The Hollywood film industry seems to be fighting a losing battle against home entertainment. Not only are the big studios running of ideas, movie-wise (the 2017 summer movie season was down almost 15%), but people are choosing to stay home in their souped-up home theaters where not only is the company better, but so are the entertainment options (streaming and cable TV shows are killing it with quality lately). So, how to bring people back to the theater?
With more and more theaters remodeling to lure moviegoers with comfy chairs, reserved seating, and food and/or drink service, a new player has taken movie-going a step further, promising an “immersion” experience. 4DX is the name of the technology, and it is only available in a handful of theaters across the country. A 4DX theater is equipped with motion-based seating which offers sensory shakes, spills, and thrills that are synchronized with the movie. When I heard about it, I immediately dubbed it “Scratch and Sniff Cinema”.
Seattle is one of nine U.S. city that (as of this writing), boasts a new 4DX theater. The curiosity got the best of me, especially as it was featured at the Meridian 16, just about every Seattle movie fan’s least favorite downtown theater. That poor place deserved a shiny makeover.
The film featured in the theater was The Dark Tower. Only out for a week at the time, the film drew only a handful of us on a weeknight, which was partially a result of the price of the ticket (a jaw-dropping $23 for the 4DX experience), and the fact that it was another perfect example of the crap-o-rific movies that Hollywood was churning out in summer 2017. You get your own cushy lounge chair, except your feet sit on a flat foot rest, and there are intriguing illuminated buttons on the arm right next to your drink holder: Water On. Water Off. Well Water On, of course!
As soon as the lights went down, we were immediately jostling and shaking and jolting and dipping and getting sprayed with mists… and that was only during the trailer for the 4DX system! This all had my movie buddy in hysterics of glee, as he giggled uncontrollably, clapping his hands like a schoolboy. We had no idea what to expect really. (I was wondering if we missed finding the seatbelts, for instance.)
The Dark Tower turned out to be the perfect test case movie for the experience. The plot had earthquakes, bullets flying, people tussling, and wooden floors erupting to entangle and wrestle with you, all the better for the 4DX system to toss you around.
At first, I was a little confused about the perspective of the effects. Was I supposed to be the main character? I wondered during a fight scene. Was I supposed to be the puncher or punchee? Or simply be in the middle of the action? Whenever a bullet was shot on screen (which was a lot, considering a main character was called The Gunslinger), a puff of air blew from the headrest behind my ear. After a while, I gave up trying to smooth my hair back into place. (puff! puff! puff! – load bullets – puff! puff!)
At one point, a character is stabbed in the back, which prompts a jab in your back from the seat (“I did not like that,” my friend firmly stated later). It reminded me of those knuckly massage chairs that you sit in at the airport to pass time. Luckily, this effect was only used once or twice. A couple times, the chair lurched so violently in response to on-screen action that I was happy that I did not have a drink in the armrest drink holder. It would be the equivalent of someone slapping a drink right out of your hand.
So much for the scratch… The sniff part of the experience was underwhelming, if existent at all. Smell was supposed to be part of the 4DX experience. A couple times I saw a cloud of smoke or mist curl up to the right side of the screen, and more than once, large ceiling fans on the side of the room kicked on, supposedly to blow a scent or other effect through the air. If anything, the sound of the fans was incredibly distracting, and no noticeable or distinctive smells were to be had.
Unfortunately, as The Dark Tower is not a good movie, the constantly immersive experience tricks get a little tiring after a while. I enjoyed things like the chair subtly tipping upwards when a character looked at the sky, for instance. But I didn’t need the chair to thunk every time a character took a step.
The appeal is obviously there for some. There was a younger couple in the theater with us, and the young man was very excited to share 4DX with his lady friend. She had never gone before, so he was thrilled to introduce to her to what was obviously one of his favorite things (he said he tried to go every week). It is a fun gimmick, yes, but more importantly it is quite pricey for the average layperson. The usher said that it was worth going to a 3D movie there once (but only once). I dreaded to know what the 3D surcharge would be for a 4DX theater. The usher’s tip: See the 3D movie as a matinee, then it is “only” about $25.
The 4DX idea hopes to tap into the increasing popularity of immersive 3D movie “rides” that can be found anywhere from Universal Studios to a tourist pier in Seattle. I had recently enjoyed the Fly Over Canada ride in Vancouver, BC, which, now that I think about it, cost about the same as a 4DX movie, but only lasted 20 minutes. Sure, the “Fly” movie actually lifts you in the air and holds you in your seat like a proper ride, but with 4DX you get the bonus of seeing a movie you probably wanted to see anyway. Just cross your fingers that your movie choice is better than mine!