Take a 3-D movie and add wind, snow, fog, and chairs that pitch and shake.
On Friday morning I was beaten up by Benedict Cumberbatch. He bounced me around in my seat, nearly knocked my drink out of my hand, kicked me in the back, and spat in my face, before nearly killing us both in a violent car crash. And the most shocking part of this story is that for $25 this can happen to you too, if you see the Marvel blockbuster Doctor Strange in the new 4DX cinema at Cineplex Yonge-Dundas, which opened this weekend.
4DX is the latest innovation in the never-ending struggle to provide moviegoers with an entertainment experience that can’t be recreated at home. Launched in South Korea in 2009, 4DX presents the movie augmented with environmental effects built into the screening room, with specially designed seats built on rows of hydraulics that react to camera movements and events on screen, and devices built into the cinema that create wind, rain, fog, lights, and even scents. Combined with a 3-D presentation, the idea is to make the audience feel the movie as opposed to merely watching it. Multiplexes around the world have embraced this technology, which is only now beginning to appear in North America.
This correspondent attended the opening day event at Cineplex Yonge-Dundas to launch 4DX in Toronto, an early morning media screening of Doctor Strange ahead of the first public 4DX screening that evening. The theatre seats only 80 but was specifically renovated to be fully equipped for 4DX, with large, comfortable seats (and a “Winter” on/off button on the armrest). Before the screening, executives from Cineplex and from the CJ 4DPLEX corporation in Seoul christened the theatre with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Before the film, a warning appeared onscreen advising that this experience was not suitable for people with epilepsy or back/heart conditions, people with hot drinks, children under three-foot-four (102 centimetres), or those under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Doctor Strange is a good choice to demonstrate 4DX’s potential because much of the film takes place in a metaphysical space unbound by time, gravity, or quantum mechanics.
The technology works best when applied subtly. A light breeze blowing through the cinema as Cumberbatch moves through a crowded marketplace in Kathmandu adds an evocative touch to the moment, or when your seat is tilting along with the Steadicam shot on screen.
One wonders what it would be like to watch a quieter film like The Tree of Life in this format. But when 4DX is running at full tilt for action sequences, it starts to actually interfere with your ability to stay connected to the movie.
Very early in Doctor Strange, an M.C. Escher-meets-Inception kaleidoscopic battle in the streets of London becomes incomprehensible as the rows in the theatre start pitching and tilting, the back of your seat responding to every body blow, nozzles hidden in the headrest blasting compressed air. It becomes hard to tell whose perspective you are supposed to be taking while watching the film as the cinema seat seems to be responding to every impact on screen. And at times the “atmospheric effects” get in the way of the movie; one scene in the peaks of the Himalayas was undercut by real snowflakes amusingly drifting down from the ceiling above the screen, while fake howling winds drowned out the film’s dialogue.
The main challenge to 4DX as a format you’d want to experience more than once (besides the high admission price) is that it feels like a motion simulator ride at an amusement park, but a ride like that only last a few minutes. Enduring this kind of presentation for two hours makes it more like trying to concentrate on the in-flight movie during a long patch of turbulence. And after being thrown around, squirted on, and air-blasted all the way through a movie, with everyone in the auditorium being made physically to feel a certain way about it, what’s there left to think about when it’s over?
Regular adult admission price for a 4DX screening at Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Dundas & VIP (10 Dundas Street East) is $24.99 (3-D films), $21.99 (2-D films). It’s cheaper on Tuesdays.