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film The Movies Are Back. But What Are Movies Now?

Cinephiles and streaming fans can both claim victory. But as we better understand the new screen culture taking shape, it looks like we may all lose in the long run.

A moviegoer is glued to the small screen at the El Capitan theater in Los Angeles., Credit... Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images

Have you seen “F9”? How about “A Quiet Place Part II”? “Black Widow”? “Zola”?

What I’m asking is whether you’ve gone back to a movie theater yet. In the past month or so, as pandemic restrictions have eased and multiplexes and art houses have edged toward full capacity, a handful of releases have done well enough at the box office to feed hopes of a return to pre-Covid normalcy. Vin Diesel, the “Fast and Furious” patriarch, declared that “cinema is back!” and who wants beef with Vin Diesel?

Certainly not the critics — I was one of them — who greeted the almost 150 minutes of extravagant action, baroque plotting and high-octane sentimentalism of “F9” with gentle sighs of gratitude. Let’s be honest: In ordinary times, the bloat and incoherence of this late installment in a weathered franchise might have elicited a measure of skepticism, if not outright scorn. But after more than a year of subsisting on screening links, we found the critical zones of our cerebral cortices flooded with fan endorphins. Maybe the fans felt the same way. Whether or not this was a good movie, it undoubtedly offered a good time at the movies, and as such a reminder of what we had been missing and what we really cared about.

The same might be said for the “Quiet Place” sequel, a serviceable horror film that helped fans recover the specific pleasure of being scared in the company of strangers. “Black Widow,” simultaneously released in theaters and on Disney+, provided a superhero fix.

You can find similar experiences — and better movies — on Netflix, Amazon or Apple+. But there’s a special way that things can be sexy, scary, funny and exciting on the big screen, and a particular delight in buying a ticket and sitting through a whole movie, without the option of pausing, skipping ahead or returning to the main menu. You risk disappointment, but even boredom or disgust can be fun, especially if you have company for your misery. And there is always the potential for surprise.

All of which is just to say the pandemic-accelerated fear that streaming would kill moviegoing has been proven wrong. People like to leave the house. Which doesn’t mean the status quo has been restored. Not that everything was great beforehand. Franchised blockbusters sucking up the theatrical oxygen as smaller, more idiosyncratic films fought over a dwindling share of the market; daring movies from festivals buried in Netflix algorithms or marooned in the video-on-demand hinterlands; a shrinking cultural footprint for art in an expanding universe of content: Is that the normal we want?'

Quite apart from the disruptions of the coronavirus, the culture of movies — the cosmos of assumptions and aspirations that drive audiences and artists beyond the imperatives of commerce — feels more than usually unstable, more uncertain, more charged with peril and possibility. This moment may turn out to be one of seismic alteration, akin to the introduction of sound at the end of the ’20s or the collapse of the studio system decades later. How we watch is changing, which means that what and why we watch are changing, too. It’s too early to say where it’s all going, and there’s reason for optimism as well as worry. But worrying is my nature, and part of my job.

[A.O. Scott is a critic at large and the co-chief film critic. He joined The Times in 2000 and has written for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism.” @aoscott]