S.E. CUPP: Can Hollywood entertain us again? The coronavirus reopening test is upon us

As we slowly start to test the waters of reopening the country after months of pandemic shutdowns, we’re getting a much-needed taste — albeit in bite-sized portions — of life as we once knew it.

Restaurants, stores, salons, and small and socially-distant gatherings are returning to our weekly routines, though once-mundane outings, like getting a haircut or grabbing a drink with friends, feel more exhilarating now than routine.

But one former hallmark of American life has yet to return: going to the movies.

Remember “the movies”? Craning your neck to take in the big screen, with the sounds of popcorn crunching, errant cell phones and muffled whispers in the background; spending a month’s rent on nachos, boxed candy and a soda the size of a small safe; answering your significant other’s annoying questions, like, “who’s that guy? I thought he was with them?”; loading a gaggle of sticky, sweaty, sugar-crashing kiddos into the car where they will definitely fall asleep just as you’re pulling into the driveway?

I miss it all, every bit of it.

But as many theaters prepare to reopen in July, the movies are facing some significant challenges. For one, production of new movies had stalled during COVID-19, so fewer than usual are slated for release. For another, theaters — which were already hurting in an era of home streaming — are capping capacity at anywhere from 25% to 50% of usual numbers and will have to follow strict safety guidelines that may include forced mask-wearing and temperature taking.

All those precautions might make theatergoers feel safer, a big ask already. But they also might get in the way of the real reason we pay all that money to leave our house and go to the movies — which is to feel like we’ve escaped reality for 90 minutes. That’s harder to do when the reality of an infectious disease greets you at the door, the concession stand, the restroom, and the theater seat.

Hollywood, like the rest of us, has been disoriented by this pandemic. A cloying and hackneyed performance of “Imagine” was an odd — and roundly mocked — attempt at being creative and useful that flopped spectacularly on both fronts.

Now, more than ever, we need to escape the anxiety and gloom of the last few months, not wallow in it, and Hollywood should take this mandate seriously.

Not to pick on any one film in particular, some coming releases feel like they might have sounded good a few months ago, but now would send me spiraling into panic attacks and a padded cell.

There’s Unhinged, featuring Russell Crowe as a guy who snaps in a case of road rage and decides to terrorize the woman who wronged him. There’s Tenet, a spy thriller in which a mysterious organization is tasked with preventing World War III and a fate “worse than Armageddon.” Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental, about a group of friends who rent a beach house, only to find they are being surveilled and hunted, is hardly the warmup I want for my family’s summer rental.

These films may all be terrific, but also the opposite of what I need from Hollywood right now. In good news, some others may be coming to the rescue.

How, for example, could a film “billed as ‘Gremlins’ meets ‘Straw Dogs’” take you anywhere but very far from here? The Little People, an Irish-directed horror flick, features a young couple who find themselves overrun by 2-foot-tall goblins living at the bottom of their rural Ireland garden. Yes, sign me up for that.

Don’t get me started on the rumors that Michael Keaton might be reprising his role of Batman in the new DC Comics movie The Flash. After two decades of dark and depressing Batmen, Keaton’s Bruce Wayne would be a terrific return to the campier classics of the ’80s and ’90s.

Despite the new realities of safely watching movies together, I have faith that Hollywood can heroically deliver another important kind of PPE that we all need: perfectly pure escapism.