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Howard Sherman: Even with 4DX, movies aren’t as immersive as theatre

4DX seats move the viewer in sync with the on-screen action. Photo: Howard Sherman
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As the film industry continues to grapple with declining audiences in US movie theatres, thanks in no small part to the welter of original programming offered on streaming services like Netflix, there’s a struggle to figure out what place theatrical movie exhibition has against video content. There’s always been a love-hate relationship between screens small and large. In the 1950s, to counter the initial rise of television, Hollywood’s response was everything from the ultra-wide screens of Cinerama to the first, brief wave of 3D films.

In the US, movie exhibitors are trying such experiments as reclining seats and in-theatre dining, complete with waiter service (though the fare is less upscale than that slight description might suggest), but with prices that approach the often exorbitant costs of simple popcorn.

One innovation borrows a word heard frequently in live theatrical circles: immersion. Of course, as I have often said, one won’t be able to fully interact with, and reproduce, the theatre experience until someone invents the holodeck from Star Trek. However, with a system called 4DX, exhibitors are trying to do the same thing immersive theatre does, which is to say, create an experience that is more than what happens at the far end of a room with a clear separation between art and audience.

On a lazy Saturday, I thought it was time to see what 4DX had to offer, so after ponying up $30, almost double the cost of a regular, non-3D movie in Manhattan, I passed by a sign filled with warnings about not undertaking the 4DX experience if I suffered from various conditions. This put me in mind of a similar caution I saw outside of Disneyland’s Space Mountain and I struggle to think of such extensive alerts at immersive theatre shows.

Photo: Howard Sherman
Photo: Howard Sherman

Entering the theatre for The Avengers: Infinity War, I saw banks of seats divided into sets of four, which reinforced the theme park ethos, recalling any number of motion simulator attractions, which I rather enjoy. I avoid true motion experiences such as roller coasters at all costs. Sitting down, I flipped down a footrest, and noticed a small lighted button, reading “Water On.”

Because 4DX can’t bring the actual film off the screen beyond what’s already been achieved in 3D, its primarily calling card is the seating, which tips and sways according to the action on screen, which was considerable in the Marvel attraction I’d chosen. It combines that with strategically placed high-power fans that simulate wind, strobe lights to mimic explosions and lightning, which if nothing else insures that you won’t be nodding off during the 4DX experience. Indeed those swaying seats also have pistons in the back which literally pummel you at various points, like an electric massage chair gone awry.

And what of “Water On”? When there’s rain, or fog, or water-based scenes, 4DX actually emits a fine spray of the stuff of life, which makes no particular sense when the audience is required to wear glasses for the 3D effects. I opted for “Water Off” immediately after the first fine shower. 4DX reminded me of a section in the 1977 sketch film Kentucky Fried Movie, about something called “Feel-A-Round,” in which an usher stands behind every movie seat, dumping water, slapping patrons and so on in sync with the on-screen action.

In short, I can say that at this stage of movie tech development, live theatre, and immersive theatre, is running far ahead of immersive movie technology. There is nothing remotely human about 4DX and, while it is sensory, it isn’t subtle. We can easily imagine a live immersive production of Chekhov, but the new film of The Seagull would hardly be enhanced by strobes and spritzes.

Is immersive theatre growing up or growing too big, too quickly?

To be sure, theatre productions have begun to experiment with virtual reality. Elements of Oz, from the Builders Association, which I saw a while back at the 3LD Arts and Technology Center in Lower Manhattan, asked audience members to download an app and use their phone throughout the show, through which they could view 360-degree scenery that was nowhere in evidence in the corporeal theatre. Eventually, there will be more effective convergence between the electronic experience and the live one, but we’re not there yet.

After two and a half hours of 4DX, which did – since I didn’t heed the copious warnings – trigger some normally controlled pain I experience due to cervical disc damage, I’d retrospectively have been perfectly happy with a two-dimensional, static viewing of Infinity War. In contrast to live theatre of any kind, it’s fair to say that while 4DX can leave you physically shaken, it leaves your soul unstirred.

This week in US theatre

Last night saw the Baltimore Center Stage opening of Soul: The Stax Musical, a tribute to the music that emerged from Stax Records, home to such acts as Booker T and the MGs, Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. The show features an array of composers and lyricists, with a book by Matthew Benjamin and direction by Kwame Kwei-Armah.

The darkly satiric world of Christopher Durang takes the stage once again as his newest play, Turning Off the Morning News, premieres Sunday at New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre Center. It features his frequent interpreter Kristine Nielsen, who previously originated roles in several Durang plays including Miss Witherspoon and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, under the direction of the company’s artistic director Emily Mann.

Richard Eyre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, first seen at the Bristol Old Vic, opens its three-week run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Sunday. Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville once again lead the company portraying the profoundly troubled Tyrone family.

Dominique Morisseau, whose Skeleton Crew has been widely produced over the past couple of years, sees her Paradise Blue receive its New York premiere at New York’s Signature Theatre, opening Monday under the direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson. The play, about the fate of a jazz club in a gentrifying Detroit in 1949, debuted in 2012 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

The pairing of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori has rightly yielded significant cross-country interest in their first musical together, Soft Power, premiering Thursday at Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group. Directed by Leigh Silverman, the show imagines a future musical that inverts The King and I, sourced instead from an imagined 2016 romance between a Chinese businessman and Hillary Clinton.

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