What it’s like to see Batman v Superman in butt-punishing 4DX

[This Wired story is a first-person description of the latest presence-evoking tech for movie-going; as the author notes, it’ll be interesting to see how well it works when it accommodates the film rather than the reverse. –Matthew]

Superman v Batman

What It’s Like to See Batman v Superman in Butt-Punishing 4DX

Brian Raftery
March 29, 2016

The sign outside of the just-installed 4DX theater in New York City warns of “motion enabled chairs” with “strong vibrations”; some “lightning, rain, [and] flashing (strobe) lights”; and a dash of “fog and strong scents.” But after sitting through a recent screening of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in the immersive, audience-rattling moviegoing format—which promises the chance to experience firsthand nearly every punch, jostle, and chin-jut of Zack Snyder’s new superhero showdown—I might add the following heads-up: And by the way, once the movie’s through, your upper butt will feel as though it’s been massaged by a coked-up gibbon.

Such are the lingering effects of 4DX, which was introduced in South Korea in 2009, and expanded to nearly 230 theaters around the world before finally making its NYC debut last week at Manhattan’s Regal Union Square Stadium 14 theater (a Times Square screen is scheduled to open in late April). For studio heads and theater-owners hoping to lure viewers away from their living rooms and/or BitTorrent nooks, 4DX is a chance to introduce pricey theme-park pleasures to a pastime that’s largely been a lean-back cheapish thrill for decades. For movie fans, it’s an opportunity to empathize, at least physically, with Bruce Wayne after one of his tire-dragging CrossFit workouts.

The first thing you notice walking into the theater are the chairs, which are bulky, interconnected, and equipped with a giant footrest. Sit down and look up, and you’ll spot a row of oversized lights and wall-mounted fans hanging over you on either side. Tickets for 4DX aren’t cheap—an adult admission at Union Square runs almost $30, which is pricey, even for Manhattanites—but the seats are roomy, the footrests are comfortable, and the cup-holders look very suitably cup-holdery.

Still, it wasn’t until Batman v Superman got underway that the upsell-draws of 4DX became apparent. In the opening scenes, as a young Wayne runs through a graveyard on an overcast day, a chilly wind blew though the theater, and the seats began to slowly tilt and rumble in unison. When Wayne finally falls through a ground and into a cave, where he’s surrounded (and ultimately levitated) by a mini-twister of bats, the back of our chairs started rumbling, and mist-pistons fired from behind our heads.

Each effect was timed, more or less, to the action on screen: Jagged flashes of light during the film’s many, many explosions; slight drizzles of water during its rain-soaked sequences; small plumes of smoke during the movie’s foggier moments (occasionally, and seemingly randomly, a slight medicinal odor wafted into the theater; if you’re wondering what Doomsday’s breath smells like, it’s pretty much a mix of Bactine and Diet Sprite). There’s also a recurring, not-always-pleasant punching in the lower back of the chair; if Stephen King decided to reboot Maximum Overdrive and populate it with sentient, bullying airport massage-chairs, he could nab a few 4DX gizmos and film it all with practical effects.

With all that butt-punishment, though, comes at least a few moments of cinematic enlightenment. What’s especially disorienting about 4DX is that the movement and effects aren’t limited to a particular character, object, or perspective: Sometimes the bump you experience is the kick of a bullet leaving its chamber, and sometimes it’s the thump of a body hitting the floor. When used effectively—when the seats tilt and glide in collusion with a swooping camera, for example—the technology pulls you closer to the action, while also giving you a visceral, God-view awareness that the focus of the action can shift at any moment.

It goes without saying that all of the jerking and lurching, especially in a movie that pushes the 150-minute mark, isn’t for everyone (one theatergoer near me took to the floor during the punch-a-go-go of Batman v Superman’s final half-hour; more than a few stood up during the end credits and rubbed their backs). And for all the attempts at coordinating what’s happening on the screen and what’s happening in our seats, the fact remains that, ultimately, the 4DX was rigged to accommodate Batman v Superman, and not the other way around. The only time the on- and off-screen action felt truly synced was during the light-dimming welcome-to-the-cinema teaser, which placed all of us, effectively, in one of those outer-space roller-coaster rides that theater owners are convinced we all equate with movie-going. When it comes to a big movie like Batman v Superman—which is already beholden to the demands of 3D, IMAX, and a gazillion other innovations—a still-nascent technology like this one can only be reactive.

But while 4DX may be, for now, more of an impressive digital gizmo than an actual creative tool, it does offer an unexpected, almost paradoxical pleasure—namely, using advanced technology to return viewers to the communal form of theatergoing that existed before the era of mid-movie texting and web-hopping. Because we were tethered to the same chairs—and bound by the same “So how’s this gonna work?” sense of curiosity—all of us at the Batman v Superman screening were in it together. No one texted, or even looked at their phone. Occasionally, we even whooped or oofed in unison. Everyone was focused on one of the simplest, most old-fashioned pursuits of all: Losing yourself inside a movie, no matter how much it might hurt.


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