Hollywood has spawned a cottage industry of movies like La La Land, Mank, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that honor and celebrate . . . the magic of movies. Some of them, like Argo and The Artist, even go on to win Best Picture Oscars for their efforts.
What’s far rarer, though, are movies that honor and celebrate the magic of simply going to the movies, let alone movies about specifically going to the third entry in the Rocky franchise. But that’s exactly what This Is the Night does, and it couldn’t have done it at a more appropriate time.
This Is the Night, which is now playing at the Angelika in New York and is available on demand starting September 21, follows the quotidian challenges each member of a Staten Island family faces on opening day of Rocky III. (It’s the one with Mr. T, and the one in which Mickey dies.) This Is the Night, which features British Australian actress Naomi Watts doing a thick Italian accent, tells stories about marriage and coming of age that could have been set on just about any day in the era in which filmmaker James DeMonaco, known for the Purge series, grew up. By setting it on the 1982 release date of Rocky III, however, DeMonaco foists into the spotlight a bygone heyday of moviegoing.
It’s a “love letter to cinema,” as DeMonaco describes it in the press material, at a time when theaters are often half-filled at best, and with viewers nervously debating whether to take off their face masks. Whether or not it’s true of studios that “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” audiences definitely don’t watch movies like they used to. Even before the pandemic.
For one thing, we now know too much. Back in the day, the average movie buff used to be far less savvy about how the entertainment industry works and way more credulous than people are today. The characters in this film accept at face value the marketing of this film as “the end of the trilogy; the last Rocky movie ever!” Not only is seemingly everyone a jaded critic these days, they’re also all back seat executives who know that it’s verboten to leave money on the table by ruling out sequels on a hit series. The barrier for receiving inside info on movies used to be way higher, and audiences were better primed to accept movies at face value because of it.
Audiences back then were less equipped to secure tickets easily, though. An early scene in This Is the Night sees young characters played by Lucius Hoyos and River Alexander heading to the theater early in the day to pick up tickets for a later showing. What other option did they have? In our current, über-connected society, it’s easy to forget that Moviefone didn’t even exist until 1989, and that the “advance” part of advance tickets used to refer exclusively to “a few hours early.” Meals taste better when you have to go out and pick up ingredients and pay close attention to a recipe, and movies played better when you had to go and get them in person like hot toys on Black Friday.
When you finally arrived to see your movie (in the early ’80s) there was a fairly good chance you’d see some friends at the theater—or at least other people from your neighborhood. But the number of small theaters has plunged drastically over the past few decades, sending urban and suburban viewers alike to anonymous multistory megaplexes (when they’re not instead watching HBO Max, that is, out of fear of catching the coronavirus).
Some elements of moviegoing, though, are still pretty much the same as those depicted in This Is the Night. The fear of finding out spoilers about a major character death—Mickey!—has only increased in many people, as the ability to spoil plot details on a mass scale has gotten easier. That kinetic feeling when members of a crowded audience all react simultaneously in the same way—screaming—still exists. In fact, sometimes, as with this year’s Barb & Star Go to Vista del Mar and the just-released Malignant, vague marketing that’s designed to hold back some secrets leaves opening-weekend audiences collectively dazzled together.
Above all, though, This Is the Night captures a certain “eventiness” about going to the movies that still exists, even if it’s dulled through overuse. There seems to always be another Avengers or Star Wars right around the corner, something like The Matrix is always being revived or rebooted, and there’s always a new limited series that people watch obsessively for six weeks and seldom speak of again. If every movie is an event, then no movie is an event.
The era depicted in This Is the Night may have long since passed, but it’s still possible to have a memorable, life-affirming time at the movies—even in the age of content overload and paradox of choice. Let’s face it: Rocky III was only as meaningful as it is in this movie in Staten Island in 1982. Maybe Jordan Peele’s mysterious third movie, for instance, is your Rocky III. Maybe it will live up to whatever heightened personal expectations you’ve affixed to it. And maybe by the time it comes out next summer, you’ll be able to make a real night out of seeing it.