"It’s where the magic happens": why cinema is worth it

We're getting under the skin of the big screen experience, examining its ability to lift us out of reality and into extraordinary worlds. Writer and journalist Jack King gives his thoughts on the intoxicating impact of cinema, from the sights and smells to the sounds, as he recalls some of his fondest cinematic memories.

One of the best jobs I’ve ever had was when I managed a tiny cinema in London some years ago.

The nighttime hours were such that I didn’t always have much of a social life, and it was my first fresh-out-of-uni experience of having to deal with proper bosses, and my proper bosses’ proper bosses, but the drags were otherwise few. It was an immensely enjoyable time in my life.

Sure, because I could watch all of the new films for free and I had access to enough free popcorn to bloat one of the gigantic Dune worms. But it was mostly the people. This was also one of the only jobs I’ve ever had, but that’s irrelevant.

Not that all of the people were great. Nevertheless, the people I remember were the good ones. Like David, who drew us Christmas cards every year with appropriately film-relevant cartoons on the front; on the subject of Dune, I think one was of a sandworm wearing a Santa hat. There were many others, and we always returned to that subject which united everyone in the room: movies.

When we talk about cinema’s tendency to bring us together, people will bring up a quote from the great American film critic Roger Ebert, that the movies are like a “machine that generates empathy,” as he put it. In other words, they afford us the rare opportunity to exist in another person’s shoes, to experience a walk of life diametrically opposite to our own. It’s a way of seeing through different eyeballs.

"The great Roger Ebert once said movies are a machine that generates empathy"

Other mediums offer this, but the cinema has you sit down and experience this with other people around you. Think of the frisson of when it all works: the shared experience of a gripping twist, of a historical movie moment. Hell, the whoops and cheers when all of the superheroes came out of their portals in Avengers: Endgame. When do you get that at home?

For me, now that I’m very much a civilian at the box office, it starts at the doors. You know the smell of any good cinema. It’s got to be popcorn, strong enough for you to suspect that they’re pumping an artificial fragrance called “popcorn number one,” or something similarly uninventive, out of the air vents.

You float in like a cartoon character carried by their nostrils on the wavy scent lines. Forget MyFitnessPal. You’re taking a cue from Miles Teller and his dad in Whiplash: chocolate raisins mixed into a big bag of popcorn.

"Movies afford us the rare opportunity to exist in another person’s shoes"

Movies historically have had just as much love for the auditorium itself. Take the most famous image from Cinema Paradiso, of little Salvatore Cascio looking wondrously up at the screen, his head enveloped by the light of the projector, as if spotlit by the heavens. It’s where the magic happens, after all.

And here’s another hallmark of the best screening rooms: there’s a feel of the spiritual as soon as you enter. In the best places, there is, quite literally, a hushed silence. You know that this is where you can have an excuse to turn your phone off for a few hours, which is such a rare win in the modern world. You sit back in your comfy seat. Your shoulders relax. You breathe. You stop thinking about work, like Martha from HR, for a little while. You’re at ease.

I try to go to the cinema at least a couple of times a month, and this is almost invariably the case. Some people claim that the cinema-going experience won't be around forever.

But in our digital world, when we’re expected to be on-call, socially and professionally, at all times — available to respond to emails, to DMs, to texts, to WhatsApps, to anything else to disrupts our zen with a maddening ping — to even try to carve out space for ourselves can feel like a fool’s errand. Going to the cinema enforces meditation. It makes us shut off. That will always be more valuable than anything you’ll ever find doomscrolling on your sofa for the latest true crime doc.

"There's a feel of the spiritual as soon as enter the cinema... A hushed silence"

When I watch movies at home, I’ve tried to bother with popcorn and such, but it’s just a bit underwhelming. It’s a bit like having a bottle of lager at home as opposed to a pint on tap — a fine thing to sip versus the nectar of the gods. I don’t know what this comes down to, whether cinema drinks and snacks are kept in conditions so optimal that it’s impossible to replicate ourselves, but it’s simply better. The popcorn is fresher; the hot dogs are loaded.

My best friend of twenty years has had a filmgoing tradition for as long as I’ve known him, which is essentially just to buy nachos, affectionately referred to as “my nachos”. “Can’t wait for my nachos,” he’ll say when we’re on the tube or the bus or walking up from his house in Surrey Quays. “Cor, my nachos are going to go down nicely.” I’ve never seen him order nachos anywhere else.

Getting down to brass tacks, there are many experiences the modern cinema offers that quite literally can’t be replicated on the sofa. IMAX, for example: a screen the size of a double-decker bus stacked on top of another double-decker bus, and another just to be sure, which paired with the right movie — like a Nolan, shot on IMAX stock — is as close as humankind has come to inventing a real-life holodeck.

Look, good films are always transportive to some degree, because that’s a marker of success: that the filmmaker has credibly taken you somewhere else for a couple of hours, beit grimy ‘80s New York, or Earth in the distant future after it has been taken over by sentient chimps. But when it comes to relaying that with pure visual spectacle, nothing comes close to the awe-striking clarity of IMAX.

"The experience of IMAX is as close as we've come to inventing a real-life holodeck"

Cinema purists might turn their nose up at this, but there’s one step further you can take with 4DX, which ratchets up the immersion to eleven. I saw Top Gun: Maverick in that format twice, and it’s exactly the sort of movie you should see in a chair propelled by robotic machinery.

This is all to say that cinema is so far from dying a death. If anything there’s more reason in the present moment than ever before for cinemas to exist. As a social mechanism, it has the potential to bring us together, literally in the same space, in deeply divided times. It’s one of the few spaces we’re afforded the chance to escape the screens in our pockets. And let’s be really honest: that 50-inch flatscreen you just put on your credit card doesn’t have anything on IMAX.

I’ll see you at Furiosa.



Jack is a freelance film and TV writer. You can find most of his work at GQ.