Originally posted in July 2014
There have recently been a number of articles – in outlets such as The Hollywood Reporter – about 4D movies possibly being the wave of the future. What is a 4D movie? Well, it’s a 3D movie with additional gimmicks added in to stimulate the other senses of audience members. They can include theatrical lighting, seat movements, and atmospheric elements (fog, wind, etc.) introduced into the theater at key points during the film. The theory is that 4D theaters will offer an experience people cannot get at home, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will come out to the cinemas, and even be willing to pay a higher premium price.
On paper, that kind of makes sense. As home theater equipment has become sophisticated enough to give people cinema-quality picture and sound in the comfort of their own living rooms, theater chains have struggled to find new ways of keeping them invested in the theatrical experience. 3D has, only semi-successfully, been a part of this process. The more successful IMAX/XD format has been another. It stands to reason that adding more unique features will make theatrical moviegoing more enticing.
There’s one hitch, as I see it: sitting through a 4D movie detracts immensely from the film.
I recently had a chance to experience 4D in action. I traveled to Baltimore, Maryland to screen SpongeBob SquarePants 4D: The Great Jelly Rescue, an 8-minute computer-animated cartoon featuring the popular Nickelodeon character. An attendant handed me a pair of the requisite ill-fitting 3D glasses, and I made my way in. The first thing I noticed when sitting down in this 4D theater was that the seat directly in front of me had a little console thing in the back, with several nozzles of differing sizes. (See picture below.) There was also a suspicious-looking wire dangling underneath my seat and every other one in the place. This is part of how the 4D experience is delivered.
The movie started with a 3D intro taking us to the depths of Bikini Bottom, where SpongeBob and his friends live. Then the 4D kicked in. As the image descended to show his pineapple house, bubbles filled the theater, and one of those seat nozzles blew a gentle breeze at each audience member. People laughed and cheered. During a scene involving a school of jellyfish, that wire under the seats began shaking wildly, tickling the legs of every viewer and inducing mass giggles. When one of the jellyfish stung SpongeBob and pal Patrick, strobe lights on the sides of the theater lit up and the seats vibrated, simulating their electric shock. There were hoots and hollers of delighted surprise. Later on, the movie’s villain attempts to hypnotize SpongeBob and Patrick with his special perfume. A sickeningly sweet odor abruptly filled the theater. Eww! and Yuck! people groaned. The capper was a scene in which the characters freefall, only to land on the hard ocean floor. At just the moment of impact, the theater seats shook violently and another of those seat nozzles shot a spray of water, aimed right at the 3D glasses. The place erupted in laughter and commotion.
When SpongeBob SquarePants 4D: The Great Jelly Rescue was over, everyone filed out happily. There was much chatter about how fun it was.
So what’s the problem? There are a couple of them. First, the 4D experience may have been fun for eight minutes, but could easily grow tiresome over the 165 minutes of Transformers: Age of Extinction, a recent movie exhibited in the format in specially-equipped theaters. How much shaking, smells, and simulated weather conditions can you tolerate before it becomes repetitive and annoying?
A much bigger problem is that, while enjoyable as a short-term gimmick, the 4D process makes it almost impossible to concentrate on the movie itself. I could not tell you the plot of The Great Jelly Rescue if my life depended on it. So many things were happening that took my attention away from the story being told. I noticed the bubbles floating in front of me. I noticed the strobe lights flashing. I noticed my leg being tickled and my nostrils being assaulted with stinky perfume. I had to stop to wipe the water off my 3D glasses after they got splashed. And forget about hearing the dialogue. With every new effect, the crowd erupted in some sort of response. It was often prolonged, drowning out whatever was being said onscreen.
The end result was that I saw everything but the movie, so to speak. I cannot imagine trying to view a proper film this way. So much of the cinematic experience relies on losing oneself in the work, getting so wrapped up in the story that everything else melts away. With 4D, I was, for every second, aware that I was in a theater and that things were happening there. Despite claims of 4D being “immersive,” it was the exact opposite of that term. I wasn’t immersed, I was distracted. I felt distanced from the movie I was ostensibly watching. This reaction is the absolute death of the cinematic experience.
If theater chains begin upgrading their auditoriums to 4D, they will regret it. This is not an experience people are going to want to have for a two-hour period, and it’s certainly not one they’re going to want to have repeatedly. It will not drive people to theaters; it will keep them at home, where they can watch their desired movie free of distraction. Chains will be better served focusing energy on ways to make the current viewing experience as pleasurable as possible, like cracking down on cell phone use/annoying talkers, making sure the seats are clean and comfortable, and keeping ticket prices as reasonable as possible.
4D is not the wave of the future. Just as most ticketbuyers have rejected the glut of 3D movies, they will reject this as well. It is an idea that may even do harm to the very theaters it’s supposedly being considered to save. 4D can be fun for theme park attractions and 8-minute SpongeBob cartoons, but at the end of the day, it’s a bad fit for feature-length films, and it goes against the very experience people attend theaters to have.