If you’re anywhere near as obsessed with the cinema as I am, then the past year or so has likely been absolute torture for you. By my count, it’s been something like 13 months since I last saw a movie in a proper theater, and I’m genuinely going crazy. I was lucky enough that my last experience was a good one, seeing Leigh Whannell’s fantastic Invisible Man remake right before everything went into lockdown, so at the very least, I was able to go out on somewhat of a high note (my condolences to anyone whose last theatrical experience was Bloodshot).
At the height of the COVID19 pandemic, as you all know, theaters everywhere across the globe were shut down indefinitely, with many still waiting to open as of this writing. As a result, nearly the entire slate of releases scheduled for 2020 were either delayed by their respective studios, in the case of films that were expected to be huge box-office draws, or released direct to streaming, for smaller, less-than-tentpole films. And while most of the year’s most anticipated releases were largely pushed back to 2021 or later, there were a few that were experimentally released as in-home theater experiences or, in the cases of Christopher Nolan’s ill-fated Tenet, released in the few markets that were still operating with open theater markets, to mostly disastrous results.
As for the in-home streaming releases, most were trivial. The vast majority of these films were one of three categories: Low-risk animated features (like Trolls: World Tour), of which studios could reliably count on parents paying to view the film just to keep their kids distracted for two hours, low-risk, smaller budget films like Love and Monsters which studios could afford to take a loss on, and finally, a select few high-profile releases which were still opening in international markets, like Disney’s Mulan remake, and were seen as a smart move financially to settle for a streaming release in the US. Even in cases where the films were able to be screened in open theaters in other regions, most were box office failures.
While the logic behind studios refusing to release films until the conditions were safe enough to allow full theater audiences makes complete sense from a financial perspective, it also tracks from an artistic one as well. Movies, especially huge blockbusters like those we’re so used to seeing these days, are designed to be seen in a theater, on the largest screen possible, with surround sound speakers so loud that they shake your bones, and food so expensive you need to take out a bank loan just to afford popcorn for a family of four. The experience is oftentimes more important than the film itself. I’ve seen quite a few movies that were an absolute blast to see in a theater, but bored me to tears later watching it at home on a normal television, by myself. The crowd certainly plays a role in these, with the collective energy of an audience helping to elevate some films from good to great, but I think the technical aspects of the theater experience are the most crucial.
And for the most part, what few releases we got in 2020 direct to streaming were ones that I feel wouldn’t necessarily have been made particularly better by being seen on the big screen. Love and Monsters was great, even viewing it on the 40 inch TV in my bedroom. Wonder Woman 1984, while terrible, was certainly pretty to look at, thanks to HBO Max’s 4K streaming service, and was perfectly serviceable for in-home viewing. I was so worried that I was going to have to find a way to replicate the theater experience at home for the duration of 2020, yet ultimately never got the chance. All the biggest films originally slated for last year were simply delayed to a later date.
Now, the theaters are beginning to open up again, slowly but surely. Where I live, the local Alamo Drafthouse has been allowing small audiences for a couple weeks now, with Regal cinemas following suit in April. And it seems like studios are more or less ready to start pushing for wide releases again as more and more screens start opening up. Despite this, though, I’m still not entirely ready to go back. Part of it, naturally, is certainly the fear that things aren’t quite safe enough yet, with much of my area still unvaccinated. But to me, the more pressing concern that I have is that, while theaters may be open again, it’s still a relatively compromised experience. Seating is sparse and spread out, with many places still operating at half capacity or less. Masks are required, making eating and drinking difficult. Many locations also check your temperature and have other safety checks to ensure that no one in the theater is sick.
I’m not knocking these measures at all. In fact, I applaud them. If businesses are going to insist on opening up, they need to be taking every precaution necessary to protect their customers. That being said, those same measures also, at least to me, sort of put a damper on the very reasons I go to the theater in the first place. I want to stuff my face with popcorn and candy, I want to laugh and cheer along with a full house, and I want to have to awkwardly shuffle past a full row of people to go to the bathroom. Okay, maybe not that last one, but frankly, it’s just as much a part of how I envision and idealize the experience in my mind as anything else. So, for the time being, I’m still going to avoid seeing films in theaters, as much as it pains me.
This puts me in somewhat of a predicament, however, as larger and larger films are beginning to peak up over the horizon for theatrical release. In fact, one such release is already here, and it’s probably one of my most anticipated: Godzilla vs Kong. Look, as much as I respect cinema as an art form and advocate for the legitimacy of authentic and grounded filmmaking and blah blah blah, all that pretentious good stuff, I can’t help myself: I love watching big things punch each other. Love it. Pacific Rim, Transformers, Rampage, you put giant monster/aliens/robots/all-of-the-above in a movie, and I’m going to see it. In Imax, if I can. So the prospect of missing out on seeing a Godzilla movie in a theater is legitimately painful for me.
But thanks to Warner Bros. and their clever work-around to the pandemic theater situation, all of their big releases slated for 2021 are also being released to HBO Max the same day, free for those like myself who already pay for the service, and in glorious 4K. The goal is to allow subscribers a chance to create their own movie-going experience at home. So far, the library has been pretty unremarkable (if you actually watched Tom and Jerry on purpose, you have no one to blame but yourself for your suffering), with Godzilla vs Kong being the first real blockbuster for the service. And so, I thought to myself, what better opportunity to see if I can truly mimic the theater experience at home than with a movie that was explicitly meant to be seen on a screen the size of an apartment complex? This following is the results of my grand experiment.
First, let me briefly describe the set-up I’m working with: My roommate (who I naturally Shanghaied into going along with me on this) and I have a 55-inch, 4K Samsung Smart TV in our living room. We have a pretty decent sound system with excellent bass, and a large, comfortable leather couch which is a close enough approximation to high-end theater seating. On the night Godzilla vs Kong dropped on HBO Max, we set ourselves up with sodas, candy (Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Bites being my particular snack of choice), and a monstrous amount of popcorn (made with coconut oil and Flavacol butter seasoning, exactly as the theater chains do) to best simulate the traditional movie theater accoutrements. We then dimmed the lights, cranked up the volume to a point which I was sure would infuriate our elderly neighbors, and started the movie.
Right off the bat, the absence of a typical large-scale projector screen was immediately noticeable. While HBO Max’s 4K looks great, especially on our TV, this is a movie about 300 foot titans crashing through buildings. 55 inches is laughable in comparison to the 70+ feet of screen in an Imax theater. This is a movie that leads with its visual spectacle front and center, and without the absolute largest and loudest environment available to see it in, it loses a lot of its intended impact. That isn’t to say it didn’t look good; It looked incredible for the most part. But I feel like the action sequences, particularly where the two title monsters are going toe-to-toe, would have been much more impressive on the big screen.
Maybe this was just a problem with my particular set-up, but the sound mixing was also lacking. We had our TV and sound bar cranked up to max volume, and still had to have subtitles on to make out everything that people were saying. Again, this didn’t exactly ruin the movie, but it certainly contributed to the somewhat lesser experience. When Godzilla roars, I want to feel my seat shake. I want the swelling score as Kong charges and leaps into the air to vibrate my teeth inside my skull. This isn’t really something that you can do in a private residence, at least without a sound system costing thousands of dollars.
And both of these two areas of wanting, both the visual and the auditory, only serve to highlight the biggest problem with the movie itself: Godzilla vs Kong is actually sort of boring, despite its premise. While the actual title fight is incredible (and frankly, I could probably watch it a dozen more times and not get bored of it) and alone worth the price of admission, the rest of the film drags on immensely, even by Godzilla movie standards. The human characters are awful. Their respective plot lines are so stupid, so pointless, that I was genuinely tempted to fast forward through them. Had I seen this film in a theater, Alexander Skarsgård’s character appearing on screen would be a sign that it was time to go to the bathroom. But the saving grace would be the all-out epic nature of the battle sequences. Seeing the action in this film in a large-format medium would have, I think, elevated a 5/10 movie into something closer to a 7 or an 8.
So with my little experiment over as the credits began to role, Godzilla vs Kong, ultimately proves what I suspected from the very beginning: There’s no substitute for the theater. You can try as hard as you can, with all the means at your disposal, but you just won’t capture the awe, the energy, or the electricity of the silver-screen experience at home. I’m considering braving my local theater just to see if the change in proper venue alters my opinion of the movie, because I heavily suspect that my dislike of the overall ride is largely due less to the film’s quality, and more to the neutered viewing environment that I used to take it in. It’s not a great film by any means, at its core, but it would be a hell of a lot better if only the overall coolness factor was raised by a level or two. And the only way to do that is to see it how it was meant to be seen, on a screen larger than the total square footage of my apartment.