I Spent One Day Experiencing the Future of Movies, and It Was Full of 4-D Katnisses and Virtual-Reality Narwhals

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With this week's Sound and Visions series, Vulture explores the future of movies and the movie industry. We hope you’ll plug us directly into your cerebral cortex.

My seat rumbles as Jennifer Lawrence plummets downward into the bowels of District 13. Later, as she walks through what remains of her former home, the smell of burning rubble lingers in the air. I’m sitting at the only 4DX theater in America, but I'm also in Panem, where every bomb thrown by Capitol airships lurches my chair forward, and the air is scented with pine and water whenever Katniss can steal away into the forest to stare down wildlife or sing "Hanging Tree."    

At last weekend's seventh annual 3-D Film Festival, the future of movies — or at least what Regal Cinemas, which became the first theater in America to roll out 4DX technology in June, hopes is the future of movies — was presented in multiple overlapping dimensions. Billed as the first movie festival to feature a 4DX “lineup,” it featured screenings of three already-released blockbusters: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Penguins of Madagascar, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part I. Developed by the Seoul-based company CJ 4DPlex, 4DX was first used on a major release in 2008, when an enhanced version of Journey to the Center of the Earth opened in South Korea. Since then, it has expanded to almost 30 countries, the U.S. being the latest. In essence, it’s a more advanced version of the motion-simulator 3-D rides that proliferated at Disney World and Universal Studios in the ’90s, in which the audience experienced various effects — wind, rain, scents, motion, bubbles! — timed to moments onscreen. Hydrophobes and weenies can turn off the water with the click of a button located on the armrest, but if you take issue with your seat's lilts, jolts, and prods (or having air blasted into your ear), you're sadly out of luck. Aggressive warning labels caution you against placing lidless beverages in your cup holder lest your Sprite end up in your lap. Hot drinks are forbidden for obvious reasons.

But even though 4DX is only in one U.S. theater so far, its possible successor already looms on the horizon: On another floor of the festival, a series of virtual reality vendors had set up kiosks to offer demonstrations of what VR cinema, gaming, and everything in between might look like.

In an age when TV is ascendant — both the medium and the device — movie theaters must offer even more spectacular experiences, the kind you can't get at home, to compete. When Americans aren't obsessing over the newest prestige drama, they’re using their TVs (or the closest device handy) to illegally download new movies or stream recent ones through Netflix, Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes. Though U.S. box-office revenue has increased 17 percent in the past decade, attendance has dropped more than 10 percent in the same period. IMAX and 3-D failed to reverse the trend, but the higher prices they justify kept overall movie-industry revenue growing.

The price of a 3-D IMAX experience in New York now runs more than $20. A ticket to a 4DX movie costs $27. For 4DX's most likely demographic — children — that's going to require a dental catastrophe that will summon the world's most generous tooth fairy. It’s a hefty price for anyone, really, and the question is whether the novelty will be worth it. Arcades, water parks, zoos — as soon as you’re old enough, the wonder dissolves, almost never to be regained. I thought about this as I was slouched in my chair, poofs of air shooting out of jets positioned above my ears, watching Michelangelo hit on Megan Fox while the scent of smoldering rubber wafted out of a plastic hole on the guardrail between my seat and the screen. At first, I was annoyed by the mechanical kicks administered by my chair. And every time I smelled that synthetic fire, I thought of Waiting for Guffman’s Corky St. Clair warning that audiences don’t like “fire poked — POKED — in their noses.” But as my seat jolted in time with a turtle’s shell skipping across the snow, and as a breeze fluttered a page in my notebook, I thought, This is fun. It happened again when a stray raindrop landed on the back of my hand.

The Hunger Games receives a more delicate touch. The chairs save their most aerobic moves for key disasters: when buildings topple, bodies crash into each other, or the shift focuses to a character who finds himself or herself in the unfortunate position of filming a "propo" message during a violent air raid. For most of the movie, however, the gyrations are subtle. Grinding vibrations and downward tilts greet you every time you enter District 13's underground barracks, underscoring the claustrophobia without distracting you too much.

I did, however, find it disappointing that the effects editors for both films didn't find an excuse — any excuse — to unleash a flurry of bubbles. The 4DX promotional poster mentioned them, and their absence was felt deeply. And if 4DX catches on in the U.S., even more inventive possibilities come to mind: Can you imagine the overwhelming scents of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? A 21+ screening of Inherent Vice in Colorado, the atomizers packed with Doc Sportello's private stash? What would Christopher Nolan’s fifth-dimension absurdities feel like in four dimensions?

Overall, 4DX is a perfectly executed attraction, generous in feel. The breeze is windy enough to tousle your hair, but not so forceful as to bother you; the water won’t ruin your shirt, but there’s no doubt that it happened; you will be tossed around gently, almost lovingly, and almost certainly won’t vomit from motion sickness. And after you sit through a 4DX feature, you’ll hope that it succeeds because there’s the sense that it was nice to you, that it really wanted to please you. That above all, it wanted to convince your lazy ass to come back to the multiplex.

In between Ninja Turtles and The Hunger Games, I ventured upstairs to check out the various virtual-reality stations, each equipped with Oculus Rift headsets and headphones. At one table, I swam with CGI narwhals and floated among undulating shapes. Across the room, a woman wearing another headset was swiveling madly in her stool, staring off into a vacant spot and announcing, “There’s a man in the corner of the room!” For anyone who remembers the VR of a decade ago — when the graphics could make a viewer feel woozy and nauseated, as if she'd just been hanging upside down for too long — it's a relief to find that on these new machines, your stomach stays exactly where it should be. The headsets are heavy enough that some of them leave little red marks on your face, but they're cushioned and not uncomfortable to wear. Each station I visited emphasized that it hoped to bring the headset price down (most of them were Oculus Rift kits, the development kit of which is currently priced at $350), or told me that it's programming and editing with Google Cardboard, a DIY headset, in mind.

Something about VR seems almost meditative: You must unplug from everything else (including whoever happens to be standing nearby) in order to enjoy the world that's been fitted to your head. During the experience, there can be no other screens. Your world has been replaced momentarily by another, whether it's a gaming world, a cinematic world, or just an exercise to help strengthen your lazy eye. You aren't wobbly at the end of the demo, but there's still a sense of readjusting to the physical world, like stepping out of a very dark room into the sunlight. 

My favorite VR experience was created by a team called Otherworld, in which the user plays a robot drinking coffee in a French café. Nothing happened. It reminded me of sitting at my kitchen table, cocooned in a calm bubble, except my arms were made of sinewy-looking steel and the only movement I could make was to turn my head. I was acutely aware of the fact that I was not, however, taking a VR spin at my own kitchen table. I was in a movie-theater lobby, visible to all, wearing headphones and goggles. It struck me that, from 3-D to Google Glassholery, media-enhancing glasses have never been a cool style to rock in public, and VR might be best enjoyed privately. It made for an odd paradox. Downstairs, the 4DX experience was trying to convince me to get out of my house and into a communal space. Here was the opposing argument: Stay home, where you really long to be, and become engulfed by a personal screen.

That two very different approaches to the future of movies were featured at the same event raises deeper questions than simply "How do future audiences want to be entertained?" VR aims to make you forget that you have a body at all: You're given another, or you become an invisible avatar (not so unfamiliar to us now, since we spend so much of our time being seen as only thumbnail pictures and Twitter handles). Whereas the darkened 4DX theaters at the end of a long hall reminded me that actual reality can still deliver something that virtual can't: It doesn't have to disorient you to transport you. Maybe in the future we'll find a synthesis between the two, an imaginative space neither private nor public. But for now, while the two sides duke it out to win ticketholders' affections, let's raise our voices on one important point: Don't stiff us on the bubbles.