I was about to order a pint at a pub on Russell Street, in the heart of Melbourne CBD, when I noticed a sign on the other side of the road. It read, in slightly fuzzy red letters, “4D Dynamic Cinema.”
“Do you know what that’s all about?” I asked the British guy behind the bar.
“Nup,” he said. “4D cinema, how do you even do that?”
My mind shot back to Universal Studios in LA more than a decade ago, when myself and a friend waited 45 minutes in the blistering sun to experience the unfortunate 15 minute “ride” Shrek 4D.
“It’s usually about fans and water,” I said. “That place doesn’t look like it’s got a huge budget. I imagine there’s some guy at the back of the cinema spraying people with a garden hose.”
An hour later I’m at the pub again, talking to the same guy. My pants are wet. My spine has been jolted sixteen ways from Sunday. My clothes probably smell like a smoke machine. I’ve been blown on by high-powered fans. I’ve absorbed “lightning vision”, which in industry parlance probably goes by the name “epilepsy legal threat.” And then there’s what I’ve seen: giant mutant serpents, improbably high roller coaster tracks, space ships, dinosaurs, mouth-agape zombies showing off every bit of their disgusting lack of dental hygiene…
Cinemas that deploy “fourth dimensional” novelties to spice up screenings are far from new. Take a look at the Wikipedia profile of American filmmaker William Castle (1914-1977) for a veritable array of cinematic gimmicks – among them features that incorporated an inflatable glow in the dark skeleton, seats with vibrating motors and blue and red cellophane “ghost viewers.”
On this blog in 2009 I wrote about a Canadian distributor of swanky vibrating seats, which supplied a cinema in Hollywood new ass-rattling technology for the release of Fast and Furious.
Hands-on iterations of what would become known as “Smell-O-Vision” have reportedly been used since virtually the beginning of the medium, but most notably for features such as 1960’s Scent of Mystery and a short-lived scratch-and-sniff revival in 2011’s Spy Kids 4.
A few years ago Phillips released a prototype “feel the movies” jacket equipped with 64 embedded motors, activated at precise moments for “emotional immersion.” I like to think that catastrophic test screenings of films such as Bonnie and Clyde, Scarface and Rocky Balboa were the reason the jacket was quickly emotionally immersed into non-existence.
The compulsion to cross the road and experience the skull-shaking thrills I assumed were literally for sale proved too great to ignore.
Outside, in the amusing tradition of Engrish vocabulary, a sign reads:
Pushing aside the sign’s…unconventional turn of phrase, I can vouch that the above content makes sense. Prohibiting elderly people entry is not just the right way to go but the only way to go, unless the owners want to be known as the place that slaughtered Grandma Betty by flinging her from side to side until the old girl’s bones shattered like frozen glass pounded by a sledgehammer. Also, I’d prefer a different synonym for “timorous”, so the sign would include the more humorous “please be prudent before purchasing a ticket for fearful people.”
Inside I’m milling about in a small foyer with this, apparently closed, box office to my right:
Just as I begin to fear that this mysterious cinéma du spectacle is out of action, its hidden pleasures to be unraveled on another occasion, a box office attendant wearing goofy looking yellow 3D glasses emerges from a noisy room where lights are bouncing off the walls.
After fielding some preliminary questions about the cinema (“do the seats shake a lot?”) he invites me to come inside, stand up the back, and watch the remainder of the current session. I enter and see a row of young men getting hurled relentlessly from side to side, the seats tipping further than anything I’ve seen at an amusement park.
Back in the foyer we discuss the following “films”, each played upon request, and each lasting for around 10 minutes. Two titles sets you back 15 bucks.
The house recommendation is Thrilling Roller Coaster matched with something a bit different, to broaden the palette. I’m thinking Living Dead but he suggests the less colourfully titled A Trip in a Big Forest. I go with his suggestion. Similarly, I opt for Extreme Roller Coaster, because it sounds more, well, extreme than the others, but Thrilling – I am told – is a better indication of the format’s capabilities.
Alone in the cinema, I literally strap in to my seat, buckle and all. Each are equipped with joystick-looking things on either arm to hold onto when the seats move — and boy, they move. If you’re alone in the cinema it’s not just your seat that moves, of course, but every seat in every aisle. You hear what sounds like gas cylinders emptying all the time, like small bursts of nitro that take you nowhere very quickly.
The first thing I recall about Thrilling Roller Coaster — which begins and ends, in a shocking turn of events, on a roller coaster — is the sight of bubbles forming on the screen. I think “that’s pretty good 3D” then, a few seconds later, an actual bubble lands on my right arm. I look around and they’re everywhere.
There’s suddenly a flying serpent scorpion thing in front of me, and it’s blowing fluid. My pants are getting wet. My glasses are too, which reduces the clarity of subsequent thrills. The 3D is quite effective — clear, sharp and defined — despite an animation budget clearly situated well on the south side of six figures. Given 3D is little more than a gimmick, and at times a thoroughly distracting one, this is the format in which it is arguably best used: to deliver visceral knee-jerk responses unrelated to the vaguest notions of dramatic depth, character development or that archaic concept known as a “story.”
Despite my macho gimme-all-you-got approach to selecting titles, I admit feeling a little uneasy around the time the first flying what-you-call-it activated the sprinklers. The thing that concerns me is whether something might emerge from the bottom of the cloth-draped seat I’m on and grab me. In most cinemas entertaining such a thought would seem ridiculous, but again my mind jolted back to Universal Studios, where an on-screen appearance of hundreds of tiny spiders coincided with a device that came out of the chair, tickled my legs — and, for a good half second at least — scared the bejeebers out of me. This time, I thought, I will be ready.
In A Trip in a Big Forest – introduced by title card as an “Advenpture” – I also get wet. It too is littered with mysterious thingmebobs that shoot fluid. The camera darts around prehistoric animals and lush landscapes until it lands in a cold and frosty looking place. I know something is about to come at me in the fourth dimension — not because of the magic of 4D cinema but because of the not-so-magic whirring sound of a machine bolted to the ceiling. When it starts snowing in the film, fake snowflakes fall down.
When Big Forest ends I am advised to stand up and stretch. A person comes and wipes down all the seats, which are now quite wet. Two more people enter and the man lets me keep watching for free. He introduces the new itinerary: Flying Through Icebergs, then Blood Road followed by its inventively titled sequel, Blood Road 2.
The best effect in Flying Through Ice Bergs, which involves a lot of flying and several icebergs, was the aforementioned “epilepsy legal threat” / lightning simulation — intensely bright lights that flicker at you in a short concentrated burst.
“Phoa, ‘magine going ‘ere after a few drinks,” the sandal-wearing bald man next to me exclaims before Blood Road (erroneously introduced as Bloody Road). It kicks off with a Pinhead-esque creature attacking the windscreen of a car and ends with the words “to be continue” (sic). I was uncertain which plot thread was left dangling but decided the sequel was a superior work: more focused and on message. Or put simply: more blood on the road.
I leave the cinema, go shopping, and a strange compulsion washes over me to visit again. When I return I’m granted my original wish: Extreme Roller Coaster and Death City. Although I appreciate the giddy heights and spine jolting vibrations of Extreme — particularly a moment when the roller coaster stops just before a sign that reads “UP” and reverses up the track to swing back down again and take an alternate route — I think Thrilling is the richer, more nuanced work. As the ticket vendor sagely put it: extreme starts intense, but thrilling becomes intense.
Death City explores subterranean monster dens, blood-splattered tunnels and decrepit buildings where zombies chew on bodies, causing splatter that translates into water sprayed onto the audience. There are more lightning effects, and smoke machine effects too. No pretty snowflakes.
By this time I think I’ve seen it all, but the final image leaves me shocked and speechless, my mouth drooping towards the floor. The shot follows a high-powered bloody zombie that looks like a giant mutant fetus into a cathedral, where it races towards a crucifix the way a hungry dog runs after a flesh-covered bone. Jesus hangs motionless on a cross. The zombie reaches it, climbs up his body, and punches Jesus in the face. The film ends.
Nowadays there’s a movie out there for virtually everybody. But it’s hard to imagine another that physically jolts audiences left, right, forwards and backwards like crash test dummies, sprays and smokes them like cheap seafood, then presents a brutal closing shot of mindless fourth dimensional blasphemy.
I go back to the pub and tell the man behind the bar my story. Unimpressed, he says “so you paid 30 bucks to sit on a vibrating seat and get water sprayed on you?”
For a moment — as if I’d again watched Jesus get hit smack-bang on the kisser — words fail me.