The soda was flat, the hot dog took forever and the house lights stubbornly refused to dim for the trailers. But good God, it was great to be back at the movies.
On Friday, Ontario’s cinemas reopened for the first time in months – in Toronto, they haven’t screened a single film since October of last year – and with a simple, if long-delayed, flip of the public-health policy switch, 40 per cent of the country’s theatrical marketplace was back. Albeit capped at 50-per-cent capacity per auditorium, to a maximum of 1,000 guests per building, no matter the size of the multiplex.
But putting aside arbitrary numbers, stepping inside the Scotiabank Cineplex in downtown Toronto on Friday evening felt suddenly, wonderfully, inevitably like the most natural act in the world.
Squint, and you could see the prepandemic weekend rituals – a life before the words “variant,” “aerosols” and “Twitter epidemiologist” became common topics of conversation. There were roving packs of teenagers sizing up the arcade before heading to see the new, and remarkably ninth, Fast & Furious adventure. There were girls nights, boys nights, buddies, couples, singles. There were families desperate for the Marvel escapism of Black Widow, even though the film was available right at home, for a fraction of the cost. I saw film festival programmers, publicists, friends-of-friends and at least one celebrated Canadian director.
And absolutely everyone was at the concession stand.
The normal ratio of popcorn buyers to outside-snack sneakers was erased. People wanted a genuine evening out at the movies, and they were going to happily pay for that popcorn-nacho-soda combo no matter the markup. And hey, the freestyle Coca-Cola soda machine was up and running, too – slightly surprising given that people are touching the screen every two minutes to make their own version of Diet Cherry Lime Coke. But, hey, we’ve also (hopefully) by now realized that COVID-19 is not largely a surface-spread danger. And if you’re still concerned, there are hand sanitizer stations every five paces or so. Just rows and rows and gallons and gallons of the clear sticky stuff.
Given the process of, say, ordering a meal at a patio restaurant – provide your contact information for contact tracing, scan a QR code for the menu, sanitize your hands before standing up, update your iOS to get that QR code to scan correctly – the process of seeing a movie was painless, and maybe even more pleasurable than remembered. I purchased my ticket online a few days ahead of time, selected my seat to ensure physical distancing restrictions and that was that.
At the Scotiabank, your e-ticket is scanned before you’re allowed onto the (somehow, by the grace of Ellis Jacob) fully functioning escalator, and then you’re left alone. All employees wear masks, and some sport face shields. There is no Plexiglas separating you from the concession staff, but no one wants to get too close to the nacho cheese dispenser anyway.
Yes, you can take off your mask when you’re eating or drinking. Which, I guess, means for the duration of the film, should you be a slow eater or a sampler of the entire menu, which many seemed to be doing in my screening of A Quiet Place Part II (also available for home viewing). Personally, that loophole was fine by my double-vaccinated self, helped by the fact that I prefer onscreen theatre to the hygiene variety.
Ultimately, none of the rules and restrictions mattered, or at least occupied my mind, once the show started. All I cared about, and all the 100 or so moviegoers around me in Scotiabank 3 appeared to care about, was what was happening on the giant screen in front of us.
After so many months of staring dead-eyed and soul-crushed at laptops, iPads, televisions, phones and Nintendo Switches, watching a high-concept horror movie on a proper canvas with a decent sound system is akin to a welcome smack to the face. Add in the oohs and ahs and nervous laughter of an audience full of strangers, and you would swear that society was back to being a fully social one.
When A Quiet Place Part II’s end credits rolled, a smattering of applause broke out. Probably for the movie, which concludes with the promise of a better, louder, alien-free world. (Was the movie good? I honestly have no idea. Ask me in 2023.) But I like to think that we were congratulating ourselves, too, in that acceptably insufferable Ontario kind of way. Same time next week, I hope.
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