Since 1927, the majestic Chinese Theatre has stood in Hollywood, a symbol of the motion picture industry's glorious past as well as a totem to cinema's enduring hold on the cultural imagination. Take a five-minute walk west on Hollywood boulevard, however, and you'll find a company that aims to have a significant say in that industry's future.
That's where CJ E&M America houses its 4DX system, an immersive screening experience that it hopes will soon become the preferred way to see the latest blockbuster. “So much of premium cinema-going is related to [serving gourmet] food, which doesn't literally relate to what's on screen," says Angela Killoren, CJ E&M America's Chief Marketing Officer. “At the end of the day, you're like, ‘I could sit on my couch and also have a very nice meal.' Everybody's trying to create something special that is a driver for audiences."
Since 2010, the Seoul-based CJ has been equipping theater auditoriums around the globe — from Brazil to Mexico to Ukraine — with its 4DX technology, which features seats that rock and roll in motion to the action on the screen, as well as offering smells, lighting effects and smoke. The United States is CJ's next big target: Plans are underway for the first American 4DX screen to open in the Regal Cinemas L.A. Live multiplex by the end of June.
Killoren recognizes that there's skepticism in the States because of past theater gimmicks like Sensurround and Smell-O-Vision. Speaking in the 4DX offices, surrounded by posters for films like Divergent and Man of Steel that have screened in 4DX overseas, she says, “The U.S. audience does have a slightly more puritan ethos: They want their movie the way they've always wanted their movie. But over time, moviegoing and moviemaking have changed so much. Even the digitalization of films itself is partly what makes this possible because it's so highly synchronized. It's not a kid in a projector room pushing [buttons]; everything's synched with the data of the film, and so it's much more tightly integrated.”
Most U.S. journalists have only participated in brief 4DX demos, but Rolling Stone was given the opportunity to test-drive a full feature — thus it's appropriate that our film was a 4D-enhanced version of Need for Speed, the car-crazy Aaron Paul action-thriller. We were curious how the high-octane/low-IQ movie would work with a 4DX upgrade. Here are 8 takeaways from the experience:
It's incredibly jarring to be in a seat that jerks around
Need for Speed's first major action sequence — an illegal nighttime drag race — kicks off with a foot slamming down on a gas pedal, and just then your chair lurches back, creating the sensation that you're in the car. From there, the motion of your chair mimics every turn of the racers' steering wheels. There's no escape; you're part of the film.
4DX really forces an active viewer experience
After viewing a fully 4DX-enhanced feature, we found ourselves feeling more tired but also more wound up than after a regular night out at the movies. You can't just let the movie happen to you; the chair demands that you be engaged in an active way with what's happening on the screen….
…But that's not always a good thing
Need for Speed is not a great movie per se, and the bad action scenes are incredibly irritating in 4DX. You're being kicked around and assaulted in sequences that were practically intolerable in two or three dimensions, much less "four." However, as the film starts to pick up steam near the end as Paul competes in the dangerous De Leon race, the 4DX adds some adrenaline to the experience.
You may have to relearn how to watch a movie
Most viewers tend to lean back in their seats. 4DX, however, is incredibly disorienting if you sit that way — you feel at the mercy of the chair, which can go side to side, up and down, and forward and backward. Eventually, we discovered that it was best to sit up straight and almost lean forward a little bit. It's not unlike a rollercoaster: Leaning into it is better than laying back.
4DX-enhanced movies don't feature 4DX from beginning to end
“People [worry], ‘Oh, I can't deal with [4DX's motion] for two hours,'"Killoren notes. “Well, it's not that for two hours — the movie's not that for two hours. 4DX is supposed to be in service of immersion in the story."In Need for Speed's case, it's mostly reserved for action scenes. However, the technology was occasionally utilized to enhance random moments of comedy or horror. (For example, when a scary dog startles Paul, the chair briefly jolted.) Gimmicky? In a word, yes. You're being goosed into a response.
On the whole, being shaken isn't very fun
We love rollercoasters because of their speed, not because we want them to rattle our brains until they're purée — and Need for Speed in 4DX has a little too much brain-rattle for our taste. (It's worth noting: The film's producers oversee the implementation of 4DX elements. CJ merely makes suggestions and then works off the producers' notes.) When the 4DX seat simply rumbles, the sensation is akin to sitting in one of those Brookstone massage chairs. But watch out: that usually signals something ominous, such as a rumbling in the background or a car revving up.
There are currently eight smells utilized by 4DX
Different floral scents and coffee are available, but during the Need for Speed presentation, the scents were relegated to burning rubber and gunpowder. In general, pungent odors make viewers nauseous, but here, the burning scent enhanced scenes of cars in flames, adding an extra layer of immediacy.
The best part of 4DX: the fans
During scenes when cars or planes are zipping through space, the overhead fans kick on, and it's like you're zooming down the highway with the wind in your hair. It's an oddly liberating, freeing feeling. The representative almost managed to secure a 4DX-enhancced screening of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 for the demo; we're now wondering how Spidey's Manhattan skyline sojourns would have been in 4DX.