It’s “Super Saturday”: the day the New Normal theoretically becomes a bit more like the Old Normal. Cinemas will certainly hope that is the case, with chains such as Odeon embarking on a limited reopening after four months of lockdown.
But Covid-19 hasn’t gone away and an afternoon at the pictures remains a profoundly different experience compared to ancient times (i.e. prior to March). This I learned popping around to my local multiplex for a screening of Spider-Man: Homecoming.
It’s a disconcerting thing, trying to carry on like it was before in your leisure activities. Spider-Man is a perfectly charming time-killer. Yet when a chap at the other side of the room coughs a few minutes in, it kills the mood somewhat.
A dryness proceeds to invade my mouth; I forget all about Peter Parker and his irascible antics. Along with the gasping, I appear to have sprouted bonus sweat glands. Bizarre, feverish, questions pop into my mind. Can you catch coronavirus from someone munching popcorn many metres away? Has it been proved conclusively that you can't? Whatever the opposite of a lazy evening at the cinema is, this is it.
The most noticeable thing on arriving is just how quiet everything is. And that, on a bright day in July, few things are creepier than a deserted cinema. En route, I pass socially distanced queues outside Marks and Spencer and McDonalds. But nobody is lining up to spend two hours in the dark with strangers.
That is precisely what I am doing however. In my backpack is the “Covid kit” I bring with me whenever leaving the house nowadays, containing a selection of facemasks and enough hand sanitiser to inoculate a baby hippo.
I’m headed to a Friday screening in suburban Dublin, where the lockdown has been rolled back much as it has in the UK (albeit on a slightly different time-table and with the two metres rule still in force, rather than “one metre plus”). It’s hardly an original thought but everything does strike me as moderately dystopian as I slope in. There is the now-standard hand sanitiser at the entrance; at regular intervals lettering on the tiles reminds you to observe social distancing.
Staff are keeping well back too – tickets must be pre-booked and printed from a kiosk. Meal deals, for their part, are collected remotely as pre-packaged bundles of popcorn and cola (having panic-slurped my weight in coffee en route I resist a pre-teatime snack).
Screenings are staggered to avoid everyone spilling into the lobby at once. On my way in and out, I see staff scrubbing handles and surfaces. Electronic hoardings that usually remind you about a new Marvel movie instead flash messages such as “Welcome Back – We Missed You”, while reminding you to keep two metres apart. It’s Cinema Paradiso Meets Mad Max: Beyond Lockdown.
Masks are ubiquitous in the shopping centre outside. But at Spider-Man I seem to be only punter wearing one. Scientifically-speaking, that doesn’t matter as social distancing protocols are strictly adhered to, with everyone seated more than two metres apart. I’m down the front, just far enough from the action not to have to crane my neck. Towards the back is a man with his son and further away yet a family of three, chomping from a tub of popcorn. And that’s it – six people in a cinema that would usually hold multiples of that figure.
There’s an added layer of poignancy, as the last time I saw Spider-Man: Homecoming was on a flight back from Qatar. You know coronavirus is pushing its luck when you are overcome with nostalgia for watching films on tiny airline screens.
It’s also obviously strange seeing actors behave in a touchy-feelie fashion. At one point early in Spider-Man Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark leans over and hugs Tom Holland’s Peter Parker and it’s hard to credit what you are observing. Don’t they know how dangerous that is? Well no – it’s just a film and it dates from that long-ago period when casual human interaction wasn’t a dice with death.
At one point, I fret that I’ve left the lights on in my car. I excuse myself, exit the cinema and return to my car (the lights are off, but I had forgotten the handbrake). Dashing back to Spider-Man, I wave my ticket at an attendant. She is keen not to get too close to a hyperventilating weirdo with a huge sweaty head and I am readmitted without question.
Why am I even watching Spider-Man: Homecoming – released in 2017 – in the first place? Well obviously there are no new releases for the time being (Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, due this month, has been pushed back to August).
So instead, chains are programming a Greatest Hits of big smashes from the past. Had I not fancied Spider-Man, for instance, I could have become reacquainted with Nolan’s Interstellar or Dunkirk, the Empire Strikes Back, the Iron Giant, or Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. In different circumstances it would have been a cinephile’s Christmas on repeat. Surely if we’d had a new Nolan – or Disney’s Mulan – by now the cinema would have been a lot busier.
The strangest part of the experience is the sense of visiting somewhere slightly trapped in time. In the lobby posters advertise the can’t-miss movies from the spring and summer of 2020. There’s a huge billboard for A Quiet Place 2, supposed to come out in early March but pushed back to September.
And there are posters for Trolls World Tour (instead shunted to video on demand) and the Scooby Doo reboot Scoob, available to stream later this month. Tom Cruise as Maverick in the forthcoming Top Gun sequel beams down from a wall. How innocent and oblivious he looks, perched in his cockpit. Oh Tom, if you only you knew what was coming for us all.
Perhaps it’s the combination of the lighting and the red-on-red colour scheme but some of the posters already seem slightly faded. They are like relics from an alternative 2020 in which Covid-19 never reached us and life was able to carry on as normal. Yet as I mooch back to my car, passing the McDonald’s social distancing queue and two elderly ladies in surgical-blue face-masks, it is clear that, for now at least, normal remains as far away as ever.