Home theatre outshines cinema as star attraction
Movie houses face biggest battle as fans stay home to watch high definition DVDs
When the audience saw an image of a train hurtling toward them, they screamed and ran to the back of the room. The year was 1895; the film that had caused the panic, The Arrival of a Train at the Station, was the product of motion picture pioneers, the Lumiere brothers. After the large screen showing in Paris, the film became a symbol of cinema's potency.
But cinema has had a rocky ride. Over the years it had a slew of contenders for the prize of best social tranquiliser: first there was radio, then television, then video and, more recently, DVD.
Nonetheless, cinema has retained its position at the heart of our lives - it seems that we are still suckers for velvet curtains, a screen the size of a football pitch and bone-shaking sound.
Also we like having an excuse to go out. Cinema remains an event: theatre without the gaffes, wooden props and plasterboard scenery.
But the time to close the curtain and sell the venue could finally have dawned, thanks to the swelling popularity of home theatres.
To create a home theatre, you need a touch-screen universal remote seemingly capable of controlling the Starship Enterprise. You also need surround-sound speakers with a subwoofer, so you can really feel the impact of an exploding photon torpedo. Of course, there are the other necessities such as subdued lighting, reinforced 'aluminised' soundproofing and a bar fridge for yourself and your fellow crewmembers.
But the main event is the picture.
'Every sword clash, every gunshot, every gush of blood had such a visceral feel that we finally understand why people are forgoing the cinema in favour of home entertainment set-ups,' one tech critic recently wrote in response to seeing Kill Bill on a Sharp SD-AS1W home theatre system.
Home theatres shove the detail in high definition right into your face with memorable consequences. The experience of seeing a flick in the grandeur and intimacy of your high-performance audio/visual environment can be better than a trip to the movies.
No longer do you need to put up with the dark side of cinema: the enormous man seated directly in front of you, the loudmouths on your left, the teenagers snogging on your right and the child behind you kicking the back of your seat.
Better still, contrary to appearances, home theatre is far more social than cinema. At the local fleapit you are unlikely to interact with other viewers unless you are visiting one of those 'adult entertainment' venues. Your home theatre can even add to your popularity, especially if you stage a big sporting event.
You can then experience the atmosphere of the game with your friends without the hassle of having to fight through a crowd; see every football foul, bicycle crash and angle of the women's tennis.
Home theatre is deeply immersive. Indeed, outwardly it appears enough to turn the viewer into a digital cave dweller disinclined to step outside under any circumstances.
But it is unlikely to wipe out cinema because, however much you look at it, home theatre is not that much of an event.
The effort involved in dressing up and going out is critical to the kind of dramatic experience pioneered by the Lumiere brothers. Maybe, just as progress brought us gyms that reinstate the effort we have removed from our working lives, some bright spark will invent an irritating robot to munch on snacks a bit and maybe kick the back of your chair.
That would at least serve to remind us that the real world exists, should we ever wish to return.