If you thought the future of cinema lay in spiffy 3D glasses or sophisticated headsets, think again. It lies, at least according to Canadian company D-Box Technologies, behind our backs and beneath our buttocks. D-Box’s website claims their proudest inventions – vibrating movie seats – will enable moviegoers to “live the action onscreen with an unmatched realism.” Last week the company unveiled their fancy schmantzy new seats to cinema audiences in America and no, it wasn’t an April Fools joke.
An idea this stupid needs some serious Hollywood star power to help sell it, and who better to flog the new wares than shiny-scalped built-like-a-brick-shit-house action man Vin Diesel? Fast and Furious, the unimaginatively titled third sequel to 2001’s hit The Fast and the Furious (in which Diesel reunites with supporting star Paul Walker for another foot-to-the-floor story about cars and crime) is the first theatrical release to use the technology. The movie opened April 3 in a specially fitted cinema at the Mann Chinese 6 Theatre in Hollywood where, says D-Box, “audience members will feel all the shifts and rumbles of an opening hijacking sequence, however the seats will remain still during the quieter, dialogue driven scenes.”
D-Box’s seats aren’t the first technological gimmick for the cinema and they won’t be the last. 3D glasses are the most enduring of cinematic novelties; full length 3D pictures date back as far as 1922 and are currently experiencing a resurgence with new and improved glasses utilised by recent movies Monsters Vs. Alien (currently screening) and My Bloody Valentine, as well as a slew of yet to be released features. The short-lived Smell-O-Vision was used in the 1960 film Scent of Mystery and, bizarrely, recent reports have suggested a possible revival of the concept by Japanese and Portuguese designers (let’s hope they don’t get their hands on a copy of Kenny). Most outrageously of all, Philips have designed a jacket that apparently allows audiences to “feel” the movies they watch. God knows how anybody would survive a screening of Fight Club or Rocky Balboa.
With the arguable exception of 3D glasses, these gimmicks are crude inventions that distract viewers rather than enhance the cinema experience. When I visited Universal Studies seven years ago I waited 45 minutes in the sun to see Shrek 4D, an effects-laden animated short in which the so-called fourth dimension involved small jets of water that sprayed the back of the audience’s necks and soft things that extended from underneath the seats to tickle our legs. It was a less than riveting experience, but perfectly justified considering where I was. Meek sensory effects like these are par for the course in theme parks but seem tacky and pointless in the cinema.
But before you start fearing for the future of filmmaking bear in mind that even if the D-Box enhanced Fast and Furious screenings in Hollywood are deemed a roaring success (this seems unlikely) the technology has very little chance of achieving anything vaguely resembling prominence or longevity. For one thing, the concept of sitting in a seat that jolts and vibrates isn’t particularly appealing – I did this for the Back to the Future ride and came out with a sore back and a slight limp. For another, the cost of equipping cinemas would be massive, and financial factors have been a major stumbling block even for important innovations like digital projectors. And from a storytelling perspective the ramifications could be dire: no doubt an influx of D-Box seats would herald, for example, an exponential increase in the number of productions staged in cars, roller coasters and rafts. In other words more banal, intellectually vacuous movies. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest this really isn’t what Hollywood or the audience needs.