Insider

I secretly drove 2 hours to go to a movie theater for the first time in 6 months. This is what it was like.

Summary List Placement I have a tradition when it comes to Christopher Nolan movies. I like seeing them opening night on the largest movie theater screen I can find because Nolan films his movies with IMAX cameras. I watched 2014's "Interstellar" in theaters and knew how much I benefited from seeing...

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Summary List Placement

I have a tradition when it comes to Christopher Nolan movies. I like seeing them opening night on the largest movie theater screen I can find because Nolan films his movies with IMAX cameras.

I watched 2014’s “Interstellar” in theaters and knew how much I benefited from seeing it up on the big screen. The experience of watching Matthew McConaughey venture into the silence of space wouldn’t be the same on a TV or a tablet, I’m sure. 

So when “Tenet” was finally announced for a September 3 release in the US, I was bit crushed. My go-to theater for Nolan movies is the 80-foot-tall IMAX screen inside of New York City’s AMC Lincoln Square. It’s the largest one in the US and one of the few true IMAX screens left in the country

That wasn’t going to happen. Especially since I had relocated to Los Angeles at the end of 2019 to cover movies and theme parks for Insider.

When the state’s lockdown occurred mid-March amid the coronavirus pandemic, I put the idea of seeing “Tenet” out of my mind. (It didn’t stop me from doing a few Google searches to see how far a drive was to the closest theater in Las Vegas, but the rational side of my brain won.) 

Then a few days ahead of the film’s release on September 1, AMC and Regal announced they were opening theaters in San Diego, California — a two-hour drive from me. 

As the days passed after “Tenet’s” release, I had this unrelenting, nagging feeling in my chest that wouldn’t subside. A close friend told me that they saw the film — in a virtually empty movie theater in a state with far less COVID-19 cases — and they loved it.

I decided to see the movie. 

I wasn’t planning on telling anyone I saw “Tenet” aside from my friend and a few family members. I didn’t want to urge anyone to head to theaters if they weren’t going to take similar precautions. I also didn’t want others to question my judgment or to judge me for acting, what may be seen as, selfishly. I knew it was an immensely controversial decision.

But even if people aren’t going to the movies, I imagined some may want to know what it’s like to head to a theater during this time. For that reason, I’m sharing my experience. So here’s how it went.

It took an entire month to plan out my journey to see ‘Tenet’ at a movie theatre two hours away.  

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Up until I decided to take a two-hour drive to see “Tenet,” I had stayed in my apartment only going out for groceries, runs, and some solitary hikes. 

After a month’s consideration, I took a drive down to San Diego. I always wanted to go back there at some point when I wasn’t covering Comic-Con. It was one of the few places on the West Coast I was remotely familiar with and thought I would feel safe enough to travel alone. 

One of the only reasons I felt remotely comfortable stepping into a public area is because one of my best friends is a nurse, who has been treating COVID-19 patients in an ICU since March. My friend’s advice to me when venturing outdoors has always been simple: Be smart, wear your mask, and wash your hands. Take a shower when you get home. You should be fine.

And I was. 

My colleague, Jason Guerrasio, put together a handy guide of every IMAX theater in the country playing “Tenet.” That helped me narrow my theater location down to three Regal theaters all relatively close to one another. The closest one was about an hour and 40 minute drive to Escondido. The farthest? Up to two hours and 14 minutes outside of San Diego in El Cajon’s Parkway Plaza shopping mall. Distance really didn’t matter to me. The amount of people at each showing did.

I spent over a week checking and rechecking how crowded each theater was at multiple screening times and days. I wanted to find an optimum time when the least amount of people would be present. It seemed like my best bet was an obscure weekday morning when most people would be at work or school. 

I wound up selecting the first showing on the morning of September 11 at the Regal in El Cajon. It had the least amount of seats blocked out. If I could help it, I didn’t want to share a row with strangers or be in the vicinity of others.

To protect myself, I wore a mask and gloves. I also brought hand sanitizer and a change of clothes.

movie theater necessities.JPGThe night before my trip, I packed a purse full of Clorox wipes, gloves, a change of clothes, and hand sanitizer. My cloth mask, which I planned to wear while watching the entire movie, was already laid out on a counter.

On that warm September morning, I wore a shirt with long sleeves, sweatpants, and sneakers. I didn’t want any of my bare skin touching an armrest, chair, or railing. Though it was hot outside, I figured the theater would be relatively cool if the air conditioning was on.

When I arrived at the theater before 11 a.m., I made sure I had access to my mobile ticket and put on my blue gloves before getting out of the car. I’ve been using mobile theater tickets for awhile now, so when I arrived at the theater, the Regal employee did the routine scan of the QR code on my phone and directed me to the second-floor theater.

It had been more than six months since I had stepped inside a theater. Not much looked different except for a few visible hand sanitizer machines.

Usually, the theater is my home away from home. Before March, I’d visit a theater about once a week to catch a new film to cover. Even when I wasn’t reviewing, I usually returned at least once more during the week to watch something else. Returning to a theater, even one I had never stepped foot in before, was a bit emotional. 

Returning to the movie theater made me appreciate it that much more.

tenet mobile ticket.PNGI skipped the concession stand and escalator. Instead, I opted to walk slowly up two flights of stairs to fully appreciate the times in a theater I’d take for granted, rushing out of a screening to catch a train home or to meet a review embargo that lifted early the next day. I never imagined there would be a time when I couldn’t go to theaters to escape reality for a few hours. I stared at the high-vaulted ceilings and giant movie marquee overhead. It was a bit emotional to be somewhere that didn’t look like the monotonous surroundings of my apartment I’ve come to memorize.

When I arrived in my theater, a few people were already seated. Most of them were older men or older couples. By the time the movie was set to begin, the eight of us were all fairly spread out. 

I chose an end seat in row L. Normally, I’d sit squarely in the center of the theater, but I wanted to minimize my chance of someone sitting on either side of me, a few seats apart or not. If I was uncomfortable at any moment, I didn’t want to have to climb over anyone. I wanted to be able to dash down the theater stairs.

When I arrived at my seat, I took out the Clorox container and wiped down the arm rests on my seat and the one next to me. I reluctantly put my purse in the seat next to me to serve as a physical buffer. I was in survival mode and the thought of anyone else coming into the theater to possibly try and sit next to me was not an option. 

Although I was a bit on edge, I felt relatively safe inside the movie theater.

regal cinemas theater californiaAs the trailers played, I was filled with what I can only describe as the nervous excitement you’ll have when you’re embarking on a roller coaster. It was a mix of concern and anxious excitement.

I forgot I had previously seen the first six minutes of the film in front of “Birds of Prey” in February. That familiar scene helped me relax and get immersed in Nolan’s world. When you’re watching one of his films, it’s tough to think about anything else as you’re trying to follow the movie and figure out what’s going on.

Did I ever forget I had a mask on? No, not really. But as my anxiety wore off, the more invested I became in the film. 

After it was over, I stayed through part of the credits allowing everyone else to leave first. I was in no rush and I was curious to see how the theater would be cleaned. An employee walked in with, what looked like, a UV light to use on seats. 

Still, I didn’t want to sit in the clothes I had on for much longer. I made a beeline for the bathroom right across from my theater, entered the largest stall, and hung up my purse. 

I changed out of my sweatpants, sneakers, and clothes into more lightweight shorts, a shirt, and sandals. I removed my gloves carefully, tossed them out, and used my sanitizer before leaving. All of the used clothes went into my bag and I left. 

The movie theater looked like it had been frozen in time. 

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The weirdest thing about going to a movie theater wasn’t that it was a ghost town or that I was wearing a mask. It was that the theater felt like it was perpetually stuck in March. 

Every movie trailer playing in front of “Tenet” was old with its original release date. 

Older trailers for “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” “Black Widow,” “The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run,” and a film called “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” played ahead of my screening. 

They weren’t even trailers that would have been attached to “Tenet’s” original July release date. “Black Widow” and “Spongebob” were originally supposed to come out in May and August 2020, respectively, before getting delayed until 2021.

It didn’t stop there. The outside of the theater was lined with movie posters for “Ghostbusters,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” and “Wonder Woman: 1984,” promising their original summer 2020 releases, which had come and gone. It felt like I was in a zombie movie where the world ended in March. 

Was the movie worth risking my life for? The short answer is yes, but it doesn’t mean you should do it too.

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I don’t know how many people have had honest conversations about what it’s like to live alone for months on end during the pandemic. While I’m lucky to have a great network of family and friends who check in on me, there are only so many Zooms, texts, and Facetime calls you can receive until you’re alone with your own thoughts again, trying to pass the time reading, painting, cooking, and playing video games.

My small solo road trip felt like a grand adventure and was needed to help keep me sane during a time where the air quality index level was so high that it wasn’t safe to go outdoors in my immediate area because of the West coast wildfires.

In that respect, it was worth it for the sake of my mental health. But as a movie, “Tenet” is not one you need to run out and see in theaters. As a Nolan stan, it let me down a little bit. Maybe I’ve just gotten used to Nolan’s twists, but I was able to predict how some of the film was going to shake out, including one big surprise later in the movie and something small most probably won’t notice until a second watch regarding a backpack

Overall, the movie itself was enjoyable — a complicated car chase in the middle of the film is a major highlight — but it felt like it wanted to be a lot smarter than it really was. While it’s worth another watch at some point (as all Nolan films are), I don’t place it above “Dunkirk,” “Interstellar,” “The Dark Knight,” “Memento,” or “Inception.”

And although I never really felt like my health was in jeopardy, I don’t see myself returning to a theater anytime soon, especially as cases continue to rise again. Nor would I suggest anyone else go for the time being.

Although I had my own thrill, it seems unnecessary in the current climate.

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