The Weekly Moviegoer - Cloudy with a Change of Gimmick
by Christopher Campbell
April 9, 2009
Nevermind that Sony's upcoming animated film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (watch the trailer if you haven't yet) bears little resemblance to its beloved source material - Judi Barrett's children's book. Considering my attitude towards the redundancy of adapted films like Frank Miller's Sin City and Zack Snyder's Watchmen, I can't rightly complain that the plot of this adaptation is not exactly as Judi Barrett wrote it nor that it doesn't look anything like Ron Barrett's illustrations. What I can rightly complain about, however, is that the movie will not be presented appropriately in Smell-O-Vision like it should be.
For those of you who don't remember, Smell-O-Vision is an old cinema gimmick, kind of like 3D. But instead of bombarding you with the illusion of pop-out images, it bombards you with odors that are relevant to what's onscreen. For example, for the one and only official Smell-O-Vision release, Jack Cardiff's Scent of Mystery, moviegoers would smell the scent of pipe tobacco whenever a certain character was present. Unfortunately, the gimmick had its flaws, just as old 3D did, and it didn't catch on. However, now that digital 3D is becoming more successful, it only makes sense to bring back a new form of Smell-O-Vision.
If you think the return of 3D is bad enough, know that one other '50s-era cinema gimmick has already sort of made a comeback as well. Like a modern equivalent to William Castle's "Percepto" stunt, which involved electric shockers on the bottoms of theater seats for his film The Tingler, D-Box's new Motion Code seats shake the moviegoer at designated times to coincide with the action happening onscreen. This past weekend, Fast & Furious became the first movie to be presented publicly in the D-Box experience, though only two cinemas (Mann Chinese 6 in Hollywood and the Ultrastar Cinemas Surprise Pointe 14 in Arizona) currently feature the gimmick.
If you don't live anywhere near these two cinemas, you can get an idea of what the experience is like from comedians Scott Auckerman (Mr. Show), Paul Scheer (Human Giant) and Rob Huebel (Human Giant), who collectively live-Tweeted their trip to the Mann Chinese 6 for Fast & Furious with "rumble seat technology" last week. Apparently, the seats shake every time there's a car crash in the movie, and whether he was being honest or not, Auckerman wrote that it's the ONLY way to see this particular movie. Of course, it may also be, reciprocally, one of the few movies appropriate for the technology, too. Auckerman joked that the D-Box seats will be used for the next Noah Baumbach movie, but he was obviously kidding with that remark.
Fortunately, there will always be car crashes and other action sequences that this technology will be good for. But otherwise, unlike 3D, motion seats can't really work with all films (not that all films will one day be 3D, despite Jeff Katzenberg's predictions). And, of course, neither could a modernized version of Smell-O-Vision (perhaps developed by NTT Communications, a company that already tried a new odor-emitting gimmick with Terrence Malick's The New World in Japan a few years back) be good for just any movie. So, perhaps theaters and movie studios could agree on what kinds of films are appropriate for what kind of gimmick. For instance, an adaptation of a pop-up book would make the most sense as a 3D movie, while a scratch and sniff book should certainly be in Smell-O-Vision.
And this brings me back to why Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs needs to be in "SOV" rather than (or in addition to) 3D. Sure, the book of Cloudy isn't a scratch and sniff book, but Sony is promoting the film with scratch and sniff cards. So, it would be neat if the movie at least utilized John Waters' "Odorama" technique, which enhanced the viewing experience of his 1981 film, Polyester, with cards that were scratched and sniffed by audiences when prompted. Of course, the original Smell-O-Vision would be even more fitting for Cloudy and its food-meets-weather storyline, because with the earlier gimmick, scents were pumped through air vents with fans, as if it's the wind carrying the odors to moviegoers. And if you think the kids won't appreciate smelling the bad odors (the book includes a scene featuring stinky gorgonzola) along with the good (pancakes with butter and syrup), then you must not be familiar with Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans. If kids can eat candy that tastes like toenails and rotten eggs, they will enjoy a few bad odors intentionally accompanying a slapstick cartoon.
As for other gimmicks and their appropriate releases, Hollywood could update William Castle's "Illusion-O", which involved a special viewing device (easily mistakable for 3D specs) that could make the film's ghosts appear or disappear depending on the viewer's fright level. Something like this could be used for any of the many ghost movies produced each year, such as The Haunting in Connecticut. Meanwhile, with so many other stunts returning to theaters, 3D can be reserved for movies that are most appropriate for the format. For example, Fox should have appropriately made X-Men Origins: Wolverine its first digital 3D movie, because those claws would look awesome seemingly popping out into the auditorium (then Fox would also have a good reason for moviegoers to see the film in theaters rather than illegally download it).
So, what other gimmicks could Hollywood and theater owners pilfer from William Castle and/or Disney World (which has such attractions as the D-Box-like Star Tours and the 3D film It's Tough to be a Bug!, which features Smell-O-Vision-like technology, too)? And what kinds of films would be especially appropriate for these kind of gimmicky attractions? Also, at what point will your local multiplex be too much like Dave & Busters for you to have any more interest in going to the movies? Thoughts?
Special thanks to Drew McWeeny at HitFix for the hat tip regarding Auckerman and friends.