Imagine what kind of cultural experiences $28 can buy you. A decent show ticket. Three matinees at a suburban movie theater. A couple ritzy museum admissions. Nine movie rentals on iTunes. Three months of Spotify. Twenty-eight CDs, probably.
Now instead of any of those, imagine spending $28 on a single movie ticket. But not to see just any movie — one where the chair beneath you vibrates, jumps, shakes, punches you in the center of the back, and, on occasion, lurches forward as if to eject you onto a soda-and-spit-covered floor. Imagine if every time there was gunfire on screen, you were shot in the back of the head by a tiny, burst of air. Imagine if halfway into your "experience," a woman darted past you, covering her mouth and holding back the sounds of heaving.
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 4DX Experience was one of the worst experiences of my life. Unfortunately, I did not just imagine it.
4DX's promotional language bills it as a "fully immersive cinematic experience." At a 4DX screening, a 3D movie screening is supplemented with proprietary moving chairs and "environmental effects" including wind, fog, rain, and smells. (It does not actually involve a fourth dimension.) The Regal in Union Square is only the third theater in the US to install a 4DX auditorium (the other two are in Chicago and Los Angeles), so at least a little excitement seemed warranted. The screening I attended was sold out, and I overheard several conversations at the box office window about future screenings. People were genuinely curious about what 4DX was, to which a timid Regal employee kept responding "well, there's like, effects and stuff."
"effects and stuff"
The best part of my Batman v Superman 4DX Experience experience was right before the house lights went down. Everyone was still milling around with their popcorn, finding their seats, and trying to gracefully slide over people who were already seated, when the 4DX technology hype reel began and the seats started jolting up and down. One woman in front of me was halfway through arranging her snacks on the arm of her chair and made an impressive grab for her soda, avoiding disaster by a matter of milliseconds.
We were shown four standard previews — great, I love previews! Then we were shown four more in 3D — all blockbusters, mostly Marvel. Then another 4DX hype video. At this point, we had gone about 20 minutes watching nothing but ads. I was reminded that Regal had sold about $3,000 worth of tickets for this screening. Money is great.
During my Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 4DX Experience experience, I enjoyed a waldorf chicken wrap. This was an unwise decision, as it was difficult to eat under the circumstances — those being near constant wind, "rain," or violent turbulence. Much of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice takes place in the rain, and 4DX definitely took maximum advantage of its opportunities to spray the audience in the face with water. I kept my dinner mostly inside its plastic wrapper and tried to rip off bites in between spritzes and moments of being tossed nearly into the air, but I felt truly bad for the people who had shelled out $10 for a bucket of popcorn.
It was not entirely clear whose experience the chair was conveying, which seems like a dumb thing to have to analyze, but here we are. In one scene, the chair's motion mirrored Batman's point of view — stomping, punching, diving. In the next it would seem to move along with the camera. In the next it would lurch in time with a discharging rifle. There were long passages of generic vibration. Sometimes the seats shook just because someone on screen was making a loud noise.
very much of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice takes place in the rain
When I first heard about 4DX, I was actually really excited about the smells. The spectacular failure of Smell-O-Vision, a late 1950s innovation that promised to supplement the plot of a movie with scents, seemed related largely to the technology available at the time. Audiences said they had to strain to catch some scents, that others were delayed significantly, and that they were released with a loud and distracting hissing noise.
It's 2016, so I assumed that the variety of available scents, as well as the smoothness with which they could be delivered to my nostrils, would have improved significantly. I was ready to catch a whiff of Bruce Wayne's expensive cologne and feel weirdly swoony about Ben Affleck. My coworkers were very, very curious to know what baked good Amy Adams would smell like.
I'm not sure what the Batman v Superman scent game plan started as, if there was one. Three times during the film I noticed a smell akin to a birthday candle burning through a plastic tablecloth. It supplemented my understanding of the movie only in that simmering plastic is probably what gross capitalism smells like.
At one point, when Superman was saving a child from a house fire I thought I smelled a Bath & Body Works S'mores candle, but that was almost definitely placebo effect. I thought: "I'll take it!"
So, 4DX's billing as "groundbreaking immersive technology," turned out to be a pretty gross oversell on every front. It's not "groundbreaking," because no sane person would ever buy a second 4DX ticket. It didn't help to immerse me in the story though it did make me hyper aware of my body and things that I don't enjoy having happen to it. And the "technology" primarily involves ceiling fans, sprinklers, and strobe lights.
simmering plastic is probably what gross capitalism smells like
I don't believe for one second that the intention was to be truly immersive. Nor do I believe that anyone truly thinks 4DX will become a standard part of the movie-going experience. I believe that 4DX is a novelty that some people will pay for, and the biggest benefit to theaters will be that $18 3D movies will seem much more reasonable by comparison.
As we filed out of the theater, the crowd looked stunned, or numb. Either they were readjusting to planting their feet on the ground without fear of breaking an ankle, or they were just trying to understand how they had let the whole thing happen. It was a waste of money so pure, so brutal, so punishing in its obviousness. It was like waking up the morning after you wired $1,000 to an account that allegedly belonged to your grandchild, "lost in Mexico" and "at the mercy of loan sharks." It was like opening your closet and seeing how many Build-a-Bears are in there.
The experience was terrible, but who could say it wasn't immersive? Physically, emotionally, it was three hours of violent, uncomfortable, far too intimate contact with a theater industry whose desperate sweat was literally being sprayed on me.