Last weekend the first 4DX theater opened in the United States alongside the release of Transformers: Age of Extinction, specifically as the Regal Cinemas LA Live in Downtown Los Angeles. Now, I was in no hurry to see the latest in Michael Bay's "loved by 12-year-old boys" and "loathed by everyone else" series, but when I caught wind of the experience offered by the this new piece of theatrical technology, I knew I had to try it out for myself. Why? I suppose I am somewhat of a cinematic masochist. When somebody tells me they hated a movie I am curious if not keen to see it for myself. Thus, when /Film described their 4DX screening as a "tasking mental and physical exercise" I immediately wondered where I could sign up. I also like to keep up with the latest developments of how films are made, distributed and screened. 4DX has caught my eye since it began making waves overseas. It comes to us from the CJ Group in South Korea and they've been rolling out these theaters since 2009.
What exactly is 4DX? Well, in addition to the 3D presentation we've all learned to love (hate) they've added another dimension of physical effects to each individual seat and the theater itself. Your chair vibrates, moves left or right, leans forward or backward, squirts water at you or blows air at you to name several. The theater is equipped with an array of ceiling fans to leave you windblown, the overhead lights will flash, there are two fog machines situated on either side of the screen and supposedly there is a fragrance machine in the package but the only thing I smelled was fog-water amidst the body odor of my cohorts (I have no idea what their excuse was for being there). In a nutshell, 4DX introduces diverse ways to complicate, compromise and downright capsize the cinematic experience. And you know what? It's kind of a blast... until it isn't.
If you've ever been to Disneyland or Universal Studios there's a good chance you've been inside a specialized theater with this type of gadgetry and gimmickry (I've been to ones for The Muppets, A Bug's Life and Shrek.) The primary difference is that those last a sufferable 15-20 minutes, max. Transformers: Age of Extinction is unnecessarily 165 minutes, that's with or without the 4DX experience. I am not going to digress into a review of the film itself at this point, though I desperately want to assemble my thoughts together on that behemoth of a spectacular mess. Let me stay on track with just assessing my personal 4DX session.
Before the film even begins they show a sampler video boasting their technology (it's the equivalent of the IMAX 3D countdown, which ironically is still the best IMAX 3D I've ever seen). It begins with an uninspired car chase through a city. The action is paused and "Missing something?" appears onscreen. A new version of the video is shown:
This time your seat is hugging the corners and shaking with the braking. When the jerk in the blue car shoots in your direction you hear/feel the bullets whizz by your ears. When you hit that conveniently placed crash container you get some water on your face. They want to make sure we got it. We get it.
Transformers begins in space as we observe a host of alien ships assembling for a battle. The seats take on a floaty feeling (I imagine we were just being stirred slowly in circles) that I thought was perfect for capturing that "outer space" feel. "Man, imagine seeing Gravity in this theater!" I dreamed. Within no time we were on Earth witnessing the extinction of the dinosaurs and being shaken to our very cores. The vast majority of the 4DX effects are the vibrating, rumbling and jerking of the seats. And they don't just save it for the actions scenes. I laughed when Tessa was riding in a jeep with her friends and they pulled onto the side of a dirt road, our seats shook to signify the stop. They obviously have the whole film charted out and I wonder if there's a graph somewhere that details every effect's use.
When a helicopter comes in we feel it's blades beating down upon us. When Optimus Prime gets shoved against a building there's a jutting sensation in our back as if somebody just shoved us into a bookshelf (that quickly became my least favorite effect). When explosions take place the fog seeps in from the front and the flashing lights illuminate through their shifting forms. Take this particular effect in addition to the 3D and you have a whole extra plane in front of the screen. When it worked, it worked well.
At its very best, the 4DX experience actually adds to our immersion into the film itself. At its very worst it does the complete opposite. As I said before, the biggest problem is the length of a feature film and how long these effects have to wear off their welcome. If they were more sparsely used it would increase the impact whenever it did happen, but if they were more sparsely used we would wonder what we were paying for in the first place (around $25 by the way). It's a "no win" situation if you think about too much (as I clearly have).
I imagine it will be a fun if fleeting experience for general audiences. I imagine we look like a sorry bunch: taking our glasses off in the middle of a scene to wipe away the water droplets from that waterfall or reaching down to the back of our thighs after something most certainly whipped them. I do not imagine it "catching on" in this country, especially after the semi-failed experiment that was 3D. That said, I would recommend cinephiles giving it a try, if nothing else to say that "you came, you felt, you conquered." It's not worth traveling across the the country for, but definitely worth trekking across the city if you live in or are visiting Los Angeles.
I am going to be keeping an eye on the one in LA and see what films they incorporate in the future. Obviously, they swing for the biggest and loudest of the blockbusters. I cannot imagine a Foxcatcher 4DX experience.
Does this sound like something you would want to put yourself through? What film(s) would you want to see in a 4DX theater? Just for kicks and giggles, what film(s) would make for terrible 4DX experiences? Share any of these answers, comments or questions you have for a 4DX survivor in the comments below!