We go to the movies to dream.
When the audience filed into Theater 9 at the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colo., early Friday morning, they were there to experience that state of consciousness that only movies can provide. Somewhere between waking life and hypnotic trance, the act of watching a movie is one of voluntary surrender, of letting go of our daily psychological defenses and allowing our imaginations to be colonized by the enveloping sounds and images on the screen.
That unique state of consciousness was surely all the more intense Friday, when the crowd of parents, children, friends and families piled into the theater to watch “The Dark Knight Rises,” the last of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and one that epitomizes the director’s distinctively immersive style. When alleged gunman James Holmes entered the theater, reportedly about a half-hour into the show, the audience was no doubt fully engaged with the dark, densely detailed escapist fantasy — which reportedly had reached one of several violent shootout and bombing scenes when the real attack began.
It’s no wonder that when the shooter — dressed in a bulletproof vest and a gas mask — began firing a gun into the air, some spectators thought it was part of the show, either a promotional gimmick or an over-zealous theater employee trying to ramp up an already intense cinematic experience.
When the gunman embarked on his rampage — which resulted in at least 12 deaths and dozens of injuries — he not only invaded a safe physical space and a seasonal communal rite as cherished as baseball games or late-night stories around the campfire; he invaded a deeply personal psychic space that, because of the overwhelming power of identification and suggestion that movies possess, is all the more fragile when it’s violated. We’re sadly familiar with horrific violence unleashed in what should be inviolate places, from schools and churches to college campuses and supermarkets. But the movie audience in Aurora was victimized while in a singular psychological state, one that made them even more vulnerable.
Uri Hasson, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton University, has studied MRI images of people watching film footage. He describes moviegoing as a powerful experience that makes people “very attentive and very absorbed and very engaged.” Hasson and his colleagues have discovered that the brain responses of people watching the same film are startlingly similar. “Something happens to the brains [where] they all become in sync and aligned,” he said. “You can see the brain responses of everyone becoming very similar and melting into the movie and being coupled.”
“Melting into the movie” is an apt description of watching “The Dark Knight Rises,” which Nolan has staged and filmed to be almost overpowering. Seeing it at the IMAX theater in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History last week, I was entranced with what was transpiring on the screen. As a longtime film critic who has developed a knack for glancing at my watch precisely at the one-hour mark of any movie, “The Dark Knight Rises” held me in its thrall.