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4DX: An Immersive Movie Theater Experience Or An Expensive Gimmick?

Instead of just watching a film, now you can be a part of it – but is 4DX really worth it?

Photo Courtesy of 4DX

There has not been too many extensive updates to the movie theater experience in recent years, evident by the resurgence of 3D, a technology that really burst onto the scene in the early 1950s.  Sure, theaters have invested in better seating, meal services during the film or even IMAX, which offers theatergoers a bigger, better – and more costly – quality picture and sound experience, but the overall idea is still the same.  Go in, sit for a few hours, stare at a screen and then leave.

It’s no secret that theater chains are struggling to put butts in seats, thanks to the emergence of streaming services and the quality of today’s home entertainment setups, so these companies are continuing to look for new and exciting ways to pull people to the theater.  The latest update is 4DX, a 4D format that augments films with a variety of sensory enhancements. Basically, it’s like a lengthy Disney World ride while watching blockbusters like Jumanji: The Next Level – the seats move, there’s wind and smoke, strobe lights flash, water rains down and, in some cases, smells are even pumped into the theater to better mimic what the theatergoer is witnessing.  In total, 21 effects can seemingly enhance the stereoscopic 3D experience, creating the most authentic feel of the big screen and, as the company touts, “transform the movies into life.”

But, if you’re like much of the United States, you’ve probably never enjoyed this technology.

That’s because it’s still incredibly new.  Developed by a subsidiary of a South Korea theater chain, 4DX is just over a decade old, having already featured more than 640 Hollywood blockbusters around the world in that span.  While Europe and Asia got a jump on this technology, the U.S. is catching up and 4DX auditoriums are beginning to appear at a decent clip, with Regal Cinemas getting on board.  As of 2018, there was a proposed 20 4DX auditoriums planned to be constructed in Regal Cinemas in several markets around the country including Orlando, Seattle and Philadelphia, all of which came on the heels of the very first auditorium in downtown Los Angeles back in 2014.

Last week, I decided to check out the new 4DX auditorium at my local theater, one of two in the greater Philadelphia area, for a matinee showing of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to do it but since the next showing was an hour and a half later, it was the only time that worked for my schedule.  The standard matinee showing of the recently released Star Wars installment was $11.75, however a daytime 4DX sensory explosion was $22 – just a little less than $2 what it would cost to see an IMAX version of the film.  Not a bad deal in today’s entertainment landscape, I suppose.

To help prepare myself and the other newbies scattered throughout the theater, 4DX has compiled a short little opening film after the coming attractions, one that gives moviegoers the highlights of what the experience is going to be like for the next few hours by jostling, spraying, flashing and smoking to the action-packed commercial.  After it ended, I watched as one person promptly got up, left the auditorium and didn’t return – but I cannot say that I actually blame him. If you’re some who easily gets motion sickness from theme park rides, bright lights or any sensory overload, 4DX is probably not for you. In fact, at first I wasn’t even sure if it was for me.  Just a few minutes into the film, I was focusing more on surviving the movements of the action-packed opening sequence and less on the story of Kylo Ren, Rey, Finn and all of the characters. There was vigorous moving with the Millennium Falcon. There was flashes during lightsaber battles. There was mist during an ocean scene.

It took some getting used to, hindering my focus for about the first 20 minutes until my body kind of felt like it got the hang of it and from there on out, it just became part of the film.  Perhaps my favorite aspect was the smoke pumped into the theater which, in several instances, floated perfectly in front of the scene during an epic battle or moments where dirt and dust were flying.  A few of the action-packed scenes were so intense, perhaps too intense, that I was actually a little appreciative when a quiet moment of dialogue dominated the following scene.  By the end, it felt like I had been exhaustively been part of the adventure, which is exactly what 4DX is going for, correct?

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was a film I had waited a while to see, with the full intent of analyzing scenes and dialogue to figure out how it would end, all while hunting for Easter eggs in the process.  I felt like 4DX hindered my ability to do so a little, stealing my attention at certain times and distracting me from reaching DEFCON 1 on all nerd levels and simply comprehending what I was watching.  It was fun. It took some getting used to but I enjoyed it. Having said that, it’s a unique experience that I’m not in a rush to do again very soon. I guess I’m a film purest who enjoys just sitting there and enjoying the sights and loud sounds with little distraction. It should be noted I’m not the biggest 3D fan either.

4DX seems like technology that would be great for something like Rambo: Last Blood or any other of the slightly cheesy action films that are great popcorn flicks.  Anything with Dwayne Johnson or Keanu Reeves would probably lend itself best to all of the movements, sights and sounds.  Come to think of it, a racing film like Ford v. Ferrari would probably be awesome.  Only time will tell if it catches on but it feels a little like a gimmick and a little like a fun experience, it just depends on watch you’re watching. Go and experience 4DX for yourself, if nothing else you’ll leave with a cool conversation piece.