Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and Dom (Vin Diesel) feel the thrill of driving a getaway car in 'F9'—and so can you. (Giles Keyte/Universal Pictures; emojis by Sarah Hotchkiss)
Back in April, Vin Diesel appeared in an ad not just for his upcoming action movie, but for the action of going to the movies. “We’re ready to make you believe again,” he rumbled in that subwoofer voice. My bones vibrated—I was ready to be made to believe.
So, for my first moviegoing experience in 16 months, I heeded’s Vin’s siren call and went for the most unsubtle reentry imaginable: F9, the tenth (!) installment in the sprawling Fast & Furious franchise. But I was also there to see a new “innovation in cinematic technology.” Forget 3D or IMAX: this was 4DX, developed in South Korea, which uses motion-enabled chairs that tilt, vibrate and punch you in the back. The system pummels viewers with in-theater effects of lightning, rain, fog and strong scents. Think Star Tours-meets-Smell-o-Vision. It declares itself the “future of the movie industry.”
If you’re reading the above and asking whyyy, I would remind you that we spent the past year and a half cooped up with small-scale, domestic-sized distractions. 4DX, to me, was an opportunity to be overwhelmed—not as I have been by grief and anxiety, but by some Futurist’s fever dream of entertainment.
As if to fulfill this exact need, Regal constructed a new movie theater over the past year in San Francisco’s Stonestown Galleria with a 4DX viewing option—one that comes with a lengthy set of warnings about the shaking you’ll experience. (Secure your valuables, no hot liquids, don’t eat or drink during “intense scenes.”)
F9, of course, is filled to the brim with intense scenes. Over the course of its 20 years, the Fast & Furious franchise has morphed from relatively low-stakes car-facilitated heists and street racing to international—and with this one, interstellar—espionage. (A Pontiac Fiero goes to space!) Fast & Furious movies are rooted in action sequences that boggle the mind. 4DX promised to simultaneously boggle my body.
I can’t demonstrably speak to the plot of F9, because I spent a lot of F9 concentrating solely on not sliding off my seat, but as far as Fast & Furious movies go, this one does everything you’ve come to expect, and does it very well. (Justin Lin is back in the director’s seat, and it’s a joy to behold.) The team must assemble to prevent a quickly sketched-out plot to take over the world. There’s an arch villain who turns out to be Dom Toretto’s (Vin Diesel) previously unmentioned brother Jakob (John Cena). There are establishing shots with cool architecture. Cars do crazy things.
Meanwhile, the 4DX theater seemed to want to impress upon me the seriousness (see above) of the physical feats I was witnessing. When Dom somehow hooked one end of a suspended bridge under the front bumper of his car and swung across an impossible expanse to safety, my seat shook violently. When Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) inexpertly drove through the streets of Edinburgh ramming into other cars, my seat shook violently. And when Letty and Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster) fought completely unexplained attackers in Tokyo—you guessed it—my seat shook violently.
In the context of the unequivocally fun F9, the herky-jerky bucking only served to heighten my mood of elation. Nothing can ground these movies in reality! Seconds into my first seat shake, I was cackling at the top of my lungs, my brain rattling around in my head, completely untethered from reason.
Lest I focus too much on the mechanical bull ride that was my seat, I guess there were also scents? I kept my mask on the entire time I was indoors, therefore blocking what might have been the precisely calibrated smells of burning rubber or rocket fuel. But given the “one shake fits all” application of other effects, I doubt I missed anything.
I can testify, however, to the presence of water. The only customizable element of the 4DX experience was a pair of buttons on each armrest: WATER ON or WATER OFF. As I’ve mentioned, my motto during this outing was “bring it all on.” And so during a scene with a rainstorm, a single drop of cold water landed on my head, like a gross gift from a window-mounted air conditioner on a hot New York day. The audience collectively gasped and tittered nervously, perhaps expecting more where that came from. (Respectful of the drought, the 4DX experience practiced moderation.)
But if I had to pinpoint one thing that really put the chamber of cheesy effects over the top, it was the fog. Whenever anything exploded in F9, smoke would billow unevenly from the left and right sides of the screen, at times blocking the projection and therefore obscuring the action it was meant to complement.
Nearly three-quarters through the movie, my friends and I noticed the left smoke machine working overtime, releasing white clouds to such an extent that the people seated near it were waving their arms in a futile attempt to dissipate the fog enveloping them. From that point forward, all focus on the logic of the film’s increasingly preposterous action sequences was gone. We dissolved into snorts and giggles every time the smoke issued forth, while those poor audience members were blinded for whole minutes at a time.
The 4DX effects had created their own subplot to F9: a slapstick comedy of tech gone wrong.
What ultimately emerges in the 4DX experience, besides a radically uneven back massage, is a strange upheaval of who we’re meant to identify with. In a typical 2D viewing of a Fast & Furious film, we are part of Dom’s crew. We’re family! A standard evolution from sequel to sequel is an incorporation of the previous movie’s rehabilitated villain/antagonist into a member of our anti-hero team. (This is an echo of the first movie’s trajectory and also the plot of Point Break.)
But with 4DX effects, a single scene would have us shifting points of view, from Letty to Jakob to a nameless henchman getting beat up in the back of a box truck. Any and all movement that could be relayed into the 4DX seat was relayed into the 4DX seat. And in this respect, maybe the forgiving morals of F9 and the mechanics of 4DX did merge in some sort of perfect, simulated storm. What is empathy, after all, if not to feel the pain of others? Repeatedly, just below your left scapula?
If I am to take 4DX’s advertising at face value, the “future of the movie industry” is utterly ridiculous and a whole hell of a lot of fun, even unintentionally. But, like many things so bad they’re good: once is enough.
'F9' is playing in body-assaulting 4DX at Regal Stonestown Galleria in San Francisco. Details here.
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