Tech Talk

Is 4DX the Movie Theater Experience of the Future?

Tech guru Tshaka Armstrong breaks down the latest cineplex innovations and predicts the ultimate moviegoing experience.

by | December 4, 2018 | Comments

(Photo by CJ 4DPLEX)

What’s more MAX than IMAX? To answer that, we take a quick look back to 1986. That’s right, 32 years ago, the future was already being written by an intrepid explorer in a theme park. That explorer’s name? Captain EO. That theme park? The happiest place on earth, Disneyland. At the time, Disney and Michael Jackson put on a show they labeled a “4D” presentation, a space opera in 3D augmented by in-theater laser light effects, smoke machines, and more.

Sure, the 3D was a little hokey, with things jumping out at viewers just to show off the technology, but it was so much more than that. The in-theater effects extended the reach of the 3D film and worked to fully immerse audiences in EO’s world for 17 minutes. Having experienced Captain EO firsthand when I was a lad, I can tell you that I have fond, very clear memories of it. EO was “event entertainment,” a moviegoing experience that was extraordinary, worth the price of admission, something you put on your calendar and looked forward to.

Fast forward to 2018, and it’s been a good year for the cinemas, but that’s relative to the steady decline in box office that American movie theaters have seen over the past few years. People aren’t going to the movies like they used to, and theater owners are trying everything they can to put butts in seats. IMAX alone isn’t cutting it, and many IMAX experiences aren’t even the four-to-seven-story screens with 70mm film that places like Los Angeles’ Universal Citywalk boasts — it’s 57 feet high by 80 feet across. Projected on an enormous screen with the sound to match, blockbusters are an event there. Companies like CJ 4DPLEX are trying to match — or better — that experience, hoping to pique moviegoers’ interest and create those Captain EO “event entertainment” feels.

D-Box Technologies Inc.
(Photo by D-Box Technologies Inc.)

Before we get into what CJ has, though, let’s go over some of the other options currently available. You could spend your movie money on D-Box seats, which we first told you about here. I really wasn’t impressed with them, and even less so now, having experienced 4DX. For a quick recap, they’re basically “rumble seats.” They have some movement, but I found them to be more of a distraction than a compliment to the film I saw; at the time, I thought their best feature was the ability to disable them.

If rumble seats aren’t your thing, many AMC theaters are now equipped with Dolby Cinema auditoriums. Think of amenities like Dolby Cinema and Cinemark’s XD screens as elevated theater experiences. The former gets you Dolby Vision HDR with dual-laser projection and Dolby Atmos for sound, while the latter gets you true IMAX-size entertainment with its 70 foot-high screen. I know, I know, “English motherf—er! Do you speak it?!” Yes, Mr. Jackson, I do.

Think of Dolby Cinema and Cinemark XD like upgrading your 10-year-old flat screen TV to today’s OLED 4K HDR panels. It’s brighter, you’re going to see more colors and definition, and the sound will be an upgrade as well. I was impressed with the punch of the bass the Dolby Cinema experience delivered, for example. You could feel the bottom end in movie scores and effects as if the theater had planted subwoofers right under your seats. These are elevated experiences no doubt, but still not the “event entertainment” that a true IMAX screen or Captain EO’s 4D experience provided.

(Photo by ScreenX)

Ever heard of ScreenX? It’s relatively new to the scene. Created by the same company that brought you 4DX, ScreenX wraps the theater in 270 degrees of immersive cinematography. As you can see in the image above, what you get is your standard front screen, but added to that are up to four additional projectors in the auditorium, two on each wall. CJ 4DPLEX’s wizards work with the film’s technical staff to take a movie like Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald and convert certain scenes to expand out onto the wings of the theater, producing a more immersive experience. And for the most part, it is exactly that. Right now, only portions of the film extend onto the wings, which some may find jarring, but I found the transitions very subtle — the expanded footage would fade in and fade out slowly — and instead of pulling me out of the moment, they rather immersed me in the scene.

Also the brainchild of CJ 4DPLEX is 4DX, and it is probably the closest we currently have to the Captain EO experience. Let me put it this way: I was not enchanted by The Crimes of Grindelwald. Frankly, it had been a long day and I was a bit tired at the time of the screening, and that may have factored into my enjoyment of it (or lack thereof). However, watching the same movie in 4DX was delightful. The opening sequence includes a Potter-style chase scene complete with a flying carriage and a thunderstorm, which were perfect for 4DX. How does all of this equate to “better?”

The seats in the 4DX theater are more roller coaster than “motion chair” — they have air jets and water misters, and the theater itself has some lighting effects to add to the atmosphere. During the chase scene I felt fine droplets of water hit my head (you can turn water effects off, if you choose); during certain moments the air jets hit me, augmenting on-screen action; and of course, there were the motion seats. Like I stated, it’s much more than just haptics (the “rumble seat” stuff), though it does feature some solid haptic effects, too. The best way I can describe the seat is “energetic.” It pitched and yawed and tilted, and at times it did so somewhat jarringly, though not in a bad way. The level of activity, the “sharpness,” was commensurate with the on-screen action.

(Photo by CJ 4DPLEX)

Additionally, you might think the seat’s action would be tied exclusively to the action sequences, but you’d be wrong. During moments in the film when there were sweeping camera moves, the chairs panned and tilted right along with the camera, and though that took some getting used to at first, it pulled me into the moment as if I were right there on the set, behind the camera with the cinematographer. Let me be clear: It is very active, and I can see some moviegoers not liking it at all. But I’ve been telling friends with young children about it, and I plan to take my wife next time.

So what does the future look like? A few things. I think we’ll see CJ 4DPLEX combine ScreenX with 4DX — a natural progression in my opinion — and give theatergoers the ultimate in immersion. Well, maybe penultimate — mixing 4DX with VR and something called “binaural audio” would be the ultimate experience. Imagine watching a horror film with that level of immersion, for example. It would be so powerful that it could prove overwhelming for some viewers, just as the original theatrical release of The Exorcist was. Imagine Saving Private Ryan as a VR/3D audio experience, plunging viewers into the middle of WWII like never before. Imagine dodging bullets alongside Keanu Reeves as you quite literally explore The Matrix. It will no doubt come with a pricey admission fee, but it will truly be “event entertainment” in the vein of Captain EO.

I’d love to know what you think of 4DX, D-Box, binaural audio, or even your Captain EO memories, so let me know in the comments below!

ScreenX4DX | Dolby Cinema | Cinemark XD | D-Box | Binaural Audio

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