4DX: Relief from Average Film Experience

        I complain about Hollywood blockbusters often. As a lifelong fan of genre filmmaking, a film critic and professor, I typically end up seeing everything that major American studios have to offer, and my experience is nearly always the same. Desensitized by constant emersion in the big-screen spectacle and bored by formulaic structure of the narrative, it feels as though I spend a sad amount of time unengaged while sitting in the increasingly comfortable chairs of my local multiplex. The movie industry has become just that; an industry, churning out a product with consistency that seems to be the death of creativity and innovation. For years, I have complained, and I thought that the only solution was for the films to get better. But after watching my first film in 4DX, my entire perspective has been changed. And not just about Hollywood blockbusters. The truth is, after experiencing the latest advances in public film exhibition provided by CJ Group, including their 4DX and ScreenX technology, I now see a new direction for the future of the art form as a whole.   

        I will admit, I entered into my first screening of 4DX expecting to bemoan the next step in the death of true artistic cinema. But then something interesting happened; I had fun. It wasn’t the film (Aquaman), which was just another predictably generic IP release. What made the experience enjoyable was the added help from the 4DX effects. Less than halfway through the film, I came to a realization. I was so immersed in the film that it didn’t even matter that the narrative was generic, because however many times I have seen superhero movies, I had never seen a film in this way before.

        But what is 4DX, exactly? The best way I can describe is by comparing it to Disneyland rides. It is somewhat like the Star Tours ride, but just the seats move (in sections of four) rather than the entire theater. There are also effects that interact directly with the audience, like there used to be in the It’s Tough to be a Bug! show at California Adventure. The 4DX seats will often even hit your back during fight scenes, giving an added intensity to action sequences. And finally, the 4DX theaters utilize fans and scents, the same as the Soarin’ rides, for complete use of senses and to fabricate the feeling of movement and/or the wind. The ability to capture the feeling of being outdoors and in the elements alongside the characters is the most effective element of the experience for me, as much fun as it is to be tossed around during action scenes. There are water effects to simulate rain, when paired with the fans creates an effectively stormy feeling. During one scene in Aquaman, it even snowed in the theater, which was one of the more unexpectedly magical moments I’ve ever had in a movie theater.

        In making comparisons to amusement park rides as I tried to describe the 4D experience, I came to a second realization. As critical as I am of the movies that I attend, I have never once criticized the narrative elements of the rides that I love to enjoy at Disneyland. I enjoyed Aquaman in 4DX, because although it was merely an average movie, it was a spectacular ride. This is where the future of public film viewing should inevitably head, at least as long as they continue to make cookie-cutter genre films on a regular basis. I see a future in which non-genre film and independent releases are still shown in regular theaters, but with theaters also available for audiences to experience the big-budget genre films more directly. If pure spectacle and base entertainment is the goal, why not really give audiences something to experience?

        The future I imagine may seem far off in the distance, but things tend to move pretty fast in the business of getting audiences to buy tickets. Just think about how quickly most multiplexes have been adopted the reclining chairs, or have added dine-in options to the viewing experience. Or how commonplace it is for films to be released in 3D and/or Imax. And two years ago most people had never heard of movie subscription services such as MoviePass. Since debuting the format in 2009, CJ 4DPLEX, the world’s first and most successful 4D company has built over 500 theaters to screen this format, but only six of them are currently in the United States. It is ironic, considering how many Hollywood blockbusters are screened in 4DX across the globe.

        Although they have theaters in nearly 60 countries, CJ 4DPLEX is headquartered in Seoul. They also have international offices in Bejing and Los Angeles, despite the fact that the first 4D exhibition didn’t occur in the United States until 2014. But as I mentioned, things can move fast in this business, and I imagine the Los Angeles offices will be very busy in the coming years. Although 15 additional Regal 4DX locations were in the rollout plan, the success of this past year (4DX grossed $250 million at the worldwide box office) has led to an increase of screens added in the United States. Instead of adding 15 4DX screens, the plan is to add 79, increasing the number of theaters from 6 to 85 over a couple of years. And it makes sense, especially since a large portion of the success comes from the screening of Hollywood blockbusters (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom alone grossed $31 million for 4DX). Even if most Americans might not yet know of its existence, soon many more will have the option of experiencing it for themselves.

        But I guess it ultimately comes down to the question of audience’s willingness to pay additional money for a unique viewing experience, which is exactly what 4DX is selling. There might be technological advances to allow audiences the ability to now view 3D films from home, but the only way you are going to experience a 4D film is by going out to the theater. In this way it is at least somewhat similar to 3D, at least in its early days. 3D was used as a novelty to convince audiences to return to movie theaters after the invention of the television had taken away regular customers in the 1950s. Studious observers of history might note that this novelty waned in popularity fairly quickly, and may suppose that 4D will likely do the same. I would remind those skeptics that 3D has returned with advances in technology, and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon. I would also point out to those skeptics the other changes to the art form which were made to provide audiences with something that a television could not, whether that was the increased use of color or the experimentations with widescreen formats. Each of these “novelties” also became commonplace within the medium. But there is something far more convincing than my arguments that could be used to sway the staunchest of skeptics; I will simply suggest that they try it for themselves. The technology may be advanced, but the joys of watching a film in 4D are quite simple to understand once you have experienced it for yourself.


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