First Click: 4D is the best way to watch Star Wars a second time

February 11th, 2016

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My old local haunt has mutated down the decades. Once a two-bit theater with any kind of popcorn you like as long as it was salt, it’s now a sofa-equipped hangout more like a speakeasy than a cinema. Yet there I was: inside the exact same room where I saw Star Wars for the first time upon its 1997 re-release, now watching Episode VII in 2D.

That was nearly two months ago. Star Wars hype had subsided by last week, but I still wanted to see it a second time. The Force Awakens is a retro rollercoaster of a movie, and since I’d already checked off the nostalgia box, this time I wanted to go for spectacle. 3D? Not a fan. IMAX? Cool, but just not enough. No, there’s only one way to experience Star Wars to excess: you have to see it in 4D.

If you’re not aware, 4D showings are like 3D but with several extra doses of sensory overload. The seats move in tandem with the spaceships on screen; you get blasted in the face with air whenever a stormtrooper is shot; the theater fills with actual smoke when the Millennium Falcon is in need of repair, and so on. It’s like Star Tours at Disneyland with extra effects bought at half-price from a party store.

Is it a gimmick? Absolutely. I doubt there are any directors out there who consider these effects part of their artistic vision, and it’s downright distracting if you’re watching the movie for the first time. For a second viewing of The Force Awakens, though, it’s actually pretty fun. Once you’re familiar with its twists and turns, the seventh Star Wars episode is little more than a gloriously self-aware celebration of the most beloved sci-fi saga in the world. I love the movie, but there comes a point where it almost transcends traditional criticism, and at that point you might as well be sitting in a chair that shakes when a TIE fighter explodes.

The US only has a few 4D cinemas so far, but the concept appears to have become more popular in Japan since I went to see Iron Man 3, the very first movie to be shown in 4D here, nearly three years ago. There’s a minor format war going on, in fact — that Nagoya theater uses 4DX technology from South Korea’s CJ group, whereas the Tokyo cinema showing The Force Awakens employs the MX4D system from US company MediaMation. There’s a slight difference in the range of effects each format uses — I find MX4D tends to prod you in the butt while 4DX goes for the back — but the idea is the same.

It doesn’t work well for every movie. I liked The Force Awakens’ implementation more than Iron Man 3’s, mostly because it doesn’t squirt you in the face with mist and has the good sense to show restraint in more subdued scenes. But my overall takeaway from Iron Man 3 — that the moving seats are cool and almost everything else is not — still mostly holds true for The Force Awakens. The best 4D film I’ve seen to date is Mad Max: Fury Road, which benefits from consisting of a car chase for what feels like 80 percent of its running time, and therefore gets to lean on movement more than most movies could.

So if 4D does come to a screen near you, pick your showing wisely. I wouldn’t recommend it for any first viewing of a movie where you remotely care about the story — I did like Fury Road in 4D, but I do kind of wish I’d caught a 2D screening first. Something like Star Wars, though, where a lot of people will be happy to see it multiple times in theaters just for the experience? 4D is made for it.

You could say it adds... a new dimension.

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