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Frodo smiles like a goof while looking up at Gandalf who is steering the cart and smoking weed in The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings Image: New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures

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The ecstasy of seeing Lord of the Rings in theaters in 2021

‘If I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve been since 2020’

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The half-capacity audience couldn’t stop applauding during a recent screening of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in Austin, Texas. The lights went down in the theater. Applause. The title card appeared. Applause. Sam took the farthest step he’s ever been from home. Some giggles and a couple of knowing claps from the crowd’s more online members.

2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.

Should I really be surprised that, in 2021, folks are ecstatic to be watching movies together again? Of course not. Movie theaters are therapeutic. For a couple of hours, we can sit in a dark and air-conditioned room, have a beer or a decaf coffee, and share a communal experience without having to actually do the anxiety-inducing labor of chatting with strangers.

Skipping movie theaters for the past year has been a minor sacrifice in the grand scheme of the pandemic, but that never prevented me from fantasizing about a return to my local Alamo Drafthouse. Now, new data and Centers for Disease Control guidance have begun to illuminate the shape of our increasingly vaccinated future. So, this week, with my vaccinated cells on full defense and my wife and kid on a road trip, I felt comfortable spending a few hours sporting an N95 mask in an enclosed but socially distanced space.

I ventured to see my first movie at the theater since watching The Invisible Man in early 2020. I chose The Fellowship of the Ring because, frankly, it’s what happened to be playing, thanks to a recent reissue of the trilogy in 4K. Though in hindsight, I can’t imagine a more fitting film to mark the downslope of this miserable 12 months and change.

A story about average people (because hobbits are more human than the humans in LotR) forced into a long, arduous, potentially deadly, and profoundly isolating journey is even more relatable in 2021. Lines like “and my ax” got cheers and laughs, but I felt the room vibrate during the film’s more unintentionally timely moments, like a conversation between Frodo and Gandalf that was (rightfully) on every nerd’s lips in 2020.

Stuck in the Mines of Moria, internalizing the gravity of his quest, Frodo says to Gandalf, “I wish none of this had happened.” Gandalf is soft but stern. “So do all who live to see such times,” the wizard says. “But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

The guy a few seats over from me, previously sneaking popcorn under his handmade cloth face mask, wiped tears from his eyes. So did I. Being back inside a movie theater tuned my heart like a return to church on the holidays. My quibbles with moviegoing inverted.

In the past, I ground my teeth when seat neighbors loudly murmured to one another or checked their smartphones, somehow always set to maximum brightness. But at this screening, I felt grateful for every little reminder that I wasn’t alone, whether it was the pungent odor of hot wings wafting from the row behind me or the group of friends in front of me debating who was hotter, Viggo Mortensen or Orlando Bloom? (The answer is Viggo, but only barely).

Back in March 2020, I subscribed to the Criterion Channel, and for a moment, the streaming service became my “media therapy” (not to be confused with my therapy therapy). I’d struggled with getting a full night’s sleep, so around 5 a.m. each day, I’d start a Japanese noir film or a ’70s horror flick and enjoy the serenity. I watched better movies, it cost less money, nobody munched popcorn with their mouth open or unwrapped candy, and I didn’t have to think about waiting for a urinal in the theater bathroom. I liked it.

Then the pandemic kept rolling, and something about these mornings with the iPad felt — slowly and then all at once — lonely. I went from watching French existential dramas to living French existential drama. J’en regrette ce bon vieux passé.

Frodo stands on a path through a forest in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Image: New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures

Back at Alamo Drafthouse, I confess I saw myself in those lovable hobbits, leaving behind the comfort of their homes and joining together with strangers for something bigger than themselves. Watching a movie with other people isn’t the same as stopping an all-seeing evil from destroying life as we know it. But it’s been a long pandemic. Baby steps.

The screening was part of Alamo Drafthouse’s Support Local Cinema series, in which classic films are being screened in theaters across the globe alongside new Q&As with cast and crew. The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy is screening week by week, each with its own virtual panel hosted by Stephen Colbert with all the names you’d expect, like Elijah Wood and Peter Jackson. As pleasant as the virtual reunion can be, the decision to follow the film with a glorified Zoom session spoiled my high.

At the end of the Q&A, the prerecorded Colbert called for a round of applause for the theater employees, and one more time the room erupted with claps. The lights came up, and we waited our turn to file out of the theater in a socially distanced single-file line. I got into my car and drove back home. And then it hit me: For the first time in ages, home wasn’t the place I must stay, but a sanctuary to which I could return.