The last movie I saw in a theater was Cats. There weren’t many of us in the darkened room, but it still managed to be chaotic. Two middle aged women sang throughout the entire film and then picked a fight with another group they thought were being too loud. This morning I watched Inception inside Fortnite along with other players and, when I logged in, heard the rambling monologue of a younger player. I muted them, something I could never do in a real-life theater.
Fortnite, a mega-popular free-to-play battle royale video game, has recently begun to host events in-game, including concerts with Travis Scott, EDM artist Marshmello, and Star Wars tie-ins. This weekend, Fortnite is screening Christopher Nolan movies—sort of like a drive-in, but with more grappling hooks. Depending on where you live, you can watch The Prestige, Inception, or Batman Begins. It's partly hype-building for Nolan's upcoming film Tenet, and partly to test the concept of Fortnite as a venue for theaters.
When I watched Inception, the screen was clear, the stream never stutterd, and the audio never gave out. The crowd was rowdy at first, but calmed down as the movie progressed. It was shockingly like attending the opening night of a Marvel movie, a trip into Fortnite’s budding metaverse that proved a video game can replicate the communal experience of going to the movies online.
Concerts and films in Fortnite happen in a separate game mode. Players can’t shoot each other and the sound effects dull as they approach the screen. Vending machines filled with tomatoes, grappling hooks, launch pads, and other toys surround the theater. As Inception began, people tossed tomatoes at the screen. Strange avatars used grappling hooks to climb on top of the projection. Occasionally, someone would fly across the frame.
I thought I’d hate all this chaos, but it was fun. I threw tomatoes at the screen and launched myself into the air with the grappling hook, trying to come down on top of the screen as Leonardo DiCaprio droned on about dreams.
Watching Inception in Fortnite felt like going to a drive-in theater with a group of barely controlled teens. They tossed tomatoes when the movie got boring, quieted down as action blared across the screen, and flickered in and out of existence as their attention waxed and waned. It was a communal experience of a kind I hadn’t had before, but it felt good.
I love going to the movies. A crowded theater on opening night fills me with a kind of energy I don’t get anywhere else. When the lights go down and the music swells, I’m filled with a reverence and awe comparable to what the religious tell me they feel in church. I feel this spiritual jolt even if the movie is mediocre or outright bad. For me, the story on the screen is often just a vehicle for this feeling. With the coronavirus pandemic seemingly raging with new life in the U.S., I don’t know when, or if, I’ll get to feel that again.
The idea of braving Covid to watch Wonder Woman 1984 or Tenet seems foolish, especially here in South Carolina, which is experiencing a horrifying spike in cases thanks to mismanagement at the state and local level. I used to live in Texas and the theater I frequented there went viral on Twitter when Cinemark published a video of an employee disinfecting its seats. The tweet was meant to assure the public that theaters are safe. For me, it had the opposite effect. I’ll be watching movies at home for the foreseeable future.
Here, Fortnite might just be a life-saver. Developer Epic Games’ push to make its game a space for people to experience live music and watch movies is working. It’s a compelling option in a world where going to a movie theater means risking infection of a horrible disease.
Tenet, Nolan’s new film, was slated to come out on July 17 but it’s been pushed back several times. Just yesterday, Warner Brothers pushed the release date back another two weeks to August 12. Nolan is a devotee of the theater experience. He wants his movies viewed on a big screen, with the sound booming over a crowd of like-minded folks all experiencing the same story together as a community. I respect that desire, but it’s just not possible right now for the majority of the country. I suspect many Americans won’t gamble with their health to sit through a Hollywood fantasy. I definitely won’t risk infection to see Nolan’s latest.
But I would log into Fortnite to watch it. The crowd of weird avatars, rowdy tomato throwers, ATV driving cat-men, and prattling 12 year olds replicated the communal experience of going to the movies in a way I did not think was possible when I logged into the game this morning. The screen was there, somehow feeling bigger than life on my monitor, and I was experiencing the story with other people.
The lights off in my office, my position in the rocks above Fortnite’s digital shore secured, I watched Nolan’s story of a heist inside a dream. I threw tomatoes during the boring bits, something I could never do in real life. It ruled.