The new film "Empire of Light" by Sam Mendes ("Skyfall," "1917") is a love letter to the cinema. Many of us who live for movies remember the first time we were entranced by the projector's light and the theater's darkness, transporting us to another world along with a sea of strangers. It stars Olivia Colman ("The Crown"), Michael Ward ("The Old Guard"), Colin Firth ("The Staircase"), and Toby Jones ("Finding Neverland").

The modern film experience has changed a lot since the early 1980s, where "Empire of Light" is set, though. Kids who are used to watching things at home don't seem to understand how to sit still. Concessions are expensive, and people bring their own (very often smelly or loud) snacks. The light from cell phones is distracting. Streaming services and studio decisions that bring titles to them quickly after a theater release mean many people won't bother with a trip to the theater at all. Add to that the fear that the pandemic brought about being in close contact with so many other people might mean that "going to the movies" is largely replaced by watching on your own TV. At the very least, it may mean that only flashy blockbusters make the theater cut.

In a Vanity Fair video breaking down one scene in "Empire of Light," Mendes speaks about what inspired him to write the film, his first original screenplay.

'We Were All Left Alone'

In the video, Sam Mendes explains that he came up with the idea during lockdown when he says people were worried that "we weren't going to be sitting in cinemas anymore, ever." He says:

"And we were never going to have that experience of sitting in the dark with strangers and being transported. But … during lockdown, we were all left alone for a period of self-examination with our thoughts, and the memories that bubbled up were memories of my childhood and my teenage years; about living with someone with mental illness and also with the way in which my own racial opinions are formed during the early '80s, a period of real racial strife and difficulty and how much we all had, or hadn't, moved on since then."

There is something about the theater that just cannot be replicated at home unless you are incredibly wealthy, and even then, it's the communal experience that is often so magical. Hearing other people laugh at jokes, jump at scares, and cry at sad moments is part of it all. Even the stinky food that some guests bring in or the shushing you might have to do are a story to tell later on.

I miss it all, and yet, like so many of you, I still have moments of fear going back into a theater. As an entertainment journalist, I do often get to see films with only a few other people (and critics can be less audibly emotive than regular audience members sometimes, often to keep their opinions for their reviews). The times when I get to join the world and experience a film with a big group are a joy and one I miss terribly.

"Empire of Light" will be released in limited U.S. theaters on December 9, 2022, and in the U.K. on January 13, 2023.

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