If You Like Your Movies Physically As Well As Emotionally Assaultive, You’ll Love 4DX
Movies are the most immersive art form ever created. At their best, they are almost literally transportive. But apparently, they’re not quite immersive or transportive enough. Over the last couple years, studios and exhibitors have hatched up a series of gimmicks designed to bring customers “inside” the movie (and to bring studios and exhibitors further inside their customers’ wallets), from 3D to IMAX to D-BOX. The latest is 4DX, and its ad promises to put theatergoers right in the middle of the onscreen action.
4DX has been around in various parts of the world since 2009, but just debuted in New York City. According to its official site, which bills the format as “the ultimate in state of the art technology delivering a fully immersive cinematic experience,” 4DX advances “the movie theater experience from watching the movie to almost living it.”
The key word in that sentence, I guess, is “almost.”
Essentially, 4DX turns a film into a feature-length simulator ride. The seats are mounted on gimbals so they can tilt and move in sync with the movie. The chairs also contain mechanisms that allow them to vibrate and even prod the viewer on cue. Equipment spread throughout the auditorium also allow for “environmental effects such as wind, bubbles, and scent work in perfect synchronicity with the action onscreen.” The name 4DX apparently refers to the fact that it goes beyond 3D to activities that actually jostle the audience, but it could just as easily refer to the price. After online fees, the cost of a single 4DX ticket in New York is $29.60, almost four times the national average for a movie ticket.
At the moment, there’s just one screen in New York City that has 4DX; Auditorium 5 at the Regal Union Square Stadium 14. So if you want to sample 4DX, you’d better also want to sample Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which is the only movie currently playing there. Batman v Superman may not be a perfect movie (or even a good one), but it seems like a perfect fit for 4DX. What better way to experience a movie that wants to pummel you into submission with dark imagery, bleak themes, and brutal superhero violence than in a format that literally pummels you in seats that repeatedly punch you in the back?
That was maybe the most surprising about my 4DX screening; I wouldn’t go so far as to say that those pokes from the motion seats hurt, but they definitely weren’t comfortable, particularly as Batman and Superman beat the crap out of each other (and then teamed up to take down Doomsday) for 30 minutes straight. Most of the actual movements, like when the chairs bank left or right along with the Batwing as it zooms over Metropolis, were pretty mild, but those jabs, which accompanied kicks or throws or moments when the characters plowed through ceilings or floors, could be pretty intense. But I guess when you pay $30 for a movie ticket, you’re not paying for subtlety.
For environmental effects, the 4DX website lists “wind, bubbles, lightning, fog, scents, air, water, rain, rainstorm, and snow” but yesterday’s presentation of Batman v Superman only contained about half of those. As Superman zoomed into frame, he was accompanied by a huge blast of air from fans that lined the walls of the auditorium; when Batman threw up the Bat-Signal in the midst of a thunderstorm, a fine mist fell from the ceiling. That was kind of cool.
I was hoping 4DX would douse us with a bucket of water Flashdance-style when Clark and Lois start having sex in a bathtub, but no such luck. There was also no bubbles or snow, even in the scene of Clark Kent on the mountain, and the “fog” effects were two pitifully small puffs of steam that occasionally wafted from the front corners of the auditorium. The only “scent” I caught was a vaguely medicinal odor that seemed timed to onscreen explosions. (I also smelled a fart once, but I think that’s because the guy next to me farted. In the world of 4DX, who can tell?)
To 4DX’s credit, the format’s effects were very well synchronized to the movie. The water spray was perfectly timed to the Batmobile’s leap into the lake above the Batcave; so were the tiny bursts of air from my headrest that accompanied machine gun fire. When Wonder Woman revved her car’s engine, the chairs thrummed right along. At times it felt like watching a movie in a vibrating wind tunnel, but hey, if that sounds appealing, you definitely won’t be disappointed.
The one truly horrible part of the experience was what the official site bills as “lightning,” which wound up being two spotlights, one in each of the front corners of the auditorium, that occasionally flashed to coincide with lightning or shotgun blasts. I guess that could work in theory; in practice, these big spotlights just lit up the walls of the theater, exposing the room’s rainbow-colored curtains, casting shadows on all the fans hanging from the ceiling, and completely shattering the cinematic illusion. If I want to be distracted by bright lights in a movie theater, I don’t need to pay ten bucks extra for that; I can just stare at all the jerks looking at their cell phones.
Does 4DX truly enhance the immersive nature of the movies? Not in my experience. I never felt like I was “inside” Batman v Superman, but I did occasionally notice things about the film that I hadn’t seen before, and probably wouldn’t have considered in a regular theater. For instance, there are a lot of helicopters in this movie, like the one Bruce Wayne takes to Metropolis in the opening scene, the one Lex Luthor sends for Lois Lane, the one Lex Luthor takes after he threatens to kill Martha Kent, the one Lois takes back to Gotham, and the ones that film Superman’s fight with Doomsday. They’re not dwelled on — except in 4DX, where each time a new chopper appeared, the wind kicked up and the seats rattled. Seeing the movie in 4DX also crystallized how clunky the movie’s pacing is; the effects only occur during action scenes, so there are looooong stretches where absolutely nothing happens in the auditorium.
That’s a weird way to judge a movie though, right? “Man, that part sucked because nothing happened and my seat didn’t move!” In the case of Batman v Superman, the dialogue scenes wouldn’t have been improved by all the motion and environmental effects in the world, but 4DX, by its very nature, seems to equate “talking” with “boredom.” And not every scene with explosions and running is an “action scene”; 4DX comes perilously close to turning the sequence of Bruce Wayne racing through a devastated Metropolis into “9/11: The Ride.” Some of that made me feel queasy, and not because of motion sickness.
4DX isn’t terrible, but I’m not convinced it’s worth the outrageous price. Going to the movies, particularly in New York City, is already an expensive proposition before you add on yet another surcharge. You get better bang for your buck in true IMAX 70mm (a far more immersive format) or even the new Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime (where the sound is so loud it rumbles the incredibly comfortable recliners without motion seats). At $21.99 for either of those formats in Manhattan, you get a premium viewing experience at almost a third of the cost. (You also get a much bigger screen than at Regal’s 4DX, which is installed in a relatively small auditorium). For all the bells and whistles, 4DX is still kind of underwhelming.
Oh no, they’re going to make a format with literal bells and whistles next, aren’t they?