I didn’t expect to jump out of my seat during a nature documentary. But that’s practically what happened as I watched “Planet Earth: Shallow Seas 4-D Experience,” one of three films debuting Friday at the Museum of Science’s new 4-D theater.
The Museum’s 11-minute version of this educational BBC film began innocuously enough. I wore the familiar 3-D glasses and watched the eye-popping eye-candy. But 4-D promises even greater immersion. As the camera dived beneath the waves into a torrent of air bubbles, actual bubbles descended from the theater ceiling. (Soap bubbles, it turned out.) Then, as a whale surfaced on screen, air puffed behind me from ports built into my seat-back, and a spray of water misted me from a jet located in the seat in front of me. I let out a laugh. What — no smell of whale sputum?
It was then that “Planet Earth: Shallow Seas” tricked me. As the camera cruised along a cheery and colorful coral reef, and narrator David Attenborough lulled me with his British documentary-speak, describing how coral polyps feed by snaring morsels with their little appendages, my lower legs were suddenly and wantonly attacked by what felt like tentacles. I snapped to attention and gasped, as did most of the audience.
This is the latest 4-D theater “experience”: a collection of visual, aural, olfactory, and tactile effects — seats that jiggle, strobe lights that flash, and devices that create snow and emit smells ranging from fruity to skunky — designed to surprise, engage, and lure jaded viewers back to the Cineplex. Or the science museum.
Hey, it worked for Jordan’s Furniture, which opened its 48-seat, 4-D Motion Odyssey Movie (MOM) ride — the first attraction of its kind in New England — at the store’s Avon location way back in 1992, and continues to sell out screenings of movies such as “The Polar Express” at holiday times. All of which has meant more potential shoppers spilling into its furniture showrooms.
Attracting new audiences to the Museum of Science is one goal of its just-opened theater, said Jonathan Burke, vice president of visitor experience and operations. Burke hopes 4-D will also encourage visitors to stay “as long as possible” during their visit. His third wish? “To provide something they just can’t get at home.”
Whether these special effects will permanently translate into box office gold is the museum’s million-dollar question — $2.5 million, actually, which was the cost of gutting and converting their old 3-D theater off the main exhibit hall (the Charles Hayden Planetarium remains untouched) to make way for the current 98-seat facility. The new attraction flaunts some of 4-D technology’s latest gizmos, including two effects unique to Boston: side-wall lights called “screen stretchers” that extend your peripheral vision, and quieter snow machines to make viewers “feel more part of the movie,” said Mark Cornell, senior vice president for attractions development at SimEx-Iwerks Entertainment, which developed the museum’s 4-D theater. “It’s all about the illusion.”
But clearly 4-D is also about institutions, including museums, zoos, and aquariums, both fulfilling their educational missions and generating revenue. It improves the “ability to upsell the clientele that’s already there,” said Cornell. Admission to the 4-D theater is $5 to $6 in addition to the museum’s entrance fee.
Kids will surely be charmed by the 8½-minute “Dora & Diego’s 4-D Adventure,” another of the museum’s 4-D shorts. When Boots the monkey peels his banana, the theater fills both with yellow light and the distinct odor of (artificial) banana. Wind machines and falling snowflakes make a propeller plane ride to the Arctic all the more delightful. But to my mind, some tricks, like that “Shallow Seas” tentacular “ankle tickler” (a thin plastic hose under each theater seat that flaps back and forth when activated by a blast of air) or the “back poke” effect (when sea snakes swim on screen, a secret jab from your seatback triggers your “startle reflex”), seem more at home in a horror film or haunted house ride, not an educational science film.
Others agree. “So-called 4-D cinema is just a gimmick,” said Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. “It’s a desperate ploy that has its roots in the 1950s movie theaters trying to get patrons away from their televisions, only now it’s Netflix.” The sheer novelty, “will soon wear off,” he says. “It won’t work.”
Indeed, for decades, directors and theater owners have used various tricks to combat moviegoer apathy. “Scent of Mystery” (1960) employed “Smell-O-Vision” (pumped-in aromas synchronized to various scenes) and “The Tingler” (1959) tried “Percepto” (seats that gave patrons mild electric shocks); both were released as television began to dominate leisure time. Next up, Sensurround, which made theaters shake during films like 1974’s “Earthquake.” In recent years, Hollywood’s embrace of 3-D has coincided with the proliferation of giant-screen TVs and in-home theaters. Luxury seating, in-seat dining, and films shot at 48 frames-per-second are other ways cinemas are trying to address plummeting box office and make a night at the movies, or a school field trip, a destination event once again.
Now comes a growing spotlight on 4-D, a familiar part of motion simulator rides and theme park attractions for decades and lately making more mainstream inroads. Its national and international surge suggests that audiences are bored with 3-D. (In fact, according to Deadline Hollywood, 3-D ticket sales have been in decline since peaking in 2011.) To meet the demand, the Toronto-based SimEx-Iwerks builds 10 theaters per year equipped with 4-D tools for theme parks and other attractions; to date it’s constructed more than 340 across the United States and abroad. They typically screen shortened versions of popular films like “Happy Feet,” the third film the Museum of Science will offer out of the gate. “Polar Express” is expected to be among future offerings.
CJ 4DPlex, a competitor of SimEx-Iwerks, has taken the idea further. They operate 91 theaters in 23 countries and screen full-length features such as “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “Hercules,” but with 4-D enhancements: lurching chairs and more adult-oriented olfactory delights like burning rubber and gunpowder. Their first US 4-D cinema opened in Los Angeles in June.
Closer to home, the trend that began with 4-D attractions at Jordan’s Furniture and Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium has blossomed of late. Upping the ante this May, Somerville’s Legoland Discovery Center opened a 4-D theater showing LEGO-themed shorts. I found the theater not as plush, and its effects not as sophisticated, as the Museum of Science experience. Wind, snow, water: check. But in “Clutch Powers,” when vehicles crash through an orange vendor’s stand, there’s no orange scent, nor does the dragon-like “rock monster” make seats rumble when it roars. Still, for the target Legoland demographic of 3- to 10-year-olds, the 4-D shows on offer provide plenty of excitement. A wind-swept helicopter ride, squirting firehose, and sneezing baby dragon all elicited squeals of delight.
The bigger question 4-D poses is whether blasts of air and misty tropical rain forest smells immerse audiences deeper into the film’s story, or distance them from it. Clever as they were, the more jarring effects distracted me. Oddly, I found the most engaging artifice to be of the old fashioned 3-D sort. At the museum, back alongside Dora and Diego, I gleefully grasped in the air for a swinging vine. Presented with a remote control projected in front of me, I idiotically “pushed” its red button to stop a naughty robot butterfly. Those silly effects felt interactive, whereas the deep-sea horror film shocks took me out of the film. A poke in the back doesn’t help me better understand the delicate beauty and connectedness of our “Shallow Seas.”
Young kids will love 4-D, whose thrills, cheap or otherwise, are better suited for non-educational topics like LEGO car chases. For adults, 4-D might feel like 3-D that’s finally jumped the shark. Plus, with virtual reality technology like the Oculus Rift headset entering the marketplace, and our fickle tastes, 4-D may not have the legs to survive and flourish in our new entertainment ecosystem. Or, the tentacles.Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.