Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
On a Tuesday night in June, I drove an hour north of my home in the Chicago suburbs to the only 4DX theater in the Midwest, and one of only nine in the entire country, to experience the latest adventure in heightening the moviegoing experience. My son came with me to see his first superhero movie in the theater, Patty Jenkins’ already-beloved “Wonder Woman.” Posters outside the theater advertise the 4DX experience not unlike the nearby Six Flags Great America advertises a new roller coaster with an excited patron holding on to his armrests for dear life as he doesn’t just watch the movie, he becomes an active participant in the experience. The press release that made this a reality promised moving seats, wind, snow, and even the smell of flowers. You don’t just watch “Wonder Woman,” you become a part of the film. Well, sorta.
A 4DX theater looks like a smaller-than-average multiplex theater with about 100 seats spread out over nine rows. The seats are large, but not comically oversized—about the same as you see in reserved seating theaters nowadays with their recliners and giant arm rests for things other than just popcorn and Junior Mints. The first thing you notice is that they’re higher than your average seat with foot rests about a foot off the ground. So your feet don’t touch the actual theater floor but also aren’t just hanging. This is because the seats are going to move. Oh, are they gonna move.
Another thing you notice immediately is the unique layout of the theater. There are massive fans on either side of the theater and a notable space between the front row and the screen itself. It’s not the kind of experience that would work in a neck-straining front row, so they move the standard front back to about where the fourth or fifth row would be in a typical theater.
After a ridiculously long seven previews—although I did find it interesting that both “Justice League” and “Thor: Ragnarok” got my son’s attention more than, say, “The Mummy,” because that’s how this sort of fandom starts as one superhero movie leads to another—the experience finally begins. To say it’s startling at first would be an understatement. As if they're trying to give you your money's worth from the jump, the seats move almost consistently through the first act of the film, not only bumping and bouncing as Antiope (Robin Wright) trains a young Diana (Gal Gadot) but swooping and swinging in unison with camera movement. In other words, as the camera pans right in an overhead shot, the seats move in time with the vista. It's somewhat jarring as it's not like those shots have an actual POV and so it's more like we're experiencing the cameraman on a dolly than the actual film. But I was probably thinking about it too much, an ability I lost on horseback. As you might imagine, horses lead to a bumping in the seat that’s not so much like you’re riding a horse so much as driving over those rumble strips telling you to slow down as you approach O’Hare. It got to the point where I started to dread every time a horse would appear on screen.
I’m not sure if I just got used to the 4DX seat experience or if it gets better, but the use of it notably slows down as the movie progresses, and there were times when it actually feels like it's working in unison with the filmmaker’s intent. There’s a shot on Themyscira when Diana is discovering the extent of her powers and takes a large leap, forcing the seats to raise and lower as if we are jumping along with her that adds to the magic. And the spray of water as Diana jumps in to save Steve (Chris Pine) made my son laugh pretty hard, adding to the fun of it all. As Diana and Steve were getting to know each other on a boat and the seats gently rocked like we were on the water too, it felt like this was the best the 4DX experience could offer—something that enhances the filmmaking instead of just adding to it. And I was happy that the 4DX became less prominent as the film became more serious—we don’t need bumpy seats or strange smells during the development of poison gas (and the brief burst of fog during one of the film’s more emotional moments involving such gas should probably be reconsidered.)
Perhaps most importantly, there were times, especially during chaotic fight sequences, in which the 4DX felt like it was actually distracting from the overall experience. A well-choreographed fight should get your heart racing but not necessarily give you motion sickness. My advice to anyone considering seeing 4DX would be to see it first in 2D or 3D and then come back for this ride once you already know the beats of the film itself. It’s the kind of thing that I can’t imagine changing your opinion of a movie—I don’t think you’ll like “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” in 4DX if you didn’t like it in 2D—and is best seen as a way to experience something you already love in a different way than you did the first time.
One more thing—it could merely have been the crowd I was with at this particular screening, but talking and phone usage was prevalent. It got me thinking—no one tells you to turn off your phone or not talk to your seatmate on a rollercoaster. And when a film is sold as a ride, chatter may just have to be an acceptable part of the experience.
However, the fact is that a movie as well-made as “Wonder Woman” doesn’t really need physical bells and whistles. My son gasped when Diana took the God-killer sword for the first time and covered his mouth when she climbed the ladder into No Man’s Land, and that had nothing to do with seat movement or blowing fans—it was all filmmaking and how well Jenkins delivers those iconic moments that a young man will likely never forget. He’ll have to be reminded that the seats moved, but he won’t forget the movie, and that’s what we can never lose sight of. Sensurround, in-theater dining, 4DX—the movie will always be what matters most of all. So, while “Wonder Woman” is a fantastically entertaining piece of blockbuster filmmaking, it’s not because the seats moved or fans burst to replicate a breeze. And it’s certainly not because of those damn horses.