Why Most 4D Movies Fail at Immersion

By Jeremy Hsu | June 19, 2015 9:19 am
Credit: CJ E&M

Credit: CJ E&M

Public worries over the MERS virus outbreak in South Korea didn’t stop young couples from packing into a Seoul movie theater to catch “Jurassic World,” the latest film in the 15-year-old Hollywood franchise about scientists resurrecting extinct dinosaurs. Each moviegoer paid the equivalent of about $16 for the privilege of seeing the film in “4D” — an experience that aims to transform traditional moviegoing into an amusement park ride complete with 3D glasses, shaking chairs and occasional jets of air or water squirting people’s faces. The 4D movie concept has proven popular enough to spread well beyond South Korea and even to reach U.S. shores, but halfhearted attempts to retrofit traditional films with 4D effects may limit the storytelling format’s potential in the long run.

The 4D technology itself is nothing new. Amusement parks such as Disneyland and Universal Studios have featured 4D ride experiences in specialized settings for more than 30 years. More recently, a South Korean company named CJ 4DPLEX has built a global business upon a chain of “4DX” movie theaters that aim to enhance on-screen action with motion chairs and environmental effects ranging from scents to bubbles. The idea of combining Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters with the multi-sensory thrills of amusement park rides has proven fairly effective at attracting moviegoers willing to pay higher ticket prices for the promise of added novelty. Yet in practice, I suspect that many 4D movies run the risk of disturbing the cinematic storytelling experience with effects that seem more gimmicky than immersive.

My viewing of “Jurassic World” in Seoul served as an intriguing but ultimately disappointing introduction to the limitations of 4D moviegoing. During one of the earlier sequences of the film, I chuckled a bit to myself as my movie theater seat moved up, down and even tilted to mimic the motions of an on-screen helicopter approaching the Jurassic World dinosaur park. But as the movie went on and the action scenes became wilder, the 4D effects became more and more distracting. The hissing sound of air jets puffing past my head interrupted the movie’s audio at key moments. My chair frequently shook itself in a way that felt like I was watching the movie in the middle of a minor earthquake. At the height of certain action sequences, my seat behaved like an out-of-control massage chair pummeling my back and underside as I tried to focus on the fate of film characters fighting or fleeing the “Jurassic World” menagerie of prehistoric creatures. With only a few scenes standing out as exceptions, the 4DX theater experience mostly felt like a letdown.

I’m not just someone who hates 4D effects. I have fond memories of going through a much older “4D” experience built for the “Back to the Future” ride at Universal Studios Hollywood when I was younger. The “Back to the Future” ride, which ran from 1993 until 2007 at the Hollywood and Orlando locations, featured a motion simulator modeled on the flying DeLorean car that acts as a time machine in the “Back to the Future” films. The motion simulator worked together with the action displayed on an IMAX screen to give the impression of a wild, flying-car chase through time that included action sequences such as crashing through neon signs and being temporarily swallowed by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The T. Rex looked fairly crude compared with the Hollywood version that appears in the first “Jurassic Park” film from 1993 — let alone the latest version in “Jurassic World” — but the overall 4D experience still felt far more believable than the 4DX theater version of “Jurassic World.”

So why did a 4D experience from 1993 feel so much better than a modern movie theater version? The problem with most of today’s 4D movies isn’t the technology being used in the 4DX motion chairs and environmental effects. Instead, the problem comes from trying to shoehorn traditional films into 4D experiences. “Jurassic World” and other Hollywood films typically shown in 4DX theaters feature on-screen heroes and heroines whom the audience can empathize with and cheer for, but they’re not usually filmed in such a way as to make moviegoers feel like they are literally standing in the protagonists’ shoes. In that situation, it doesn’t feel very immersive to watch a film character being attacked by a dinosaur while your own theater chair gives you a drubbing. Similarly, the heaving and rolling of a theater chair doesn’t make the experience of watching a helicopter flying around feel more immersive, unless the film’s camera view happens to make audience members feel as though they’re sitting inside the helicopter.

By comparison, the “Back to the Future” ride at Universal Studios was built as a point-of-view storytelling experience designed to make people feel like they were characters in the middle of the action. Everything about the ride — from the design of the ride’s physical seats to on-screen narrative addressed directly to the audience — provided cues for the audience to imagine they were part of the story. In that situation, 4D effects consisting of smoke, wind and water do have an added immersive effect when combined intelligently with the on-screen action.

Still, the relatively poor match between most of today’s films and the 4D experience has not hurt the current popularity of 4DX theaters. Despite my personal disappointment with “Jurassic World” in 4D, the 4DX theater I attended appeared to be sold out. The South Korean company CJ 4DPLEX has steadily built more theaters beyond South Korea in big moviegoing markets such as China and Russia. The lone 4DX theater in the United States, located in Los Angeles, has apparently attracted good business from moviegoers, according to Variety. Even impoverished North Korea has apparently rigged up its own 4D movie theater technology. Without having all the data on hand, I’d guess that the current overseas appetite for seeing 4D movies has some parallel to the ongoing popularity of 3D movies outside the United States. Even clumsy 3D and 4D storytelling experiences may have enough bells and whistles to attract moviegoers seeking novelty rather than storytelling sophistication.

A poorly synchronized 4D movie experience is merely annoying at worst. But Hollywood and other storytellers won’t be able to get away with similar sloppiness in trying to adapt stories for the relatively newer medium of virtual reality. Oculus Story Studio and other companies who are building experiences for the next generation of virtual reality headsets have quickly realized that much of the traditional movie format doesn’t work for designing a virtual reality experience. Virtual reality’s immersive magic relies upon the idea of you, the viewer, feeling as though you’re part of the action and in control of the camera view as you look around in the middle of the action. A typical Hollywood film with rapid camera cuts and a camera viewpoint that moves beyond the audience’s control can easily violate that sense of immersion and even make some viewers physically ill. Still, if storytellers can get virtual reality right, it’s not hard to imagine 4D effects that engage our senses of smell and touch to enhance virtual reality experiences.

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  • Brett Barleyman

    I don’t think it’s merely annoying at worst. I walked out within the first 5 minutes of Star Wars, I felt slightly sick and taken out of the movie at every move of the seat, or whoosh of air. I got my money back, and will never go to another ‘4D’ movie again.

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Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.

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