’s GRAVITY (2013), Patty Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN (2017), and Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).
My husband and I shuffle up the auditorium steps searching for our seats, we quickly realize that when booking online, they have cut significant amounts of seating from purchasing options. The back row sits empty, I find myself turning back often, expecting to see a happy face or two behind, but it’s black. The smaller sections of seats that border the theater are all off- limits, too. There is no media content to play on the screen as newcomers scan for their seat numbers, there is no music, there is only quiet conversation and the crunching of popcorn. I laugh with my husband, but in the timid silence we try to suppress it. There are at least ten seats between myself and the nearest other customer. There are no more than thirty people in this massive, yawning theater by the time we finally see previews. Christopher Nolan’s upcoming film, TENET (2020) plays their new trailer. “I remember seeing one for this the last time we were here,” I whisper. I look around and everyone wears their masks, occasionally removing it to sip or snack. An unexpected benefit of the mask throughout the film is that it renders whispering to one another virtually impossible.
The film plays, it’s intimate, if not a little intimidating; there’s no chorus of laughter or screams or gasps. It feels vast. It feels open. It echoes. At one point I fear getting up to buy a drink, I wonder if the concession is open during the playing still; I had only seen one employee there earlier. I stop at the washroom, and every other stall is closed off. As I exit, an employee enters with a fresh cloth and bottle of sanitizer; they clearly stick to a strict schedule as she marks an outline posted on the wall. The concession is open after all, and I realize I have forgotten my Scene card as we go through that almost-forgotten script. So many places have suspended rewards programs amidst the pandemic, but Cineplex picked up right where they left off, and I bite my lip for not realizing I had the option to redeem free tickets when I bought them online.
I return to my seat, a little less afraid of tripping up the steps as I used to be, there’s less than fifty people to make fun of me if I do. The film ends and we all patiently file out, giving one another space. There is no raucous excitement as we leave, just patience, and some relieved smiles. A collective sigh at an attempt for normalcy successfully achieved, no arguments about space or masks. The seats and floors and door handles were all clean, no sticky peel beneath our feet or on our hands as we file through. Sanitizer stations await us as we exit and everyone was okay.
I stand outside in the warm night air, a couple walks ahead of us. They wind around the vacant parking lot, holding hands, laughing, and exchanging kisses as they pull off their masks. My husband takes a final drag off his cigarette and opens the car door for me. It really isn’t so different after all.