It is bare testament to the sheer power of a packed movie palace on opening night that the greatest cinematic moment I ever experienced came in a no-less-lamentable movie than “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.” I and 500 of my fellow film goers may have snickered our way though more than two hours of the worst in wooden drama, but when Yoda’s shadow draped over that 65-foot screen in dramatic prologue to his final light saber battle, the theater’s explosion of cheers all but split the place in two. Every time he jumped, every time he clashed blades, every time the little green guy so much as narrowed his eyes, a fresh roar of approval flew deafeningly from the crowd, and even Hayden Christensen’s woefully mechanic facial expressions suddenly seemed a paltry price to pay.

Jess Cox

Though dullsville plot particularities of “Clones” have long since faded from memory, I still remember the flush of that after-movie high as the giddy audience poured from the theater. You can discuss it in the academic terms of Nietzsche’s Dionysian or simply compare it to the thrill of a home game touchdown in the stuffed stands of the Big House, doesn’t matter; the experience of communal viewing is something you can’t capture, duplicate or forget.

Such an experience, however, may be increasingly endangered. At least, so say some cinema pundits, eyeing the movie industry’s rising use of digital technology with anticipation of a turn away from theater-going. After all, it’s no new observation that the improving technology of home-viewing set-ups means more and more people are content to take in their movies in the comfort of their own living rooms.

But are future movie releases going to make that jump to the couch immediately? With shrinking box office attendance in mind, director Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven”) recently attempted to release “Bubble,” his latest production, by simultaneous introduction to both theaters and video stores on the same day. While the strategy admittedly didn’t work for “Bubble,” the shoestring-budget indie perhaps did not make for the most prime of test-cases (indie film being a genre for which it is already notoriously hard to drum up interest).

The possibility of this day-to-date style of release is understandably frightening for theater owners. But with the iPod’s current ability to play TV shows in your palm, it seems an inevitable step. Besides, convenience has a time and place. Waiting around in a doctor’s office or, god forbid, an airport, who wouldn’t want a movie at the ready?

A movie on a tiny airplane monitor, however, is only entertainment. A movie spanning meters of screen high above your head is an event. Revival screenings of old classics ably demonstrate the difference. Our own Michigan Theater often retrieves classic films from DVD exile for a triumphant return to their big-screen roots. Purists may seem irritatingly insistent that the big screen is the way the movies were meant to be seen, but after catching the Michigan’s grand screening of “Roman Holiday” last month, I can’t help but concur that grainy black-and-white Audrey Hepburn becomes far more glamorous prancing about a large-scale Rome than my own living room TV.

With DVDs, you stop the movie – for fridge raids, for bathroom breaks, for phone calls. In a theater, you stop for the movie. You look up, you gape, you take in a vista far more encompassing than even the biggest of Best Buy’s latest TVs could ever hope to be. The visceral impact of theater-viewing looms large in the dark quiet of a giant room – movies look bigger, they sound sharper and, depending on the size and raucousness of the crowd among whom you take it all again, they resonate deeper, too.

In a recent Time magazine article investigating the future of digital media in Hollywood, George Lucas, a long time pioneer of all things digital, compares heading to the cineplex to watching a football game. “Who in the world would go out in 20-below weather and sit there and watch a football game where you can barely see the players?” Why not get a front row seat from your favorite recliner?

There’s no denying the comfort of convenience, and it’s certainly no negative that once a movie inevitably leaves theaters the technology now exists to view it at home in high quality. But Lucas’s metaphor proves apt – while it is perhaps relaxing to take in Monday Night Football from the living room, but what about actually watching the game from the stadium? The experience itself becomes utterly more vibrant, with the din and smells of the surrounding crowd, the action uninterrupted beneath the sharp glow of the lights. So it goes with movies. There is an indisputable place for DVD home-viewing, and it will probably end up biting considerably into the pockets of theater owners. But theaters themselves will not become a dying breed. The type of movie watching they offer is too singular, and too strong.

– Kristin MacDonald can be reached at kmacd@umich.edu

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