Warning: This piece contains very mild spoilers over the kind of content seen, not the plot itself.
I’ve just been thrown around, sprayed with water, hissed at and smacked my head twice while I’m trying to watch the new Avengers: Infinity War film.
Not only that, I paid a rather large amount of money to, essentially, try and watch a film while on a rollercoaster.
That’s the effect you get with the new wave of 4DX cinemas that are slowly inching their way across the globe, designed to be a more immersive and, well, alternative way of watching cinema.
The cinema is kitted out with smoke machines, strobe lights, mechanical chairs that move in all directions and provide haptic feedback, as well as water and bubble fountains - all synchronised perfectly with the film.
It’s… erm… interesting. If you’re the sort of person who likes to snuggle down in the dark, ready to be transported to a new world, the modern version of ‘are you sitting comfortably…?’ then this is not going to be the cinema experience for you.
What the actual…
I enter the cinema in Leicester Square, London, a few minutes late, being left to queue for ice cream (me and my fellow watcher would soon learn that said choice of snack was a mistake).
I should have known what to expect when a couple walking in in front of me were told to go back and get cups with lids, as their open choice of beverage would not last in the cinema.
As I walk in, the new Jurassic World trailer is playing and people are literally being bounced around in their seats. As someone who hates rides at theme parks, this doesn’t bode well.
I finally managed to jump into my seat (which is tough when it's flinging itself around) and… I don’t like it. Every word, sound, explosion or movement on the screen is accompanied by the chair slinging itself from side to side, with wind, lights flashing and bits of the backrest attacking me instantly.
It’s pretty violent, and I wonder how bad it’s going to look if I have to slink out of the cinema, whispering ‘No, no, it's too scary…’.
Thankfully, once the actual movie starts, there’s far less motion from the seats, the violence confined mostly to the high action scenes.
Even out of these moments, there’s still movement though. Someone getting stabbed, grabbed or thrown will lead to the same sensation being shoved into your back, the chair lurching slightly or the backs of your legs feeling vibrations.
There are even subler moments too: floating through space or the camera turning upwards to look to the sky sees the chairs mimic the same slow action, and it’s in these moments where the 4DX really excels.
Where the movements or actions are subtle, the immersion is really enhanced. Characters flying through the sky and the wind flowing towards you really adds to the overall effect, making you feel like you’re more in the moment.
Apparently smell was pumped in, but I didn’t notice it… I’m hoping that it was though, as something that just flickers the senses and changes perception is what I’m after.
Brave (ish) new world
However, in the more dramatic scenes you’re not at the cinema anymore, you’re at a theme park. Trying to follow what’s happening on the screen is hard when you’re being tossed around in your seat, made to jump through loud noises and sudden motion or becoming acutely aware of the cinema you’re in when the strobe lights illuminate it for an instant.
In reality, that’s what this experience is. It’s a theme park. Cineworld, the operator of the new 4DX cinemas in the UK, calls it: “a revolutionary cinematic experience which stimulates all five senses, the 4DX includes high-tech motion seats and special effects including wind, fog, lightning, bubbles, water, rain and scents.”
In reality, it feels two parts gimmick to one part awesome alternative to the mainstream experience. The 3D felt slick, which is something I thought I’d given up on, but being sprayed with water every so often just felt like the producers of 4DX playing with a tool because they could.
I found myself feeling short changed. I didn’t want my normal cinema experience upgraded, I wanted a whole new way of watching a film. Make it IMAX but bigger - wrap the screen around my head, fill the room with fog or water or lights when correct.
Hell, let’s go whole hog and get us all wearing Teslasuits that fully enclose us in the virtual world all around.
This feels like a halfway house, a fusion of two experiences that aren’t really able to meet. I definitely left the cinema feeling far more tense than normal, that I’d had an adventure rather than escaped to another world.
The big question that I’m left with is… why? Why make 4DX cinemas? As mentioned, some of the effects seemed to be there just because they could be done, rather than truly enhancing a blockbuster experience.
Looking at the trend of cinema goers in the UK, you could have argued that in the mid-1980s that going to the movies was on its way out, with the advent of home video meaning 54 million people a year going compared to 1.5 billion in the 1940s (according to the UK Cinema Association).
But the proliferation of blockbuster films, multi-screen cinemas and improved screen technology has seen a rebirth of this past time, with numbers well over 170 million a year in the UK.
You could argue that 4DX is the investment that keeps this going, that it’s an industry looking at new ways to invigorate a format that’s been the same for three quarters of a century.
One only has to look at 3D films though to see how tricky this can be. The decline of their popularity is marked, and has led to a rethink of how many - if any - films should be released in 3D.
Consumers aren’t fans of gimmicks - and that word is one that kept rolling around my mind as I was, in turn, rolled around my seat while someone was thrust through a glass roof.
That hasn’t stopped the more bat-dung crazy ideas from emanating: if you’re looking for a true gimmick, Fox is looking to do ‘choose your own adventure’ films, where the audience uses their phone to vote on the action.
An intriguing concept
For all the criticism above, I enjoyed my 4DX experience. Perhaps that was mitigated by the fact I’d already seen the film and digested the plot, and being able to compare the two was fun, but I realised on the way home I was looking forward to trying it again.
Perhaps there’s nuance, the format finding its feed. While 3D popularity is declining, there’s still appetite for it - in films shot specifically for the format, or relying heavily on CGI, it’s much easier for 3D to enhance the spectacle.
The same is true for 4DX. It’ll probably only be used for blockbusters with lots of action and sensory events happening, because producers will want to give consumers value for money - at twice the normal ticket price for a 4DX showing, they need to achieve that.
You should definitely go and try out a 4DX film experience for yourself - I’m already looking to see when Jurassic World is going to be playing. Make sure you’re ready for a ride, rather than a relaxation though.... And definitely don’t walk in with a full bag of popcorn.
Main image credit: Cineworld Leicester Square 4DX