I entered theater 6 at Manhattan's 84th Street AMC Loews in that relaxed, absentminded way you do when you are confident of the physical surroundings that await you--the way you do when you are entering your neighborhood grocery store or the lobby of your apartment building. To my utter shock, instead of familiar movie seats, what I found stretched out in front of me was a strange-looking sea of huge, carmine-red armchairs. It reminded me of a furniture showroom.
My movie companion that evening, a native New Yorker and a purist in all things cultural, stopped dead in the doorway behind me. "What is this? What's going on?" she said. Dazed, we made our way down to our reserved seats in Row D. As she dropped into the chair beside me, my friend shook her head in disgust. "Well this is just ridiculous. This marks the end of movie-going for me."
Stupidly, I at first thought that these were merely comfy chairs with an enormous amount of foot room, until I saw someone nearby fully reclined, and then I located my own control button on the left side of my chair. Wow! UP my feet came, OUT stretched my body and BACK went my head. It did feel luxurious, though as someone who is not accustomed to recliners, I could not help but think of a dentist chair.
However, despite my own wariness and my companion's grousing, I determined to try to be open-minded. "But wait," I said to my friend. "It's really kind of cool. No more cramped knees, and--see? You can take the weight off your spine." I pushed my button some more and tipped farther back. "Maybe this is good. Just think: No one kicking the back of your seat, and no tripping over people and their buckets of popcorn to get to the Ladies Room." I also pointed out that it was nice not to have to dread that last minute giant who inevitably sits down right in front of you just as the movie is starting. There was certainly no possibility of head-blocking here.
The two faux leather seats assigned to us were actually attached--a kind of love seat with a movable armrest in the middle--presumably so two people on a date could cuddle. The material of the chairs was slightly clingy or cloying, with a vaguely vinyl feel. I couldn't help it; I did not like the idea that my hair and my head were touching where countless strangers had also laid their heads. I had a fleeting desire for one of the paper headrest covers they have on Amtrak trains.
But by the time the previews were over I realized the main problem, at least for me: it's everyone lying down together. It seems somehow too intimate. It felt like a weird dream where you are in your own living room but there are strangers present. There is something decidedly off-putting about seeing other people's elevated legs out of the corner of your eye. I don't want to be aware of other people; I want to focus only on what's up on the screen. In the traditional seats, you may have to fight the person next to you for the armrest, but somehow the "from the neck up" perspective allows for a feeling of anonymity, and you can more easily disappear into the dark crowd as the film commences. You can forget where you are, and therefore enter wholly into the fantasy world of the movie.
Reclining in these big chairs also feels super indulgent, hedonistic, and frankly a little bit.... well, obscene. I mean, just how comfortable do we have to be? I know we are all craving more leg room on airplanes, but could putting BarcaLoungers in movie theaters be going too far? And what about the inevitable napping? I can't imagine there won't be some snorers in every showing--although maybe not during the riveting movie we were seeing, Captain Phillips. (Halfway through the unrelentingly intense action I had to un-recline my chair. It just felt more normal to hyperventilate in an upright position.)
Reportedly AMC Loews has converted about 25 of its nationwide theaters to what it is calling their "plush power recliners." Obviously the chain is trying to make the movie-going experience more appealing. But is the way to get people out of the comfort of their own living rooms to try to duplicate it? No matter how cushy the chair, you are still in public; you are having a group experience. To me these power recliners are the worst of both worlds. It's not as relaxing as your living room, and it's not as satisfying as an auditorium experience.
What's next? Chaise lounges in Carnegie Hall? Beds on Broadway? I couldn't help thinking, as I glanced around the darkened theater after the heart-pounding, climactic scene of Captain Phillips: Isn't this what it looked like right before the fall of the Roman Empire? Everyone in reclined positions, gorging themselves on too much food and drink, watching people getting killed for entertainment, as they, the audience members, remain ensconced in total sensory comfort?