4DX—the gimmicky theatre experience designed to immerse you in the bangs, pops, flashes, and splashes of the cinema—is a format I reserve for a very particular kind of film. By all appearances, F9, the ninth movie in the Fast and the Furious franchise, should’ve been the platonic ideal of a 4DX movie. But appearances can be deceiving.
Before this week, I’d only seen two movies in 4DX: Wonder Woman and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. These were both flicks for which I had low expectations going in and I figured the extra bells and whistles would help. I was right on both occasions. The little automated balls that hit you in the back of the seat when a character is shot would wake me up when Wonder Woman started losing my attention, and the title character’s flashing bracelets and lasso got an extra pop from the occasional strobe light in the corner of the theater. I don’t remember anything about Valerian, but the infrequent blasts of water in my face and burst of wind from overhead at least broke up the tedium of a lifeless experience.
Pandemic life has meant no 4DX and, for most people, no movie theatre-going at all. The movies are what I missed most throughout quarantine. In normal times, I try to make it once a week, and post-vaccine, I’ve already been back five times. While I saw a couple of indies and a couple of horror movies, I still hadn’t had that dopamine hit of the summer blockbuster. F9 was it. This was to be the first truly stupid movie of the season with huge explosions, and I was determined to have those explosions rock me out of my seat. I got what I asked for.
Several trailers passed before the 4DX-perience kicked in for a preview for the new James Bond film. Because this is a Bond trailer, every cut involved the camera whipping from one direction to another and, in turn, the 4DX seats throwing us around like a giant rock tumbler. Everyone in the theater was laughing maniacally as the promo ended and they gathered their wits. My companion whispered to me, “in an hour, no one will be laughing.” It did not take an hour for the laughter to end.
Spoiler warning: I’m going to talk about a few scenes from F9 that mostly exist in the trailers. But if you’re super-sensitive to spoilers, turn back now.
F9 opens with a flashback. Our hero, Dominic Toretto, is a teenager working with his father who’s a semi-pro NASCAR driver. Something goes wrong with Dom’s daddy’s car, and it goes up in flames after an abrupt crash that demonstrated why that safety bar was directly in front of my seat. The energy in the room took a tragic turn.
Before I knew it, we were back in the present and Dom’s doing his get-the-family-back-together thing, and suddenly we were in the middle of a car chase speeding over a field of landmines. It starts with a gunfight that sets off 4DX’s kick-you-in-back effect. Then there was wind as we sped along with the characters and landmines detonated all around them. Every punishing explosion sent me tossing from left to right, forward and back, and it went on forever. Twenty minutes in, and my friend had to take the first of two restroom breaks.
F&F movies are basically just a string of huge, long, budget-busting action sequences. By the time the big chase sequence involving dozens of cars being tossed around with giant frickin’ magnets arrived, I had come to fear the arrival of the next exciting set-piece. When Dom drops the hammer in his Dodge Charger, I was forced to grab hold of my armrests and white knuckle my way through another round of extreme jostling. My head started to hurt. You probably don’t need a 4DX-plainer on all of my inner workings, but I became acutely aware of the chili cheddar burger I had for lunch.
Did I mention that F9 is two-and-a-half hours long? I’ve made my feelings on this subject clear in the past: That’s too long. It’s too long for a normal, relaxing, sit in your bolted-down seat movie. It’s way too long for 4DX.
But let me be clear, there were a couple of benefits to the experience. If you think the plotty/character-building parts of F&F movies are a slog to get through, the 4DX turns them into a welcome reprieve from the chaos. “I never want the movie to leave this room, and I would listen to Dom and Letty talk about their 401K for hours,” I told myself. In all seriousness, I think this aspect improved the overall movie.
Then, there was the space sequence. I won’t ruin it (and it was widely discussed before the film’s release), but the crew goes to space. It is one of the most sublimely ridiculous things that’s ever happened in the franchise and I loved it. I was sitting there wondering if they’re really going to go through with it. Thinking surely there will be a malfunction or something that prevents this absurd scenario from playing out. Then my seat kicked back, the wind blew through my hair, and the rocket car was blasting through the stratosphere. And I was as happy as anyone’s ever been in a theater.
“They drove a car to space!” is all I could say after the movie. Well, that and “F9 in 4DX is a bit much.”