Is 4DX the next-gen cinema that’s here to stay or a gimmick that’ll be gone tomorrow?
4DX – the multi-sensory movie-watching experience, is new to me. But it’s actually been around for a decade. It was developed in South Korea by CJ 4DPLEX, which still owns the technology, and was first unveiled commercially for Journey to the Centre of the Earth’s 2009 release in Seoul.
The concept involves augmenting motion and environmental effects to complement the on-screen action. This includes a moving seat as well as, for example, fans to mimic wind, scent sprays, water jets and additional in-theatre lighting. Cinemas can be retrofitted with the technology which can also produce bubbles, snow and fog effects.
In the UK, 4DX has been around since 2015 when Cineworld first introduced it in Milton Keynes for the release of Kingsman: The Secret Service. Not that I knew it. In fact, it has completely passed me by. These multi-sensory cinemas have been steadily growing over the last few years but curiously haven’t appeared on my radar. After seeing It: Chapter Two in a 4DX theatre, my first experience of this “next-gen” cinema, I perhaps know why.
The fun wears off
There’s a moment in Andy Muschietti’s It: Chapter Two in which the camera pans across a quiet Derry street, then tilts and begins to slowly track towards a storm drain. The film – in combination with its predecessor – has preconditioned us to fear the sewers. We know this is where the film’s monster resides. It is here, we remember, where Bill Denbrough’s little brother had his arm bitten off by a killer clown. And it is here where our 4DX chair begins to physically push us.
This was one of the highlights of the 4DX experience for me. It’s a more subtle aspect of the technology. Typically, for tracking and panning shots as well as crane shots with camera tilts, the motion of the chair would gently follow the movement of the camera.
In complete contrast to what 4DX can accomplish during loud fight scenes in which it can jerk you around as each punch is landed, this inconspicuous motion has a more subliminal effect. In this particularly scene, in which the seat, angled to the left of the screen where the storm drain appears, moves slowly forwards, the technology becomes an extension of the monster, pushing you towards danger. It was delightfully effective and successfully heightened the tension.
Others may prefer scenes which make full-use of the technology. That means sequences which encourage the use of both the seat’s motion as well as front-propelled water jets, water spray from above, scent spray, fans, additional physically-located lighting, air jets positioned above the shoulders and below the knees, and the use of sections within the seat that can be raised and lowered to, for example, mimic a prod in the back. At times, It: Chapter Two had all these elements on the go at once. The experience can be described as intense, exhilarating, fun.
Is it actually a distraction?
It could also be dismissed as distracting, and, for a near-three-hour film, over the top. 4DX’s effects are added to the film by its developers and thus without the director’s creative input. It is therefore, like the filmmaker’s vision, an artistic interpretation but one that, considered on its own, is separate to the film’s own intentions. So we have the film, and we have the 4DX interpretation of the film. We are experiencing two pieces of art; a bit like going to a Disney theme park and riding the rollercoaster based on the movie.
This aspect comes to the fore early in It: Chapter Two. The scene involves a gay couple being attacked by a homophobic group. One of the men is punched severely. The 4DX interpretation of the scene is to treat it like any of the forthcoming sequences of horror but this one is different. It’s a powerful, hard-to-watch precursor to events that doesn’t involve the film’s eponymous monster. The disconnect between filmmaker and 4DX effects creator, in this instance, showcases a difference of artistic vision which hinders the film-watching experience.
When 4DX is jerking us around to our wilful heroes and heroine getting attacked by the bad guy, there is a veil of humour attached to it by the director which effectively cuts through the horror to enhance its intensity. This is a scary movie which, considered as a whole, expects its audience to want to have a good time; in other words, unexpected jumps, the use of bathos for comic relief, over-the-top or cartoonish violence to play down its seriousness. But the opening scene has none of that. It’s a scene designed to unsettle and disturb. The 4DX’s use of additional effects didn’t have to accentuate this and I think had the director had input into its use he would have called upon some restraint.
I suppose to imagine another example it would be to apply 4DX to Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible. It’s a film infamous for its brutal rape scene. 4DX was never made for such a film but suppose every release received a 4DX theatrical version. Being pushed around in my seat as this sickening act takes place would be at best an odd grandstand to experience it, and at worst, perverted sensationalism. They don’t make rides about rape at Disney theme parks, do they? So 4DX is definitely not for every film, and, as It: Chapter Two reveals, it’s not always for every scene of every film.
A sign of cinema worrying about its future?
4DX may be a “sign of cinema worrying about its future” writes Steve Rose in The Guardian. That’s an aspect of it. But it has been worrying about its future for years with the pointless push towards 3D. That fad is beginning to wear off; there’s been a year-on-year decline in 3D releases since 2016. But cinema has been worrying. Just as TV in the 1950s saw people flock out of theatres and back into their living rooms, Netflix and the internet has offered film and TV entertainment on tap at very reasonable prices. 4DX is one of those ways cinema is trying to differentiate itself. And certainly, it offers an experience you can’t recreate at home.
Some have chosen to dismiss it as a passing gimmick while Cineworld cinema managers like Francis Lamb have pushed the “there’s nothing like it” fast sell. Of course, anyone who has been to Universal Studios in Florida and enjoyed the 3D Spider-Man ride or the old 2D Back To The Future ride or any flight simulator anywhere, ever, will recognise the sorts of multi-sensory sensations you get from 4DX.
And I think that’s where the technology will ultimately come a cropper. It feels like a ride. A ride that has a shelf life. I’m not talking about a shelf life of months or years but simply minutes. The excitement of your moving seat, getting prodded in the back, and the scents of woodland, is discarded after a while for mild annoyance at the sound of the scent machine blasting air out, the fans kicking into gear, or a water jet that blasts you straight in your spectacles (if you wear them). You do have the option to turn the water jets off, by the way (via a button on your arm rest).
But does the “multi-sensory” experience then become a distraction, not a route into deeper immersion. For the most part, I enjoyed the way it added to the experience of watching It: Chapter Two. But I was left afterwards thinking: I need to watch this film again to find out what I really think of it. And when I mean “again”, I mean in a seat that doesn’t jiggle and in a room that doesn’t spit water in my face.
The auditorium I was in was packed. There wasn’t a single seat left available as far as I could tell. So 4DX is winning over its public. But were these cinemagoers 4DX newbies like me or regulars? I wouldn’t know but if I was to speculate, I’d say a lot of people were trying it out for the first time because, in Sheffield, where I saw the film, it’s a brand new experience for the city. Would most return? Maybe.
I’m not sure I would though. My ticket was £16.80. That’s a lot of money to see a movie. Instead of adding value to the experience of a cinema trip, they’re adding tech and upping the price. Cineworld, for example, has also unveiled ScreenX, a system that uses multiple projection to give a 270-degree viewing experience. But for both, I’d prefer to pay for dedicated films to be shown with these technologies, not films that are retrofitted with them.
I also think 4DX would benefit from shorter length films, potentially under one hour. It could be a great device for showcasing several shorts in a row, a little like the motion-simulation “ride” based on Aliens that debuted in San Francisco in 1996 and was also seen at Granada Studios in Manchester. In total, this was about 10 minutes long. You could line-up four films in a row, enhancing the previous simulator experience of older “rides” with 4DX’s rain, scent, bubble, smoke, lighting and air effects.
Would I return to a 4DX screening?
There are aspects of 4DX that I did enjoy. Cineworld has installed some very comfortable seats from which the system operates and the initial thrill of experiencing the combination of on-screen drama with accompanying motion and environmental effects provided the requisite spectacle that definitely stirred the senses.
But is it really cinema? Is it “enhanced” cinema or “next-gen” cinema? Is it a ride retrofitted to a movie? Is it all of these things? There’s a part of me that embraces the technology (and I’d love to check out a film like James Cameron’s Aliens in the 4DX environment) but the purist within is pushing me towards seeing the film without the added spectacle. In other words, I now want to watch the film “properly”. Perhaps that says it all.