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Can 4DX Breathe New Life Into Movie Theaters?

The moving seat technology made a viewing of “Thor: Ragnarok” a wild ride

Disney’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” a colorful and fun superhero spectacle from Taika Waititi, is a rollicking good time. And in 4DX — where the seat moves along with the movie — it literally is.

This past weekend, TheWrap attended a showing of the Marvel superhero film, which has already rocketed past $500 million worldwide, in a 4DX-equipped auditorium at the Regal L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles.

Seating is assigned, and the chairs, which look like a cross between a beefed up airline seat and a recliner, come in independently moving pods of four. At about $30 a ticket, it’s not cheap — but you get a lot more than a traditional movie experience. It’s more comparable to amusement park simulator rides like the old “Back to the Future” at Universal Studios than anything you’ll see at a multiplex.

4DX was developed by Korean company CJ 4DPLEX. Each 4DX theater incorporates motion-based seating with more than 20 different effects, including blasts of air and jets of water, optimized by a team of editors. Since 2009, more than 460 Hollywood and local titles have been screened in 4DX. As of November 2017, there are more than 51,000 4DX seats in 422 auditoriums in 50 countries.

This week, the company also rolled out a virtual reality product, the 4DX VR Disk, which allows users to explore 360 degrees of VR without having to place their feet on the floor.

“Thor: Ragnarok” has some high-intensity action right from the top, which gives fans the full 4DX experience right away. Moving along with the fight scenes was gripping and not nearly as annoying as TheWrap thought it might be after a preview of the technology featuring a car chase scene. And the scents were nice touch too – you could smell something smoldering when something was on fire in the movie, but it wasn’t distracting.

Some of the effects were more pronounced than others: When Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk smashed into Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, the audience felt a thwack in the back of their seats that might be uncomfortable for some viewers.

The 4DX seats also include jets that spray water — so be warned if you are the type of person who keeps your cell phone on your lap. It was a neat effect, but after a few particularly splashy scenes, TheWrap decided to press the “water off” button.

And while the motion adds a whole new element to the theatergoing experience, it may detract from one of the oldest ones — tossing back plenty of unhealthy snacks. Several attendees at the showing TheWrap went to came into the theater with large buckets of popcorn, but didn’t finish them. Turns out, it’s not that easy to balance food on your lap or reach for it under the seat while getting thrown around in your seat. On the other hand, the 4DX chairs do include cup holders to keep beverages handy — as long as they’re not overfilled.

4DX certainly isn’t for everyone — and there’s a laundry list of health-related warnings when you enter — but at a time when theater chains are coming off one of the worst summers in years and are adding bells and whistles like recliners and virtual reality to attract customers, there’s an apparent natural market for something like this. And the types of blockbusters studios and theater chains are increasingly dependent on — like “Thor: Ragnarok” — are generally good fits.

Maybe going “Back to the Future” in a simulator ride-type experience is the future of theaters, after all.