Daring the D-Box

We meet the cinema seat with a life of its own.

by David Graham

With the 3D debacle still providing plenty of scope for critical debate, it would seem either a foolhardy further gamble or an opportunistic diversion for cinemas to be introducing another form of 4th-wall-piercing, purse-plundering audience interaction. Last weekend saw the strangely muted arrival of Canadian company D-Box Technology's automated seats in Glasgow's Cineworld, the first multiplex in the UK to embrace the motion coding introduced to some American screens in 2009 for Fast & Furious.

Timed to cash in on the beginning of summer blockbuster season - as represented by Disney tent-pole hopeful John Carter - the D-Box experience has viewers rumbling, rattling and tilting along with the action on-screen, an adjustable dial allowing them to modify the impact as befits their preference. Legendary Fifties huckster William Castle's B-movie gimmickry has never seemed more prescient; would the infamous showman - pioneer of such dubious delights as the seat-buzzer-assisted Percepto and flying inflatable skeleton-endowed Emergo - be rocking'n'rolling in the aisles along with today's crowds, or should he be spinning in his grave?

Cineworld has taken the plunge with a modest 35 seats plonked right into the middle of one of its biggest halls; they're surprisingly unassuming in appearance, and actually quite comfortable upon initial impression. The seats are pretty roomy and are nicely padded, with a solitary drink-holder on your left hand side and the aforementioned LED-dial on the right (it's probably for the best that this set-up keeps the contents of the former away from the latter).

The seats respond to you parking your behind by giving off a teasing little vibration, as if registering your permission for the ride about to commence. As of the first screenings, none of the adverts or trailers have been programmed to take advantage of the D-Box, so John Carter's explosive opening battle throws you right in at the deep end.

Immediately, the variety of effects the seats can communicate to the viewer is impressive; you find yourself attacked from all sides with varying degrees of force, shaken by the power of explosions as their devastation ebbs and flows around you, while being raised, swirled and jostled as if you're actually aboard one of Barsoom's warring starcraft. It's undeniably exciting, but it also feels like something of a cheat. Shouldn't today's film-makers be able to impart these sensations with their century-plus of visual and aural sophistication, not to mention the added depth of 3D?

The quality of the film on the screen becomes somewhat redundant; you're jolted and dragged through it all at something of a remove, exacerbated by how ineffectual the 3D is in this instance. When your concentration isn't being compromised by your brain trying to decide if the foggifying glasses are having any effect whatsoever, it's being pummelled into submission by the seats' constant reminder that something BIG and IMPORTANT is meant to be happening. You're left marvelling at how well the action is synchronised to the admirably versatile technology, but somewhat non-plussed by characters you're at this point clueless about and space-opera situations you've seen a hundred times before.

As John Carter's plot takes centre-stage, the D-Box takes a back-seat for a bit, leaving the viewer pondering what they've just endured and awaiting the next onslaught with some trepidation. What can the seats throw you into and throw at you next? Is the film itself becoming secondary to the masochistic pleasure of getting your ass kicked? Needless to say, the fact that director Andrew Stanton's storyline set-up isn't exactly stimulating only makes you more eager to get back in the saddle, but it's unclear in your mind which facet of the movie-going experience you're meant to be appreciating the most.

As some of John Carter's gentler and more well-observed scenes play out - our hero's tentative first steps in the alien gravity of Mars, his capture and enslavement at the hands of the mighty Tharks - the D-Box effect begins to subtly complement rather than overwhelm the story. Carter's clumsy baby-like bounces are enhanced by a feeling of weightlessness on his way up and a juddering crash as he hits the ground; later we feel the plodding of the Tharks' steeds as Carter is carried back to their outpost. It's refreshing and reassuring to see the technology used in more imaginative fashion than as merely an instrument of bombast.

It's not long though before these subtleties are swept aside once more in favour of all-out, whiplash-inducing mania, and by this time it's difficult to decide if you're becoming desensitised to the effect or merely bored by it. There's no doubting the added visceral thrill of the flying scenes, where the tilting sensation mingles with on-screen perspectives to induce a real white-knuckle rush - one can only imagine how The Phantom Menace's podrace would have benefited from the D-Box - but it soon becomes all too tempting to turn the technology down.

As a D-Box virgin, it would perhaps have been a cop-out to do that, so this movie-goer refused to touch that dial for the entire 132 minutes of John Carter. While at times the seat's vibration was strangely soothing - recalling those ridiculous airport lounge massage chairs most people wouldn't be caught dead reclining upon - the near-constant brutality of the film's climactic battles did actually prove punishing. God only knows how less sturdy audiences will deal with this year's inevitable three-hour cinema-marathons.

Reflection also reveals several practical niggles that are perhaps impossible to ignore. The seats themselves are so bulky - they don't fold away when you're not sitting on them - that people on the outside inevitably have to stand up to allow the inner circle to escape to the toilet, something which will no doubt be necessary with the sort of bloated-in-length epics that the technology will attract. There's no space underneath the seats either, meaning any belongings you may have are going to risk being stomped on, not least by yourself.

Kids will no doubt be increasingly targeted by the D-Box campaign, but the seats may prove hard to manage for their guardians. There's no seat-belt, so smaller children run genuine risk of sliding off their perch during the otherwise most enjoyable tilting effects. They will also find the dial a novel distraction; it will be hard to resist turning their own and each others' up and down during the films.

No family outing to the cinema would be complete without a doomsday-scenario's worth of rations, but the already overwhelming temptation for butter-fingered youths to make a mess will increase inexorably with the realisation that the seats are going to make it unavoidable and perhaps even excusable. Indeed, adults will also struggle to keep their goods intact; they should expect to sacrifice a few handfuls of popcorn here and there, to walk out with a some new drink-stains or ketchup-blobs adorning their clothing. Nachos? Don't bother, unless you consider them a fashion statement.

Of course, the financial implications of the technology will be utmost in the minds of both punters and cinema management. Assuming most of the films utilising the D-Box will also be 3D (although the resolutely 2D The Hunger Games is the only other upcoming release announced for it), the average patron will be looking at a ticket price of over £15 per head in total, and that's before they've considered splashing out on the aforementioned expensive treats that stand a good chance of ending up all over the floor. In times of recession, this could keep even more people at home, while those who do attend will potentially feel segregated in terms of their monetary outlay and perceived experience (viewers adjacent to D-Box sections will no doubt feel like they're missing out, and could find the seats distracting them from their own enjoyment of the film).

Several genres will probably benefit from the technology more than others; horror films in particular could be an even bigger bundle of fun with their perennial music stings backed up by D-Box's back-stabbing effects. Older films that people already know and love could also prove worthwhile for the treatment; it's easy to imagine James Cameron's imminent 3D re-release of Titanic being a flagship for the D-Box with its leisurely build-up leading to an even more impressive pay-off during the orgiastic disaster-movie finale. However it's implemented in future, its practitioners will hopefully learn to exercise a little restraint, using it in rhythm with their narratives rather than riding roughshod all over them.

Total immersion or dubious distraction? Ruthless rip-off or essential enhancement? It's too early to call, but while the D-Box technology might not be for everyone in the long term, it definitely deserves to be experienced at least once.

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