Your neighborhood cineplex is getting desperate. It’s no longer breaking news that the ascendant popularity of TV and the advent of streaming have landed brick-and-mortar theaters in dire straits, and they’re willing to do pretty much anything to keep your cheeks in their seats. Some have responded by going upscale, others are trying what we’ll charitably call “the opposite,” and one godless heathen on Twitter thinks allowing open cell phone usage during movies will save the cinema. Survival of the fittest has pushed many theaters to upgrade their tech in order to maintain that crucial sense of bigness that only takes hold during theatrical presentation, and it’s from this impulse that the mutant baby known as 4DX was born.
“4DX” means 4-dimensional experience, because if David Cronenberg doesn’t have to play by the English language’s rules, we shouldn’t have to either. Regal Cinemas’ notion of what the fourth dimension will be like ends up landing pretty close to a theme park ride, ostensibly immersing the audience in the film by simulating its physical conditions with seat-rumbling and other assorted shenanigans. There’s already been some fine writing about the format’s weird theoretical mechanisms, how it autocratically forces the audience to identify with what’s happening onscreen, but I had not schlepped to the Union Square multiplex to tap into a wellspring of empathy. I had come for Geostorm.
Little did I know, I would get both — and neither.
This is because there is no geostorm in Geostorm. All audiences could reasonably expect from a film called Geostorm is a tempest that engulfs the entire globe in the fury of nature, and yet director/presumptive cartoon stunt rider Dean Devlin can only muster a handful of non-geostorms. A patch of desert in Afghanistan gets freeze-dried, gas mains bust under Hong Kong and erupt in fiery geysers across the city, an icy tidal wave descends on Rio de Janeiro, each sequence lasting no more than a minute or two and playing out far away from our heroes. (They’re played by Gerard Butler and Jim Sturgess, inexplicably cast with American accents despite being brothers and mentioning that their characters were born in the U.K. The former is a renegade astronaut and, if I understood the movie correctly, the king of space, while the latter is merely the assistant secretary of State and a minor space expert. It’s fine, whatever, moving along.)
Those readers under the impression that the added effects of 4DX during these bush-league storms might compensate for the shameful lack of bona fide geostorms are partially correct and partially mistaken. I’ll gladly concede that getting shaken around like a maraca definitely made my experience that Friday morning more memorable, and yet I would not say the film was “improved” as much as it was “rendered a stomach-churning, hellacious bad trip during which I could only hold on for dear life.” 4DX isn’t the future of cinema, but it is the future of me almost throwing up in a movie theater. So take that, The Emoji Movie!
Below, I’ve broken down the Geostorm 4DX sensory onslaught into its composite pieces, each distracting and disorienting in its own special way. But until Mark Zuckerberg finally perfects that profoundly creepy natural-disaster VR tourism boondoggle, it’s the closest we can get to the real thing.
Far and away the least intrusive of the effects, several large spotlights would flash for a split-second against the wall when lightning struck onscreen. Depending on your attitude, it’s either hard to notice or easy to ignore, existing only for a moment in your peripheral vision. By the time you’ve looked up and registered what’s going on, however, you’ve already missed precious seconds of a petrified Chinese fellow frantically maneuvering around lightning strikes in his tiny smart car, like a life-or-death game of Frogger with the elements.
At seemingly random intervals — a lack of potential for widespread ruin means fog doesn’t get that much play in Geostorm — some dry ice would creep into the theater, made slightly more effective by its point of origin remaining unclear. On the one hand, the fog has the decency to not be actively unpleasant, but on the other, the vibes it introduces could be best described as “modestly budgeted high-school Phantom of the Opera production.”
As one might expect, the weather-cataclysm apocalypse is mighty breezy. Kudos to the 4DX folks for making it feel like the whirlwind really is blowing from every direction and in every direction when the camera flies through the streets of Abu Dhabi ahead of a pursuing tsunami. I would occasionally sneak a glance back in the auditorium to see how the other nine attendees were enjoying themselves; hair billowing back like a gang of Beyoncés, everyone seemed to be having a blast. It fully takes the viewer out of the movie, but at least it makes you giggle. Which is more than can be said for some puffs of air. (Read on.)
Mechanical Bull Chair
Each seat in a 4DX-equipped screening room is bolted to a herky-jerky hydraulic lift that bucks the audience around with all the force of an ill-tempered bronco. This feature gets a real workout during the long interludes on the orbiting facility code named Dutch Boy used to control the global-climate satellite grid, a concept everyone in the film can’t believe is prone to error. (For all its myriad failings, Geostorm mounts a convincing argument against the large-scale digitization of information and power.) As Butler floats around in zero gravity, the seats sway and twist on their axes to purée the contents of the audience’s stomachs. A freebie for late-night hosts in search of fresh games: Challenge Gerard Butler to sit through Geostorm’s cantaloupe-sized-hail set piece in the 4DX chair and see how long he can last before crying uncle.
The press release entreating critics to behold the film in 4DX gave its recipients fair warning of what they were in for, and no enumerated effect caught the eye quite like “Face Water.” Shot out of a tiny cannon mounted on the back of each chair at the row behind it, the little jets of spray added a certain je ne sais quoi to a rainstorm engulfing Manhattan, but got old after the second time wiping droplets off the 3-D glasses. If a viewer’s not careful to keep his jaw shut during the film’s deluge scenes, he might hypothetically get a sip’s worth of Face Water in his mouth. That viewer would then panic upon realizing that Face Water doesn’t taste like non-face water, and start to wonder if Face Water is capitalized as a proper noun for legal reasons, and consider fleeing the theater to seek medical counsel. This viewer will survive, but live with the sense-memory of that flavor — not quite metallic, not quite chemical, but definitely not not those things — for the rest of his days.
The “Bottom Tickler”
And those are 4DX’s words, not mine. I was perfectly happy referring to the weird sudden jabs in the back and thighs coming from the chair as “pokers,” but the official web site would rather we call the innovation by its proper title, which, again, is “Bottom Tickler.” It’s weirdly fitting that this technology should be paired with Geostorm, and on multiple levels: a new invention that could have used a little more thinking through, employed in the service of a movie about a new invention that could have used a little more thinking through, itself a massively scaled operation that also could have used a little more thinking through. 4DX, Geostorm, and Dutch Boy are perfectly harmonious in their dysfunction.
I’ll confess that I came into this screening as a relatively jumpy person. Do I wake up screaming when someone physically rouses me from sleep? Sure. Have I gotten so riled by sudden car crashes during movies that I’ve flung my Fanta onto the patron seated next to me? Who hasn’t! But still, I maintain that whoever came up with the bright idea to blow little pressurized puffs of air directly into the audience’s ear canals gets off on human suffering. Every time a character shot a gun onscreen — which happens with surprising frequency for a movie in which Mother Earth is ostensibly the bad guy — the “bullet” would whiz by with another blast of ear air, a feeling akin to a mosquito made out of wind grazing your cochlea. This is impossible to get used to, spaced out just far enough for a viewer to let his guard down. I believe this device comes from a place of hate.
Though marketed as the final evolution in the technology of movie exhibition, 4DX hews much closer to gimmickry like John Waters’s Smell-O-Vision or William Castle’s flying skeleton than state-of-the-art advances. But if the lone purpose of cinema is to raise the heart rate, mission accomplished. (Or rather, Mission Accomplished.) There’s probably a great action or horror movie to be made about someone trapped in a 4DX theater, too, though a tear will form in the fabric of reality if such a film gets a release that’s also in 4DX. As far as Geostorm goes, however, even constant jerry-rigged sideshows can’t hope to salvage the picture. This concept was doomed from the jump; the film hits its high point when a heat laser vaporizes Orlando, and for all its fancy features, 4DX cannot replicate a heat laser inside a public multiplex. Better to save this hullabaloo for the releases it can fully cover, then. Fingers crossed for I, Tonya 4DX — it’s like your kneecaps are really getting shattered!