The Covid-19 coronavirus threw Hollywood into a tailspin, leading to movie theaters and productions across the country to shut down. With them, movies that had recently opened in theaters (or were hoping to premiere in the coming weeks) were left with dismal box-office results and no road forward.
Hoping to recoup costs while entertaining Americans who find themselves stuck at home, several studios (beginning with NBC Universal) announced plans to rush their films to digital release ahead of schedule. In some cases, they’re releasing them digitally mere weeks after they came to theaters, instead of the customary handful of months.
The first wave of those early digital releases began on March 20, and the second followed hot on its heels on March 24. Most movies will be available on various on-demand platforms, including services like iTunes and Amazon Prime, some gaming platforms like Xbox and PlayStation, and some cable providers.
But most of them carry a higher price point than usual (about $20 per purchase or rental) — albeit still less than going to the movies in many metropolitan areas. So if you’re trying to decide which of the newly available bounty to watch, here’s a guide to the first week of these quick-turnaround digital releases.
Available Friday, March 20:
Jane Austen practically invented the romantic comedy, but few adaptations of her books lean into the wicked satire that drips from nearly every page. Emma, helmed by photographer and music video director Autumn de Wilde, gets the balance just right. With a delightful Anya Taylor-Joy performance at its center, this new Emma doesn’t play too fast and loose with the story or its most familiar beats. It instead digs out the absurdities of being wealthy (or adjacent to wealth) around the turn of the 19th century — the affectations, the frills that cover up the crudeness of real life, and above all, the vast, unmitigated boredom.
Here’s the setup for The Hunt: A group of salt-of-the-earth hicks wake up in a field and quickly realize they’re being hunted for sport by globalist elites. Or are they? The Hunt bills itself as a satirical romp taking pot shots at everyone, but it fundamentally misunderstands what satire can do, the function it fills, and the way it works. Rather than exaggerate the ideas it aims to skewer, it just repeats them doggedly, like a parrot without comprehension. Rather than dig at a particular behavior or mindset causing our national division, The Hunt acts like the symptoms are the problem — as if the slogans and bywords and hot-button phrases we slog through in the media are what deserve ridicule, in equal measure. It verges, if not plunges, straight into nihilism. What a waste.
The Invisible Man seemed eerily well-timed, releasing in theaters mere days after Harvey Weinstein’s conviction on two sex crimes charges, including rape in the third degree. Elisabeth Moss stars as a woman trying to escape the clutches of her abusive husband, who has found a way to turn himself invisible. Living inside The Invisible Man for two hours, we get to experience the existential terror of being a survivor of abuse who isn’t believed, as well as witness the many ways that crafty predators can manipulate their prey, making it seem as though they’re the victim, and the accuser is the one who ought to be punished. It’s an old, old story, and an all-too-familiar one.
Onward is the charming tale of two brothers on a quest to spend time with their late father, set in a world that was once ruled by magic but is now pretty normal, even boring. The movie’s plot cleverly employs the structure of the sort of campaign you might play in a fantasy role-playing game such as Dungeons & Dragons. But in Onward, the fantastical, Tolkien-lite elements are mixed with more banal workaday realities. Yet its true strength is in how it portrays the love between brothers, which brings its own kind of magic. One of Pixar’s most profound abilities has always been confronting the bittersweet along with the purely sweet and funny, in stories that kids and parents can watch together — and Onward delivers on that promise.
How to watch it: Onward is available to digitally rent or buy on a wide variety of on-demand services, including iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and FandangoNow. It will begin streaming on Disney+ on April 3.
Available March 24:
Vin Diesel stars in Bloodshot as Ray Garrison, a former soldier traversing the world in a quest for revenge following his wife’s death. Based on the Valiant Comics series created by Kevin VanHook, Don Perlin, and Bob Layton, Bloodshot is not particularly good action cinema, but it’s a big, bombastic popcorn movie full of guns and gunfights. For those in the mood for a mindless, trashy flick, it’s just the ticket. Polygon contributor Jesse Hassenger calls it the “ultimate Vin Diesel vehicle.”
Birds of Prey
Birds of Prey is a candy-colored violent romp of a movie, with Margot Robbie starring as Harley Quinn, fresh out of a bad relationship with the Joker and trying to shake him out of her system. The movie is devilishly fun, if you’re up for watching Harley and her gang — Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and street urchin Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) — wreak bloody havoc on bad men for a few hours, chief among them Ewan McGregor’s crime boss Roman Sionis. Its bone-cracking attempts at feminist substance are less successful, but Robbie alone makes the movie worth watching.
How to watch it: Birds of Prey will be available digitally buy on a wide variety of on-demand services, including iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and FandangoNow, starting March 24. It will be available for digital rental beginning April 7.
Guy Ritchie returns — along with a bevy of handsome men — for The Gentlemen, a tale of crime populated by scamps played by Hugh Grant, Jeremy Strong, Charlie Hunnam, Matthew McConaughey, Colin Farrell, and Henry Golding, and more. Karen Han of Polygon writes that “Ritchie is no longer the strongest beast in the forest, and he’s aging out of the game, too ... his brand of humor, which might have flown in the late ’90s and early 2000s, has aged in an ugly way. Every part of The Gentlemen is classic Ritchie: Scoundrels of all sorts cross paths in an ever-widening web of crime, with sequences full of fast dialogue and fast cuts. And it comes with a racist streak that feels severely antiquated.”
Many Americans still favor the death penalty, but that’s precisely what Just Mercy, a true story that will set viewers’ sense of injustice ablaze, aims to change. Based on Bryan Stevenson’s bestselling 2014 memoir of the same name, Just Mercy tells the story of Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) as he navigates his early career as an attorney working to reverse wrongful convictions in Alabama; it also details the founding of his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative. The film focuses on the case of Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a poor black man who was arrested in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year-old white girl and convicted based on testimony that later turned out to be fabricated. It’s a rousing, passionate tale with a true hero at its center.
How to watch it: Just Mercy is currently available to digitally buy on a wide variety of on-demand services, including iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and FandangoNow. It will be available for digital rental beginning March 24.
Ben Affleck turns in a terrific performance in The Way Back as Jack, a grieving alcoholic loner who suddenly finds himself coaching basketball at his alma mater. That sounds like a recipe for a clichéd sports movie, but The Way Back never gets too comfortable in one place; it’s a movie about an addict who happens to coach high school basketball, and the latter never overtakes the former. It hearkens back to the kind of original mid-budget films that were rampant in Hollywood in the 1990s, serious dramas for adults that aren’t necessarily hunting for awards-season glory. And the seriousness of The Way Back — its unwillingness to take the easy road, and Affleck’s total commitment to letting his personal rawness inform performed pain — should ensure those audiences find what they’re looking for.