Something wonderful, terrible, and then wonderful again happened this weekend. I was sitting in a packed theater waiting to see The Great Gatsby. The lights dimmed, the music cranked up, the world smelled of butter and salt. Roll previews! In one trailer, a pair of astronauts tended serenely to repairs on a space station as Arvo Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel twinkled in the background. The details—the explorers’ weightlessness, the luminous view of earth—made the scene just unreal enough to seem real.
It was magical. But then an explosion ripped into the space station, separating the woman astronaut from whatever was keeping her tethered. “What do I do? What do I do?” she gasped as she drifted away, a sad galactic marshmallow bound for doom. “Grab a hold, grab anything,” her panicked companion urged. (Was he George Clooney?) We heard her heartbeat thudding. Then, boom: another shot of the explosion. More shots of the woman astronaut (Sandra Bullock?) scrambling for a grip.
The screen cut to black. A single word appeared: GRAVITY. But the trailer wasn’t done with us yet. We still had to suffer through an image of maybe-Bullock growing smaller and smaller in the icy void, a futile whisper on her lips: “Does anybody… copy?” I have never come so close to passing out in a movie theater.
This post, though, is not about the obvious sadism of Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón. It is about what happened in the aftermath of that sadism. The entire audience seemed to rise up in rebellion. People snorted, rolled their eyes, and muttered things like “nope” and “are you kidding?” A surge of fellow-feeling swept through the room, prompted by disbelief and indignation at a spectacle so obviously determined to shave years off our lives.
I want a word for this phenomenon, this joyful solidarity that arises from collective hate-watching. My colleague John Swansburg suggests unanenmity. Think of college friends streaming reruns of The Bachelorette or liberal families coming together to view the Republican National Convention (does anyone else do that?). Recall the spontaneous bond you feel with the woman at the gym who is grimacing at the same Carrot Top commercial you are. My guess is that some combination of the Gravity trailer’s terrifying premise, melodramatic execution, and incongruously “Hollywood” casting (Doug Ross and Miss Congeniality in space?) triggered it this weekend. I wish there were more bad previews, so that I could experience unanenmity more often.
Because isn’t it amazing that two film stars in fake-peril could bring so many strangers together? Not in the sentimental magic-of-the-movies sense, but in the (more appropriate for our jaded age) I-can’t-believe-I-was-just-subjected-to-this-can-you sense. Sometimes we need to be reminded that we hold things in common, like a burning distaste for watching another human being lost to interplanetary nothingness.
Paradoxically, as Bullock’s astronaut floated farther and farther away from life and social connection, our moviegoing ties were annealing in a forge of hatred. It’s not that hatred is a good thing. But when we can hate the little things, together—that is a very good thing.