Friday, November 19, 2010


Alas, Your Humble Narrator was unable to make it to the screening of Harry Potter and the Receding Hairline, or whatever this one is called. But I did get to attend a demonstration, earlier this week, of the latest technological marvel by which that film will be experienced—by 26 people in Scottsdale, anyway.

The new UltraStar Cinema opens today, in the shell of the old UA Pavilions at Indian Bend & the 101. It’s an all-digital multiplex with certain reserved-seating auditoriums limited to audiences 21 & older, VIP lounges for private parties, gourmet concessions & other such amenities.

In one of the auditoriums (not one of the age-exclusive ones), 26 seats feature “D-BOX enhanced motion chair technology.” Available for an upgrade fee, these seats, put simply, move you around in sync with the movie—tilt & rock & rise & fall during chase scenes, register the impact of punches during fistfights, & so on. A control on one arm of the seats allows the intensity of the motion to be adjusted, or turned off, by the moviegoer.

By way of demonstration, we were shown a clip from The Polar Express, in which the train goes hurtling up & down a stretch of roller-coaster-like track, first with the motion seats on, & then with them off, to show how much is missing. I’m terrified by roller-coasters, & thought I might dislike this effect, but I liked it, & I can’t deny that the second time through, the experience seemed a little tame & sterile.

But UltraStar VP of Operations Damon Rubio, who introduced the system, was at pains to assure us that D-BOX wasn’t intended to turns movies into two-hour thrill rides. He noted that the “Motion Artists” who create these tracks also work to create small, subtle effects—like the “hiccup” at the end of an elevator ride—that contribute to immersion in a moviegoing experience.

This was borne out by the second part of the demo: We were then shown the first ten minutes or so of The Expendables, the Sylvester Stallone actioner. The chairs shook at the gunshots & pummelings, of course, but cooler still was the moment when Stallone & pals, in a speedboat, pull up alongside a ship they’re raiding, & we faintly feel the rocking of the waves. Later, as they ride to their next adventure on an airplane, we feel the vibration of the droning engines.

The new Harry Potter flick opening this weekend is the first to offer the D-BOX experience at Scottsdale's UltraStar. But there are also demonstration seats in the lobby which allow visitors to try it on for size. Obviously not everybody will like this, nor is it appropriate for every movie. But it strikes me as more than a gimmick, like William Castle’s notorious “Percepto” & “Emergo.” Or, if it is a gimmick, it’s a good gimmick.

I’m inclined to think that these non-visual, non-aural environmental enhancements could become a seriously-taken aspect of cinema art. I remember getting my mind blown when I went to Disneyworld in Florida as a ten-year-old, & took the rocket-ship ride, in which the seats sank to simulate the g-forces, & later drifted to simulate weightlessness.

More than ten years later, during a visit to Epcot Center with my then-girlfriend in the mid-80s, I saw the short film Captain EO. I can remember almost nothing about it, except how intensely it generated a sense of “being there” when Michael Jackson opened the hatch of his spaceship, & we in the audience felt a draft of cold clammy air from outside come right through the screen. It’s very clear to me that, if you can afford them, such techniques could be powerful additions to the cinematic bag of tricks.

At a grand opening party for UltraStar this week, I heard Diamondbacks great Luis Gonzales give a short speech of welcome to the place, which is just minutes from the new Diamondbacks/Rockies Spring Training Stadium. With startling candor, the slugger remarked: “…Don’t confuse D-BOX with D-backs…If you’ve tried those seats, and if you’ve seen the D-backs the last couple of years…You’re going to want to be in the D-BOX seats.

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