UK markets closed
  • FTSE 100

    7,134.06
    +45.88 (+0.65%)
     
  • FTSE 250

    22,734.13
    +125.37 (+0.55%)
     
  • AIM

    1,249.65
    +3.03 (+0.24%)
     
  • GBP/EUR

    1.1648
    +0.0009 (+0.07%)
     
  • GBP/USD

    1.4117
    -0.0060 (-0.42%)
     
  • BTC-GBP

    25,467.75
    -779.24 (-2.97%)
     
  • CMC Crypto 200

    924.19
    -17.62 (-1.87%)
     
  • S&P 500

    4,247.44
    +8.26 (+0.19%)
     
  • DOW

    34,479.60
    +13.36 (+0.04%)
     
  • CRUDE OIL

    70.78
    +0.49 (+0.70%)
     
  • GOLD FUTURES

    1,879.50
    -16.90 (-0.89%)
     
  • NIKKEI 225

    28,948.73
    -9.83 (-0.03%)
     
  • HANG SENG

    28,842.13
    +103.25 (+0.36%)
     
  • DAX

    15,693.27
    +122.05 (+0.78%)
     
  • CAC 40

    6,600.66
    +54.17 (+0.83%)
     

Popcorn! Screams! Mass sobbing! Why I can’t wait for cinema’s big return

·5-min read

It is quite fashionable to decry popcorn as an overpriced, noisy and messy cinema snack, but while I fully accept that it is all of these things, I still love it. The fact that I know I’m being ripped off is, somehow, part of the charm. Have you got a statistic about the ludicrous mark-up on popcorn for me? Have you got a story about seeing it loaded into the back of the cinema in a dozen bin bags? Ooh baby, yes: talk nasty to me. You will have your own quirks; we’ve all got something particular or peculiar that we love about going to the cinema. I’m a popcorn pervert.

Related: The Guide: Staying In – sign up for our home entertainment tips

Personal peccadilloes aside, what is the universal draw of going to the cinema? Why are people so excited for the imminent return of fleapits and multiplexes across the UK? Perhaps it’s the cathedral-like scale of that silver screen, filling our field of vision, with speakers bigger than God blasting us into submission. Shortly before the pandemic began I went to worship anew Stanley Kubrick’s majestic 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Waterloo Imax in London. Would I have dissolved inexplicably into floods of tears as the supercomputer HAL gets shut down for ever if this peculiarly moving moment had been unfolding via a less intense audiovisual set-up? Actually, I think so: HAL’s death is a profoundly upsetting one, even on a small screen. But if it’s not the sheer scale that makes the experience of going to the cinema so affecting, what is it?

I believe it is the communal experience. There is nothing to beat the sensation of others responding to the film right there along with you. Sure, it can be annoying to find yourself out of step with the responses of those around you; deeply moved, say, by a romance loudly derided by a gang of teenagers. (Sorry for the typecasting; it’s obligatory to use teenagers in the hypothetical noisy cinema example, but we all know it’s just as likely to be a load of thirtysomethings pissed on massive glasses of wine in one of those middle-class arthouse cinemas where they let you take the whole bottle in.)

Get a movie on ... still the best place to see a film.
Get a movie on ... still the best place to see a film. Photograph: VallarieE/Getty

But when you are in tune with your fellow cinemagoers – right as a comedy really hits and you get to laugh together as a crowd, really savour the texture and peaks and troughs of a wave of laughter – does it get any better than that? For me, a great horror movie is probably the only thing that can beat comedy for cinema viewing highs. The communal sense of terror, a jump scare en masse, a couple of screams from someone highly strung … sheer bliss. It is truly the audience experience that makes cinemas special.

You may disagree, but I have history on my side here. In the 1950s and 60s, in the grip of a panic over how to compete with a nascent artform that had a uniquely intimate access to people’s homes (TV back then, rather than streaming), movie studios took a look at their own product and decided that what they had to offer was scale and spectacle. Cue absolutely massive productions that simply shouted “big screen experience!”. The Ten Commandments, clocking in at 3 hrs 40 mins, Ben Hur at 3 hrs 44 mins, The Greatest Story Ever Told at – surely not?! – 4 hrs 20 mins.

But as we know, other kinds of films came back into fashion and cinema continued to flourish. It is fascinating to see the cycle echoed with The Avengers et al, as studios – concerned about the rise of streaming in people’s homes – replace lavish biblical battles of good and evil starring heroes in togas with lavish comic-book battles of good and evil starring superheroes in capes.

Room with a view ... take your seats!
Room with a view ... take your seats! Photograph: PA

However, as people’s home cinema setups get ever more cinema-like, with increasingly sophisticated speakers and massive screens, I don’t think scale is the front on which cinema owners should be betting all their chips. The big multiplexes can install all the full-body massage chairs they like, but we know it’s not about the gimmicks. What we don’t have at home is a big crowd roaring with laughter, gasping, jumping, reacting. The collective experience, even when it is not as demonstrative as laughter or screaming, is important; and cinema is one of the few fairly accessible places where we really trust ourselves to gather with strangers of all ages and backgrounds to share something together.

I cannot wait to watch the new Saw film with a full house of cheering horror hounds. And, of course, it’s not just about those audible reactions. While I am lucky enough to have already seen the Danish Oscar winner Another Round, starring Mads Mikkelsen, that experience is not yet complete because I’ve not yet seen it with a room full of strangers, sharing a hilarious and touching film together. And speaking of films that can move you to tears, Fast & Furious 9 is coming; that’s going to be a blast in an auditorium full of people whooping as Vin Diesel cracks a Corona, rumbles “Salute, mi familia” in his subterranean burr, and drives a flame-throwing tank down a waterslide. See you in the popcorn queue.

Catherine Bray recently launched filmoftheweek.co.uk with Observer critic Guy Lodge – recommending just one film worth watching, every week.