How London Cinemas are Fighting For the Future of Film
Will 4DX or 70mm be enough to save our flagging cinemas? We experience both to find out.
There’s currently a war being fought over the future of cinema. Kind of like this year’s War for the Planet of the Apes, but with less Woody Harrelson and a lot less ripping off of Apocalypse Now.
All told, it has been a bad year for cinema. Even before the horrifying revelations about Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood honchos, it was revealed that this summer was the film industry’s least successful in 22 years. Most people chose to stay at home and watch televisual treats like Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks: The Return rather than head out for films like The Hitman’s Bodyguard, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Flogging a Dead Horse or whatever that last shred of Johnny Depp’s dignity was called.
How will we save the cinema?
There are two camps in the fight for the future of film. Their headquarters can be found at the Cineworld Wandsworth and the Odeon Leicester Square respectively. Although both agree that the cinema needs to provide spectacle that watching at home can’t provide, they are taking very different approaches.
Let’s head to the former first, stopping off at the giant Sainsbury’s opposite it first to pick up a few code-compliant confectionary items. We’re here to see the Gerald Butler-vs-the-weather caper Geostorm (I’m sorry I’m dragging you into this) in a new format called 4DX.
I say new, but the format will be familiar to anyone who has visited Disneyland in the last decade or so. In a 4DX film, the cinema is rigged up with a number of features that recreate the events of the film live in the cinema. In Geostorm, for example, chairs are hooked up to hydraulic lifts, jerking around viewers at suitably rocky moments. Jets of water are sprayed in the viewer’s face during the rainy sections, and what’s called in official 4DX promotional materials a ‘Bottom Tickler’ prods your rear end at appropriately….um….bottom tickely moments?
Although there is surely some novelty value in 4DX, the whole thing sounds more like an endurance sport than an actually valid way of watching films. Surely it’s bad enough watching Geostorm without having stale water pissed at you from a small tube.
Meanwhile at the HQ at the flagship Odeon, we’re here watching Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Have I Got News For You star Ian Hislop and actor John Sessions are sat behind us, which has nothing to do with this article but is a true story from when I went to see Dunkirk the first time. We enter this historical picture palace (with its inexplicably leopard print-upholstered chairs) and it’s like being transported to 1921. A man is playing a huge organ, and it’s almost as if we’re about to watch an early Charlie Chaplin film like The Kid.
What we’re going to see instead, however, is what could actually save the cinema, and it has its roots even before the real Dunkirk. We’re about to see one of the year’s best films in 70mm.
While most of London’s cinemas transferred to digital projection in the last decade, an increasing number have started to revert back to projecting to film. The Odeon’s neighbour the Prince Charles has had great success with its ‘Check the Gate’ series of movies shown from original negatives, and other arthouse cinemas like Brick Lane’s Close-Up screen almost exclusively from film. Sitting there watching Nolan’s latest, I can see why. With such a large screen and such a detailed image, I am totally engaged, and totally immersed. Studies have show that a fighter pilot’s average heart-rate is around 120BPM, and when Tom Hardy was in his plane mine was right there with his – and that’s without a single hydraulic lift in my chair giving a jerky approximation of sitting in his shoes. When the younger cast members were stuck in the hull of beached boat being shot at, I was in the moment without a single machine having to shot a bolt of compressed air at me.
In terms of these two cinematic experiences, they correspond exactly with the film I saw them in. 4DX is Geostorm, a barely coherent attempt at excitement that quickly gets annoying as the audience gets thrown all over the place for nothing. 70mm, in contrast, is Dunkirk, using 100 years of movie history to provide the best possible cinematic experience possible. It just wouldn’t be the same watching it at home. I’ve seen the future, and it began development in 1928.
People go to the cinema because it gives them something that watching a broken, buffering, pirate copy of the latest hit TV show doesn’t. It gives them the chance to see a film in optimum conditions, without hesitations, and with great picture and sound. If a cinema is well-kept, the tickets aren’t too expensive and they can see a film as immersive as Dunkirk in a format that literally fills their whole eye-line with the film, people will come without introducing gimmicks that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1950s circus.
So I end with a plea to cinemas: bombard us with the biggest screens, beautiful film formats, and most importantly of all the best films. Don’t just spray stale water at me.
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