The Tom Cruise effect

Yesterday I did something I haven’t done in a long time – something that, until recently, felt unthinkable and which many people might still quite reasonably baulk at: I went to the movies. It had been almost four years, so it’s not just the pandemic that kept me away. There’s the expense of it all. And the shortage of movies grown-ups might wish to see that do not involve comic-book characters has played a part, too.

It would take a movie star, and not one dressed as a superhero, to pull me back. Tom Cruise’s turn as Top Gun: Maverick did the trick. And what a movie star he is! Jon Hamm is in the same film and somehow manages to fade into the wallpaper! No one can compete with Tom Cruise and his smile. I don’t care what it took to make an almost 60-year-old look essentially unchanged from when he first acted in the role 36 years ago: this is what science is for.

The funny thing about movies these days is that everyone sees the same one. Grabbing a bite to eat beforehand, a waiter correctly guessed which one we were going to. He’d seen it the previous weekend; his mother, a few days before that. Now she’s trying to get me to become a navy pilot, he said with affectionate exasperation.

It would be impossible not to enjoy what followed, which was two-plus hours of camp cheer and absurd suspense for a target audience of absolutely everyone in the world. The pilots are in the US Navy, yes, but their mission is appropriately unifying. The villains, whom we never see nor hear speak, are enriching uranium in an unnamed rogue state where a lot of snow falls.

It is probably not New Zealand. There is a diverse cadre of young hotshots vying for the chance to fly alongside a man we’ve all chosen to forget used Oprah’s couch as a very weird trampoline. And Jennifer Connelly is an age-appropriate love interest, a bartender armed with some ice-cold beer and a portfolio of winsome looks to advance the minimal plotline.

Was it worth the $US10 for parking, the surly teen at the concession stand charging me even more for my popcorn, and the drip of a faulty airconditioner in a poorly maintained cinema? A thousand times, yes. I was on a high, the kind you can’t get from bingeing a true-crime series on Netflix while doom-scrolling.

It was a high that makes you do crazy things, like talk to your neighbours on returning home. When I joyfully announced to mine where I’d been, she was incredulous. You can still do that? she asked.

My partner and I had been the only people in a giant movie theatre, which was both a relief and a little spooky. Ease is paramount in all things now, even entertainment, and with babysitting money to think of, I can certainly relate. And yet the trailers, the popcorn and the impossibly large seats unlocked a vault of memories I’d completely forgotten. It was immersive, in a way few experiences are these days.

I doubt I will make movie-going a regular habit. There simply aren’t enough ones I want to see being released these days. Still, as we grapple with new and, in some ways, better ways of living after COVID-19, it’s nice to remember how things used to be. And that some things, like Tom Cruise’s face, never change.

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