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Even with patrons spaced far apart, moviegoing feels safe and communal

Back in a theater for the first time in four months, our columnist finds the collective experience that home viewing can’t match.

Taped signs mark the hundreds of seats that are closed in the 750-seat main auditorium of the Music Box Theatre.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The world has been turned upside down.

A global crisis has resulted in millions taking ill and hundreds of thousands dying. When a child coughs in the kitchen, the adults in the room share terrified glances: Is it serious? A father driving with his family issues a command: “Masks on!” Even our national games have been affected. In the middle of the summer, the New York Yankees are playing in front of about 54,000 fewer people than would normally be in attendance.

Sounds like snippets of our real-life world in 2020 — but in fact everything I’ve described is playing out in breathtaking 70mm in the main theater of the iconic Music Box Theatre in Lake View, which is open for limited capacity, social distance screening.

Over the last 126 days, I’ve watched more than a hundred films and streaming releases for review — but all at home. The last time I screened a film in a public environment was on March 10: the forgettable Vin Diesel actioner “Bloodshot” at the Navy Pier IMAX.

I’m breaking the streak with a Saturday afternoon screening of “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan’s beautiful, sprawling, ambitious, sentimental and sometimes insanely ludicrous sci-fi epic about a NASA pilot named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who leads a team of researchers across the galaxy and through a wormhole in search of an inhabitable planet that could be the new home for humankind.

How fitting I’m seeing a Christopher Nolan film, given the ongoing saga surrounding the release of Nolan’s new $200 million action-spy film “Tenet,” which originally would have opened last Friday but was pushed back to July 31, and now Aug. 12, and I’d say that’s a tentative date at best.

Studios want movie theaters to reopen. Lord knows movie theaters want to reopen. Millions of movie fans want every theater in the country open again. But we want to be safe. Personally, I felt 100% fine watching a movie in the controlled and smart environment at Music Box, the only indoor movie theater now operating in Chicago, but if you told me tomorrow the nation’s cinemas were going to throw their doors open and allow full capacity, I’d say: Great, I hope the studios keep sending me links so I can review movies from home. We’re not there yet. Christopher Nolan is never going to allow “Tenet” to open on home video, but that Aug. 12 release date, even with restrictions placed on per-theater capacity, seems … optimistic.

For now, the moviegoing experience is this. There are about 50 people spaced about the 750-seat theater, which has entire aisles blocked off. A graphic on the screen advises patrons to leave four empty seats between parties and says, “Masks are required at all times while in the building but may be removed once seated in the auditorium if eating or drinking.”

The 90-year-old Music Box is the only indoor movie theater now operating in Chicago.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Before the main event, a manager welcomes us, notes films coming to the theater (“Idiocracy,” ahem) and asks that we leave our seats down when we exit the theater so staffers know where to do concentrated cleaning before the next showing.

I settle into my seat and gaze at the magnificent design of this 90-year-old palace, home to so many memories for me, including some name-drop moments, e.g., standing backstage with a hyper, pre-comeback Robert Downey Jr., in the early 2000s before we took the stage for a Q&A, having a beer just last summer with Jim Gaffigan in the outdoor garden after a screening and discussion of his great dramatic turn in “American Dreamer,” not to mention the half-dozen or so times I’ve attended an audience-participation holiday screening of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The house lights dim and the movie begins. For nearly three hours, we’re immersed in the onscreen adventure. We’re quiet and spaced far apart from one another, yet it’s a collective viewing experience, one that cannot be duplicated at home.

“Interstellar” is a complex and sometimes dizzying film that embraces science but also indulges in mind-bending science fiction. It’s also shamelessly romantic at times, most notably when Anne Hathaway’s Brand admits to her fellow space explorer Cooper that yes, she wants their ship to chart a particular course because it would lead them to an astronaut she’s in love with, who embarked on an exploratory mission some 10 years earlier. Coop says they have to listen to the science when making such a huge decision. Brand responds:

“The tiniest possibility of seeing [him] excites me. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Love isn’t something we invented, it’s observable, it’s powerful. It has to mean something. … I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in a decade who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that even if we can’t understand it.”

Call that corny if you will, but I kinda loved that speech. We DO have to listen to the science — it’s a matter of life and death — but as we’re fighting an invisible enemy, there’s room believing in other things we can’t see. Things like love. Maybe a little bit more now than ever.