I'm pretty open-minded when it comes to movies. I can watch a double header of some old Howard Hawks comedies in grainy black-and-white one day, then go see the latest IMAX 3D blockbuster the next. I'm not a purist. Looking back at the way movie theaters have advanced over the years, it's easy to see how much they've improved by making big changes to the format. While some people might have balked when, for example, they changed the aspect ratio from a square to a widescreen rectangle, it was certainly a smart move, giving movie theaters a leg up on television...at least for a while.
Over the years, many other improvements have been made to the theatergoing experience. Things like surround sound, 3D, curved screens, and stadium seating have largely made the moviegoing experience better. So I was excited to hear that a whole new kind of movie experience was coming to the U.S., in the form of 4DX. If you haven't already, go check out my article on 4DX that we published a few weeks back. You can also check out the 4DX website for more info. The short version is that 4DX is an immersive experience featuring all sorts of environmental effects that are meant to draw you into the film.
Recently I was able to attend the first U.S. 4DX showing at Regal L.A. Live Cinemas here in Los Angeles. The film to be screened was Captain America: The Winter Soldier in RealD. I'll confess, it wasn't a film I was dying to see - I was much more interested in the 4DX technology than the umpteenth movie in the Marvel cinematic universe. Although it did seem like the kind of film that would be a good showcase for 4DX (I'm sure they wouldn't have chosen it if it wasn't), so I was looking forward to it.
The theater was smaller than I expected, and the screen was a little smaller than I'm used to. The 4DX seats are grouped together in fours, and there is a railing in front of each. On the railing are two nozzles in front of each seat: one for wind/water blasts and one for scents. Behind my head were two tubes on either side of the headrest for puffs of air, while overhead the edges of the ceiling were lined with fans. At my feet was something called "the tickler" - a thin, white, plastic tube that I gathered was intended to move back and forth and tickle my Achilles tendon area. As I was wearing heavy motorcycle boots, this effect was lost on me, but I don't think it was used anyhow.
Things got off to an interesting start with a Q&A with a 4DX rep. The best comment came from someone who asked, "Why are the seats so uncomfortable?" And indeed they were. There's a large hump in the back of the seat just below your shoulders that causes you to pitch forward. It also makes it difficult to lean back and rest your head because your eye line is then directed toward the top of the screen. I wondered if the seats were designed for the smaller frames of those in the Asian markets where 4DX has the most theaters. You also can't rest your feet on the railing in front of you because they'll get knocked off when the chair starts shaking. Another person asked during the Q&A why it had taken so long for 4DX to come to America, since there are nearly 300 4DX theaters around the globe. The rep answered that American theater owners were more apprehensive about installing the system and took a "look-see" approach, waiting to see how it turned out in other countries first.
I managed to squeeze in a question about how the 4DX effects are encoded. I wanted to know if the filmmakers had any involvement in the process. The rep told me that they have 20 engineers in Korea who work with a lab in L.A., and the motion coding is decided between them. However, the rep claimed that the filmmakers are shown the final product to "quality check" it. Take that as you will.
We then watched a demo that featured a car chase with and without 4DX. It mostly utilized the motion-controlled aspect of the technology, with the seats tilting and rising along with the action on the screen. The chairs moved and shook pretty violently, enough so that it made eating or drinking during a chase sequence a dicey affair.
Click on over to Page 2 to hear about the Film, the Effects, and whether or not 4DX is the future of cinema . . .
The film itself was pretty good, mainly because it featured the great Robert Redford. It was also action-packed, giving the 4DX people plenty of opportunities to impress. I only wish I was able to relax and enjoy it...
Normally I like going to see a big action movie with a packed house. But with 4DX you get about ten times the amount of audience noise that you normally would. People constantly "ooohhh-ed" and "ahhhhh-ed" and screamed and squawked every time the effects kicked in. I expected it would die down as the movie progressed, but it didn't.
The most used effect by far was the motion-controlled seating. Given that the film has copious amount of action scenes and even a pretty good car chase, the seats had plenty of opportunities to rock, roll, and rumble. One thing I didn't like was that the motion often upset the 3D effect, making images blur and double. I would have preferred the 2D version of the film, but from what I can tell all 4DX movies are in 3D. Overall, the moving seat was novel for about 10 minutes, then I wished it would stop so that I could just settle in and watch the movie.
Another effect I saw a lot of was the "gunshot" effect caused by bright lights on the edges of the ceiling quickly flashing in sync with any onscreen gunfire, of which Captain America had a lot. The lights were harsh, and based on the color temperature, I would guess they were mercury-based. This had the effect of briefly lighting up the theater with every gunshot, and it was very distracting. I started to wish Cap would use his fists more often.
The wind effects were also used quite a bit. From a gentle breeze in an outdoor dialogue scene to a blast of air in the face during a car crash, the wind effects were probably the least distracting and most welcome. That is, except for the puffs of air that come from behind and hit you across the ear. They were largely used to simulate the feeling of a bullet whizzing past your head. Each time a puff went off, it was accompanied by a loud "pssssshhh!" sound right next to my ear. It did not feel like a bullet whizzing past; it felt like someone blasted me in the ear with computer duster.
I was looking forward to the smoke effects, as I thought they would be less intrusive and more immersive than the other effects. Unfortunately, I only got to see them twice: a brief cloud of smoke after an explosion, then another, smaller cloud after another explosion. There was really only smoke on one side of the theater, and it dissipated quickly, so I felt rather let down.
One concern I had about 4DX was the use of water effects. I had read that they were very annoying - either you got blasted in the face from the railing in front of you, or water would "rain" down on you from above. Recently, the 4DX people began adding a button on the armrest that turns the water on or off. I set mine to "on" to get the full effect, but I might as well not have bothered. The "rain" effect never happened, despite obvious scenes in the movie where it could have been used. The "water blast" only happened once, when a large piece of debris crashed into the ocean. (This seemed odd because there were several instances of debris falling into the ocean.) But the water was so diffused (like a fine mist), it really wasn't much different than the plain old air blasts I had already felt.
As for the scents? I couldn't tell you. Either the scent machine wasn't working or Captain America's world smells just like a movie theater. After a large explosion, I thought I smelled root beer (honestly), but it may have just been the smell of the smoke that accompanied it. In any event, I know that 4DX is limited to about eight scents, but at least some of them (coffee, gunpowder, flowers) were present in the movie. Either they weren't working at all or just weren't working well. The same goes for the bubbles . . . not that there was really any reason to utilize the bubble effect in Captain America (or very many movies at all, I should think), but it would have been nice to experience all that 4DX has to offer.
My biggest issue with 4DX might seem like a small one to some people, but it's an important part of the moviegoing experience for me. I always load up on soda and candy at the movies. The cup holders for 4DX theaters are built into the armrest of the chairs, as they are in most movie theaters. This means that your soda is going to be tumbling around like it's in a clothes dryer. The result? Within about five minutes, you have a flat soda. You can't put it between the seats because the seats are connected, and you can't put it on the floor in front of you because you will kick it over when the seat starts moving (trust me).
Is 4DX the Next Big Thing?
I'll be honest, I was ready to walk out well before the halfway point of Captain America. Even macho action movies can be relaxing to watch when you're able to get comfy, grab your favorite drink or snack, and get absorbed in the film. But in this case, I found myself dreading each action sequence, with the violent pitching of the seats and the loud puffs of air, all the while waiting (I thought) to get rained on. At certain points in the film, usually during quiet dialogue scenes, the 4DX effects were absent. This made it all the more jarring when they suddenly kicked in. Immersion? No. The opposite. I was constantly reminded that I was watching 24 still images per second on a big, flat screen instead of getting wrapped up in the story or at least entertained by the action.
The 4DX experience comes at a premium, as well. Right now tickets for Transformers 4 cost $26.75 versus $14.75 for a normal 2D showing. I can see the 4DX technology being effective at a theme park, mall, or fair in a smaller, self-contained "simulator" that features all of these effects (and films designed especially for them). It's a neat idea . . . just slightly misplaced in the movie theater. What's cool for five minutes is not necessarily cool for two hours. I would love to have Led Zeppelin play a set in my bedroom, but not for a month straight. That would just be too much of a good thing . . . and 4DX is a good thing. It's innovative, and it's trying to take moviegoing in a new direction. I love the idea, but the execution needs some work.