It's good to be back. But is it the same? Photo credit: Jake Hills, Unsplash

It’s been 223 bleak days since the lockdown took away one of life’s greatest joys. Popcorn tastes the same, seats feel just as we left them – but can going to the movies ever be the same?

There‘s a scene in Godzilla vs. Kong where the legendary, 337ft, skyscraper-climbing primate discovers his species’ ancestral throne room. After being isolated in a giant dome for far longer than we‘ve been in repeated lockdowns, Kong plops down into the largest throne cinema has ever witnessed. He squirms for a bit, then settles into a glorious pose only a king of such magnitude could pull off.

It might not feel as epic as this, but for thousands of Britons all around the country, this is as close as the dearly missed silver screen gets to imitate, primate to primate, how most of us feel as we head back to the same old, crimson-coloured seats after a year-long hiatus. (Spoiler alert: it is as good as you remember it.)

For 82 years, or 25 in my case, going to cinema and theatre was part of our bi-weekly regimen. Even when World War II tried to mess with everyone’s beloved pastime, leaving the country theatre-less and wary for a grim week or two, cinemas were quick to shrug it off and invite everyone to enjoy 1939’s hit screen adaptation Goodbye Mr Chips, leaving worries behind.

Then, almost in a Biblical fashion (including its validity), some individuals with peculiar taste decide to savour something that in 21st century should not be eaten – a bat, or perhaps a pangolin of all living things – and an 82-year streak goes down the drain, leaving me and the rest of fellow filmgoers locked out of popcorn-scented, shapeshifting paradise.

Nottingham’s Savoy Cinema manager welcomes back filmgoers after 7 months of lockdown

For an MTV generation kid that I am – the last, great generation that experienced not having something to stick on a telly or any other portable screen, including, yes, phones, while there’s a power outage, instead circling around a candlelight as if we were some Amish folks, or people from the Great Depression, suddenly being forbidden from entering the establishment that taught me how to desire and look beyond the frame – didn’t feel as earth-shattering as it felt unfair.

Many of the furloughed, now returned staff members of the cinema seemed to share the same sentiment. “It’s kind of emotional being back,” said 23-year old William Henley working at the Savoy cinema, who spent the year going from one freelance job to another. For the longest time, neither he, nor any of his colleagues knew exactly if the day when they would be called for cinema duty again would arrive.

“It felt as if you were in
the morning screening of some French avant garde flick

“It feels like being woken up from this really long dream where all the returning customers are like, ‘right, things are back to normal.’ Not normal-normal but to a degree of normal,” said the theatre’s managing director, Paul Scotton, 36, sporting the classical cinema manager grey suit, Oxford blue tie combo and a smile you would only expect to see on a sea captain’s face, standing behind the helm once again. Like many, Paul couldn’t wait to see the upcoming Black Widow on the big screen.

Then again, we had Netflix, unlimited streaming services and online screenings with crystal-clear films ready to be projected straight into our retinas. “Bring cinema to your home!“ they said. Unless someone found a way to recreate the same magic that you can only experience by leaving the cinema screen –  images from the film still lingering in your vision as reality slowly takes over, mind digesting the (collective) experience, popcorn and Pick’n’Mix crunching under your feet as you exit – that same level of immersion being produced in the same spot where you sleep, work and/or eat, I wasn’t buying it.

Reminded of Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending Interstellar – (spoiler alert) protagonist coming back home at the end of the film, in awe of the farm remaining the same as it was left all those space-years ago but now with Asimovian twist – I gazed upon mouthless staff members, as many Covid-19 safety regulation signs as there were posters, melted butter dispensers being replaced by hand-sanitiser stations, contemplating whether it could all really be the same as I remembered.

The Pick’n’Mix, ASMR levels of pleasure inducing harmony of fizzy sodas filling Pepsi cups, the trail of popcorn, showing some sign of human presence and normality – all of the elements needed for your casual cinema going experience were there. Someone was even smooching in the last row,  all normal like (hopefully considering all those Covid-19 safety regulation signs on our way in!). Unless you’re that couple at the back of the screen, however, touch is one of the things that solo film-goers won’t experience: rows of people scooching past you, good ol’ psychological mind-game with your seat neighbours of who will conquer the armrest, those days are in the past.

Counting around 30 people (in a space that holds up to 350), it felt as if you were in the morning screening of some French avant-garde flick – each row for their own, everyone occupying their own little corners, like you would see middle-aged men do in those extinct adult movie theatres from the 80s.

One thing remained the same, though. The sacred silver screen, the beating heart of every cinema. Being used to sticking on Netflix on our laptops or TV, fitting the entire ‘cinema experience’ in our palms or screens no bigger than a Lucky Charms box (at least in my case), the change was worth the admission price alone.

Leon and Jemima, thirtysomething parents with two boys, three and seven, among the first returning visitors, although the only ones in the show, seemed to agree. “We got used to watching Netflix and Disney+, so this was quite different from our living room,” Jemima said, boys gleefully nodding in approval. How else could you really put the magnitude of two oversized beasts using Hong Kong as a wrestling ring into a perspective?

As we were casually ushered down the fire exit – another post-Covid world norm to the list – credits rolling down the screen, I took another good look, sniff and touch of everything on my way. After all, we live in a time where nothing can be taken for granted. Moments after the skyscraper-climbing, 50,000 tons weighing gorilla reclaims the rocky throne in the aforementioned scene, everything collapses.

If not a subtle, albeit hairy analogy to our current climate, it’s at least a Apatowian reminder that every cinema experience, if not everything we love, from now on should be enjoyed as if it was your last. Until the day the god-forsaken pandemic locks us out of the dream factory (again), or I somehow get to share the fate of those poor Nazi cinemagoers in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, you know where you can find me.