Are good vibrations in store as cinemas amp up film experience?

Los Angeles Times Film Critic

In front of me, the movie screen starts at the floor and rises so high it’s like seeing “Divergent” on the side of a building. At the moment warrior princess Tris, played by a fierce Shailene Woodley, is about to jump onto a speeding train. I can feel the train coming. Seriously, I can feel it. The subwoofers embedded in the cushy comfort of the theater’s reclining chairs let the sound vibrate through my body.

Tris’ jump, just seconds before the platform she’s running on ends over a dead drop, is stomach churning even on an ordinary screen. But the size of the images, the super high-res detail, ratchet up the sensation.

It’s a far more immersive experience than I got a few days earlier at my neighborhood theater — and a few dollars more. This was AMC Prime at a Burbank multiplex on a busy day, the souped-up theater part of the ongoing industrywide push to morph the moviegoing experience into additional dimensions.

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So I don’t merely see “Divergent’s” post-apocalyptic world unfolding in front of me, I’m overwhelmed by it — the images so massive they seem close enough to touch. And this is not a 3-D film. I don’t just hear it either — the 60 speakers driving the Dolby sound both amplify and separate the sensation, layers upon layers of distinct sounds.

Seats that vibrate, scents and fog filling the room.... We’re in the midst of a noisy revolution as technology refines the “experience” of moviegoing. If your significant others opt for that 60-speaker version of the latest big action extravaganza, it’s not the theater owners’ fault entirely. This particular type of Hollywood excess is a case of competitive necessity; a scramble in hopes that a range of new gadgets and gizmos will deliver on their promise to heighten what you “feel” while you “see” the latest film in 2-D, 3D, Real-D, Xtreme-D and the coming 4-D.

Of course buying in to the idea, for consumers, will require an investment in higher ticket prices. Already the super-sized experience can cost $17 for adults and not much less for kids. The 4-DX technology from South Korea’s CJ Group that will usher in the smells with the sights and sounds in L.A. soon is figuring out what price point the U.S. market will bear. Only blockbusters need apply. I only hope that in experimenting with altering the fundamentals, theaters don’t create a monster.

It’s not a given that any of the new bells and whistles will stick. It was, if you recall, decades before the rudimentary 3-D that made 1960’s “13 Ghosts” into a brief sensation, took hold and became a viable part of the business.


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Will it be worth it? Maybe. That fourth dimension could redefine what watching a movie means, just as James Cameron rewrote the 3-D book and shifted our expectations with 2009’s “Avatar.”

This latest iteration of artificial enhancements developed by CJ Group is already up and running in a handful of other countries. The technology is designed to get us hooked on a feeling. The smoke and mirrors, rain and fog, are due to make their appearance this summer at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live.

I’m game to see what it’s like. I even tried to imagine what it would be like to watch Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” in the “rain.” Would it move me more or merely leave me shivering and seeking cover?

It may seem mad, but it’s a madness of our own making. We have made it clear that lux seats and adult beverages are so passé. We now stream all manner of entertainment, including movies, on everything from our big-screen TVs to our mini-sized smartphones. We can see a film at home via video-on-demand the same day it hits theaters, sometimes before.

Running a movie theater used to be a relatively straightforward supply-demand model: A film spent time on the big screen, it was months out of the theater before it made its way to pay cable, and sometimes years before it turned up on free TV. In that bygone era, moviegoers were thrilled if their shoes didn’t stick to the soda spilled on the floor.

Today it’s an “Armageddon” fight-or-die moment for exhibitors, without Bruce Willis or Billy Bob Thornton to save the day.

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We’re not quite to the scratch and sniff stage yet. And Oculus Rift, the groovy virtual reality headset for video gamers, has not yet made its way to other applications, though it’s trying, like putting you “onstage” at a concert. Perhaps the geniuses behind the technology will eventually put you “on screen” in a movie, without requiring filmmakers to turn into video-game designers. (Rift by the way is no relation to the new horror film “Oculus,” which will land in theaters April 11. Someone should co-opt the name regardless, can’t you imagine Oculus Rift going up against Optimus Prime in a “Transformers”?

Sizing them up

Though I venture into regular movie houses on occasion, most of my screening time is spent in the cloistered environs of private screening rooms. Venturing into the real world was mandatory.

In addition to the 2-D “Divergent,” I included the 3-D “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in my research. I saw each first on a traditional screen, then watched them again in the available enhanced environments: AMC Prime for “Divergent,” Imax for “Captain America.”

First impression — size does matter. The wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling view in both Imax and Prime theaters does make the film seem larger than life, the images overtake the room.

At least in “Captain America’s” case, the Imax 3-D was so effective in enhancing those flying objects that once or twice I ducked that spinning shield Chris Evans’ Captain hurls so furiously. And missed the details of how the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) came to be skidding perilously near the edge of a Helicarrier — a futuristic spying, hovering aircraft.

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Imax has nice seats, but not nearly as nifty as the roomier recliners of AMC Prime, to say nothing of the good vibrations.


The bigger sound of both hyper-realized theaters doesn’t merely rumble through the walls and floors but through bones and ear drums. That has its pros and its cons. While you will not miss even the slightest whisper, at points sound becomes noise, and the sensation is more of weathering a storm than being submerged in the film.

Every theater experience is both individual and fragile. I was reminded of that when I caught “Noah” recently at the ArcLight Pasadena.

It was near the end of the film, the waters have receded, the Earth is coming back to life. But against that hope Noah still faces a life-and-death choice. Just as the decision began unfolding, the house lights went up.

The audience turned into a confused mass. Some standing, thinking the film was finished, only to collapse back into their seats. The magic of the film, those final moments that Aronofsky no doubt agonized over and Russell Crowe appeared to pour his emotional heart into, were lost to those of us there. In the light.

When the film actually ended and the credits started rolling, bad will accompanied us out the door. As the helpful ArcLight usher explained to me, the theater now times it so the lights come up as soon as the credits begin to role, which I’ll argue against another day. With “Noah,” they were having timing issues, and this showing was not the first to have the problem. To the ArcLight’s credit, it gave a free pass to the complainers.

But nothing will give me back “Noah’s” finale. Even if I see the film again, it will never have that sense of wonder and closure of the first time.


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