"If I get punched in the back one more time!"
A man yelled this sentence fragment in the middle of a showing of Wonder Woman inside the Regal E-Walk movie theater in Times Square last week. I've seen movies a few times in Midtown and there's always a little bit of amusing banter involved, so that in and of itself isn't that crazy—but this wasn't directed at the screen or another viewer, rather at the inanimate, but nevertheless bullying, seats which had been treating our backs like Rocky Balboa treated the meat. I'm not sure what the threat implied—was he going to walk out? Throw down with his seat? Start a fight with an armrest?—but it was greeted with a knowing sigh of relief from his fellow moviegoers. "Finally, someone brave enough to stand up to the chair."
Nervous laughter was a common occurrence all evening, like when our seats began hovering back and forth, mimicking Wonder Woman getting knocked to the ground then picking herself back up, or when Chris Pine's plane crashed into the sea near Themyscira, and lo-and-behold we were also spritzed by our seats. Some yucks spread through the crowd when a lavender-by-way-of-a-toilet scent filled up the room for no apparent reason a few times. (My girlfriend described it as a "chemical version of car exhaust, like a chemical version of a chemical smell.")
Are you being mildly pummeled by your chair? Are you throwing slightly soggy popcorn into your mouth? Are you wondering whether you may have just experienced a low-level epileptic seizure? Are all of your senses being distractingly engaged in sync with the action on the screen? Then you're not watching a regular, boring old 2D/3D movie—you're watching 4DX baby.
4DX, which is currently available at two theaters (Regal at Times Square and Union Square) in NYC, bills itself like this: "Advancing the movie theater experience from watching the movie to almost living it, 4DX is the ultimate in state of the art technology delivering a fully immersive cinematic experience," complete with "motion chairs and environmental effects such as wind, bubbles, and scent work in perfect synchronicity with the action on screen."
4DX is the next generation of things like "Smell-O-Vision:" the ride-ification of the cinematic experience. It harkens back to a tradition of futuristic, sensory-expanding attempts at innovating the way we watch movies together. (This is a tradition that stretches back as long as film has existed—don't forget that sound was the first major innovation.) At its core, it's basically like one of those Universal theme park movie tie-in rides, except there is less cause to raise your arms, more jostling, and slightly more emphasis on watching the film (only slightly). You're probably not going to puke, but you're also not going to get the pure thrills of a rollercoaster.
One might wonder here: how much more immersive do we need our movie-going experiences to be? Were audiences who saw Casablanca in 1942 any less immersed in the story because their seats didn't punch them in the face whenever Sam started playing "As Time Goes By?" Is David Lynch still kicking himself because the Powers That Be wouldn't let him emit gas into the theater every time Frank Booth took a hit of nitrous oxide in Blue Velvet? As it is, I find that whenever I see 3D movies, I seem to retain/remember less of the experience (which has led me to wonder whether that is somehow a purposeful side effect designed to cause impressionable people like myself to rewatch the same monotonous blockbusters again and again). 4DX takes the 3D experience (yes, you are wearing the glasses during this as well), adds a helping of near-constant motion, throws in the equivalent of a leaky ceiling, and tops it all off with air blasts that'll make you pretty sure a jacuzzi jet is placed right by the side of your head.
I first immersed myself in the 4DX experience at a showing of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 at the Times Square theater in May. I had already seen the film in regular 2D form, which was upon reflection a very good decision: as with 3D, it takes your eyes and brain awhile to get used to the information and visual overload (I would estimate about 30 minutes). It can be overwhelming having a big CGI movie blaring on the screen while lights occasionally burst from the sides of the theater, and your seat rattles and hums up and down like a malfunctioning water bed.
Director James Gunn seems pretty jazzed about the 4DX technology in the video above, but I'm not sure if this was the best movie to dip one's toe into the 4DX waters (I mean that mostly literally). This was like playing a video game on the most difficult level off the bat, because Guardians starts with a dizzying action sequence in which the team battles an alien monster while Baby Groot blithely dances to "Mr. Blue Sky." I can't emphasize enough how much unyielding jostling there is to this experience: the seats are moving all around wherever the characters go, herking and jerking as they take flight and crash land. There's a reason there are tons of warnings before you enter (see here) that you shouldn't bring in hot beverages, and you shouldn't eat whenever the chairs are "most active."
You may have picked up by now that there are a lot of effects involved in 4DX; if you do nothing else, I beg you to consult the photos up above which demonstrate things like "Face Air" (note: there was sadly no snow or bubble effects in either of the films I saw, WHAT A RIP OFF). When someone shot at Chris Pratt, I felt bumps against my back; when a bullet (or laser, or whatever it is they shoot) flew by, a gust of air blew past my face (hence, "Face Air"). When there was smoldering destruction, an adorable amount of fog came out of the sides of the screen (it's what I imagine a Rockabye Baby! concert would be like). You have the option of turning the water off on your chair (which I of course did not), but this was a relatively dry movie, so there were only a few mists and sprays for certain scenes (some felt shoehorned in, like they figured they might as well use it since it was there).
I think a lot of people seeing a movie like this for the first time might be very distracted by the bells and whistles. Others might feel nauseous because of all the jostling. While I definitely was a little queasy that first half an hour or so, that wasn't really my biggest problem: I felt like the perspective of the effects just didn't make sense. If we were seeing everything from one character's point of view, and our chair hit us in sync with their movements/story, it may have worked better; but with an ensemble piece like Guardians, it just felt like nonstop, semi-random movement. One minute we are getting knifed in the back by Drax The Destroyer, the next we are being thrown forward alongside Drax. (One man gave up on the immersive experience about 2/3 of the way through and just stood the rest of the time, which was unsettling in another way.)
This is why I was especially curious to see how Wonder Woman fared—would having one main protagonist make the POV of the chair rumbles more sensible? It kinda did! Wonder Woman was like riding a slow paddle boat through the Central Park lake compared to the out-of-control taxi driver navigating a torrential downpour that was Guardians. If anything, Wonder very sparingly used the 4DX tricks for the first half, with things like a few Amazonian arrows face-airing past us, and the chairs leaning back when Wonder Woman jumped out of the WWI trenches. The third act, with Wonder Woman facing off against Ares, had plenty of the jostling I had expected, but the best use of the technology came when she realized she was in love with Chris Pine, and we all got punched in the heart.
So who is 4DX for? With a ticket costing $28.95 (hey, they gotta make up that lost concession stand money somehow), it's not exactly a cheap date night. But it is the kind of thing I'd say is fun to experience once, especially if you're someone who really loves the novelty of going to Dave & Busters, if you're a rollercoaster fiend, or if you want to get plastered and see a blockbuster for a second time. (This is really important: the theater is FREEZING, moreso than a regular theater, so make sure you bring a sweater, jacket or a hazmat suit if you're the pukey type.)
Besides myself and the couple people I mentioned, most in the audience seemed surprisingly chill about all the jostling, the extra chilly breezes, and occasional incoherent flashes of light—like that old Paul Simon song goes, one man's bad massage chair is another man's ultimate state of the art fully immersive cinematic experience.