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John Scalzi – Do Science Fiction Movies Still Need Theaters?


The folks at Pixar sent me the DVD package for WALL-E last week, a three-disc set which includes the movie, an extra disc of goodies, and a version of the film compatible with portable viewers like the iPhone (so, presumably, you’ll resist the temptation to find a pirate version online). In addition to giving my daughter something to brag about to her friends because we got the package early (it comes out Tuesday), the two separate versions of the movie — one for the home and one to take with us wherever we go — reminded me of how film viewing really has changed, particularly since the advent of portable media players. Go to an airport these days and watch people as they wait for their flights, and you’ll see a good percentage of them staring down into a tiny screen, watching a movie or a TV show.

People love their movies; we’ve known for years (much to the economic joy of the studios) that they love to bring them home, and we know now that we love to take them with us when we go places. But this also makes me wonder if we still need the theaters that are films’ first homes. What do the movie theaters still offer us that we can’t get at home?

What Movie Theaters Offer
For the studios, of course, the answer is obvious: The theater represents their first revenue stream, the place where they can make back some of the outrageous cost of making and marketing a movie. People like to speculate about the death of the movie theater, but they’ve been speculating it since the birth of the television era, and very likely they will continue speculating about it for decades to come. Studios keep finding new ways to draw people into the theaters — or at the very least, new spins on old ways: The current rage for IMAX and/or 3D versions of movies recalls CinemaScope and, yes, 3D films in the 1950s.

Given what the studios do to keep bringing us to the show, you would think that the main advantage that movie theaters have over home viewing is technological, but this is not entirely true. Chances are you don’t have an IMAX theater in your house (and if you do, I’m offended you haven’t invited me over yet), but on the other hand it’s not at all unlikely that you might have a large screen HDTV-capable television with a Blu-ray disc play and a 7.1 digital theater sound setup — or will have such a setup within a couple of years, as prices for all of these things drop. WALL-E or 2001 or Star Wars or Iron Man any other science fiction movie you might think of looks great up there on a theater wall, and sounds great too, but for all practical purposes you can create a nearly equally stunning cinematic experience at home… and many people have.

So what does the movie theater still offer viewers that you can’t get at home? I’m going to suggest something that I think is counterintuitive: It offers lack of control.

What It’s Like to Watch at Home

Take WALL-E
(again). My family sat down to watch it the other night, but we came
nowhere near close to watching it interrupted all the way through. The
phone rang and it was my wife’s mother on the phone; we paused it so
she wouldn’t miss something. Then at some point we all decided a
bathroom break was in order. Another pause. Later, snacktime. Pause. At
various points we skipped back a bit because we missed something
someone was saying or because we wanted to look at something in the
background (for example, the “Pizza Planet” truck that’s in every Pixar
film).

Contrast this with how I saw WALL-E in the movie theater.
Once the film started, it was out of my control: The story unfolded at
the pace the filmmaker chose, and the story’s emotional beats came in a
rhythm uninterrupted by my personal life and preferences. Short of
walking out of the film entirely, I had to take it on its own terms —
surrender my will to the story, as it were. As a result, the emotional
highs of the story were higher, the funny parts funnier, and the
wrenching parts (yes, there are wrenching parts in WALL-E) that
much more affecting. In the theater, you are able to approach the movie
as a complete work, and as complete experience in itself. How we know WALL-E or any other film is a really good film is by how it makes us feel — which is to say, how much the film sweeps us along and makes us a participant in its story.

Being able to pause and rewind and such is all very cool — they’re
part of the reason people like to watch movies at home, and it’s
especially fun with science fiction films, because thanks to special
effects there’s usually something cool to stare at in the background.
Frankly, looking at the cool stuff in the background was just about the
only way to enjoy the Star Wars prequel trilogy at all, and I know I had fun recently pausing the heck out of Iron Man
to get a gander at what was popping up on Tony Stark’s helmet display.
But these features come at a cost: Each pause and skip degrades the
actual viewing experience. Each pause and rewind draws you out of the
story and makes you aware of the separation between you and what’s
going on in the movie, and that keeps you from getting everything you
can — or everything the filmmakers hope you can — get out of it.
You’re never more aware that you watching a movie than when you’re
watching it at home, because you have control over how it plays. The
extra bits and the commentary tracks and everything else that comes
with DVDs these days are all super cool, but they’re not really
“extras”: They’re compensation for what you lose.

And this is why science fiction movies — and all movies — still
need to be seen in theaters: Because they’re the places where the movie
is still the most important thing, not just something else we do. Don’t
get me wrong, I’m glad to have the WALL-E DVD package, as well as the other DVDs in my collection. But I’m even more glad I got to experience it in the theater first.

scalzi.pngWinner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also the editor of METAtropolis, an audiobook anthology on Audible.com. His column appears every Thursday.

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