4DX theaters seek to enhance movies as sensory experience

As blockbuster movies become more like roller-coaster rides, it’s perhaps only natural that theaters — eager to give people incentive to leave the house — would seek to further augment that sensory experience.

The kickoff to summer movie season thus seemed like a good time to check out 4DX, the specialized theaters whose seats add synchronized motion, vibrations and environmental effects — sprinkles of rain, flashes of light, strange smells — to major films, approximating the effects of Universal’s Shrek 4D attraction or (on a more modest scale) Disney’s Star Tours or Soarin’ rides.

Theme-park thrills, of course, are over in a few minutes. A movie, by contrast, lasts a couple of hours, raising the question of whether this sort of immersive technology is too much of a good thing, or risks becoming a distraction from the film’s story.

The main takeaway from a 4DX screening (in this case, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”) is that it can’t make a bad or mediocre movie good. And while those first gusts of air as the ship lurched forward felt bracing, it’s fair to say that for an entire movie, such flourishes can yield diminishing returns.

Still, there were certain impressive aspects of the process, particularly when it comes to motion. Specifically, at one point when the camera zoomed in, the seat felt as if it was gliding forward along with it, replicating that sense of movement.

Although 4DX has been around since 2009 and continues to add new theaters, the technology still feels somewhat nascent. Perhaps that’s because the various effects must be added by editors after the fact, as opposed to being conceived while the movie’s made.

“We want to be able to work with directors more,” said Daniel Yi, art director at i-Studio Los Angeles for CJ 4DPLEX Americas, which is headquartered in Seoul.

Some filmmakers have embraced the process, but much of the work is done in consultation with studio and postproduction personnel. A team of editors usually works on a movie for one to two weeks, meaning time is invariably an issue.

The main question, Yi said, boils down to this: “Is it enhancing the story?,” as opposed to serving as a distraction.

Part of the answer to that is likely generational. The primary audience for 4DX tends to be under 35. Not surprisingly, movies heavy on action tend to work best, with the latest “Fast & Furious” sequel, ” The Fate of the Furious,” ranking as the year’s most-seen title in the format, expected to exceed 1.5 million admissions. (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” holds the record at 1.8 million.)

There are now 375 such theaters in 48 countries, including nine major cities in the U.S. Seeing a movie in 4DX carries a $6 to $8 surcharge.

Among the many ways being explored to enhance the theatrical experience, this one seems like an interesting if not yet fully realized tool.

Yet as blockbuster movies appear increasingly preoccupied with visceral thrills, it’s perhaps inevitable that touch and smell will join sight and sound as part of the experience. Still to be determined is what that will mean in the long term for feelings of the more intangible variety.