For most of last year my local cinema in south London was in a state of chaos, being ripped apart and undergoing extensive renovations. While part of this project was to generally upgrade the screens and seating — a good thing — another major objective was to install a new 4DX screen.
"What the hell is 4DX?" I hear you ask. Well, when I described it to a buddy of mine he laughed and said "It's The Tingler!" Which was hilarious, because that had been exactly my own reaction. The Tingler was a low budget 1959 horror movie by a huckster of a producer named William Castle. To promote it, Castle dreamed up a contrivance called Percepto. This involved having seats in the cinema wired so they would vibrate at a certain point in the movie. It was a cheap and silly gimmick.
4DX also makes your seat vibrate. And it does more than that, but allow me to quote from the publicity blurb:
"Providing 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 both 2D and 3D formats. These effects work in perfect synchronicity with the action on screen – creating the most unmissable and exhilarating cinematic experience yet."
Friends... it is just another cheap and silly gimmick. Though it's not cheap in terms of admission prices — a full-price adult ticket is around £20. Even so, I was tempted to check out this unmissable and exhilarating cinematic experience. So as soon as the 4DX screen opened, I tried to see Rogue One there. Unfortunately, the 4DX system had broken down, as it did frequently in the first few weeks.
But I have finally caught a movie in 4DX — Wonder Woman — and I can describe what it's like. (I will write about the Wonder Woman film itself in a separate post.)
First, it has to be said that the 4DX seats are big and comfy. But soon they are in constant motion. For instance, when we see the Amazons on horseback, our seats jog us as if we're riding a horse.
Now, this might make sense if it was a point-of-view shot of somebody who is riding a horse. To put you into the skin of the rider, so to speak. But it makes no sense at all if you have a long shot of somebody riding a horse in the distance.
Similarly, in a fight scene, as the good guys and bad guys punch each other, our seats jerk around and we get jabbed in the back — the effect is a bit like a massage chair gone rogue.
But why, when the bad guy hits the ground, do we feel an impact? Are we supposed to be the bad guy?
This confusion about viewpoint is one of the fatal flaws of the system. But there are plenty more. When a strong wind starts blowing in a scene, a big wind machine starts up in the cinema — making a hell of a racket and ruining our enjoyment.
And then there are the puffs of air. In the back of your seat, on either side of your head, are two small holes. These emit violent and noisy blasts of cold air onto your face to — supposedly — mimic the feel of a near miss as a bullet or an arrow whizzes past to you.
It's difficult to describe how annoying this is. I was soon dreading any gunfight or use of the bow and arrow. I ended up trying to stick wads of Kleenex into the goddamned holes to block them (it wasn't very effective).
There are controls on the arms of your chair, but unfortunately these only allow you to turn off one option — the drop of water in the face. A good idea, for those of us who don't want to contract Legionaire's disease. But it did nothing to stop the goddamned puffs of air.
4DX is a waste of time and I can't believe it will ever catch on. It won't save a bad movie but it will certainly spoil a good one. Luckily Wonder Woman was sufficiently excellent to survive the 4DX treatment, but many other movies wouldn't be.
I recommend avoiding the 4DX experience, but if you do go you might find yourself sorely tempted to use some chewing gum to block those bloody air puffs.
(Image credits: The Tingler poster is from Texas Public Radio. The ecstatic people wearing 3D glasses and looking suspiciously like audience shills in a publicity shot are from the Wandsworth Guardian. The other awed audience members are from this Cineworld page. The man enjoying his flaming seat is from another Cineword page. The pictures of the 4DX seats are from Hey Guys. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman — and she is great — is from Cosmic Book News.)