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It's high time we revisited the full-scale movie experience

By James Healy | China Daily | Updated: 2020-08-18 08:25
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Mulan, the new, live-action adaptation of the animated 1998 Disney blockbuster, will initially skip theaters and debut online only-an unfortunate sign of the times.

The novel coronavirus has changed so much about life as we knew it before 2020. Among the questions on many minds are, which changes will be temporary, and which ways of life will we never revisit?

Being cooped up for so long has made us even more glad we have computers, televisions and smartphones, and our increased comfort level at home is likely to linger in many ways, for good or bad.

But we shortchange ourselves when we opt, quarantine or no, to accept and be satisfied with a minimized film-viewing experience-via phone, computer monitor or even big-screen TV-rather than the expansive, wall-to-wall silver screen of the cinema.

The reason motion pictures have worked is that, while we're nestled comfortably in a darkened theater with friends and strangers, we can forget our daily lives and suspend our disbelief to collectively watch action-packed, emotion-laden moments playing out on a screen so large that almost any image on it is daunting.

When I first saw The Sound of Music as a child, the magnificent, sweeping scenes of the towering Alps allowed me to feel power and beauty I'd not yet witnessed firsthand.

As Bruce Lee pursued the evil Han through the fateful Hall of Mirrors in Enter the Dragon, the mesmerizing visual effects worked so well because, like Lee's character, we found ourselves dazzled and bedeviled by the distorted illusions that loomed large before us.

When Jack Nicholson suddenly poked his head through the axe-destroyed door in The Shining, it was the sheer scale of his sinister, grinning face that struck terror. On a smaller screen, it would have been no more frightful than The Terror of Tiny Town (an actual movie title, by the way).

And as I watched Jaws on the gigantic Cinerama screen of Indian Hills Theater, the finest in my hometown, the massive, murderous shark moving quick as a bullet through the water had everyone riveted in their seats, hearts pounding.

Let's not even talk about Linda Blair's spinning head, or that freakishly evil face that flashes for a frightful split second during the disturbing dream sequence of The Exorcist.

The point is that stories on the cinema screen captivate us because they are larger-much larger, in fact-than life, and we simply cannot escape that big world up there (short of shutting our eyes).

Our ears are also brought into the picture, by way of the movie's soundtrack or special effects. When The Empire Strikes Back hit theaters in 1980, upgraded sound systems shook the floor as the humongous Imperial Walkers thundered their way across the screen.

Also unique to cinemas are the collective gasps, groans, tearful sobs and sniffles, laughter and sighs of relief rippling through a full theater, all of which amplify, and sometimes contrast with, our own reactions.

Compare that with the experience of lying on the sofa or bed while watching a movie in the comfort and relative seclusion of your own home. The movie will still have an impact, of course, but the degree to which you are thrilled, unsettled or amused can be quite less. It is like drinking a heavily diluted whiskey, missing out on the heady thrill that the full-strength version gives you.

Simply put, the flight from cinemas, which began long before the pandemic but was exacerbated by it, has signaled a serious compromise on our part. We've settled for convenience, for the comfort of our easy chair. We no longer sit in awe before the roaring lion of the theater screen, but opt instead for the purring kitten of home cinema (or, worse yet, the fit-for-a-mouse mobile phone).

Let's do the film industry a huge favor. Let's return in earnest to the cinema, a bucket of popcorn in one hand and a big, cold soda in the other, and sit in wonder once more, our eyes sweeping from one end of that giant screen to the other as we follow the action.

Let's live large again.

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