Features Film

Secret Cinema: The Empire Strikes Back

Written by Will Webb

We were wildly, unbelievably, unprofessionally excited to be invited to cover Secret Cinema Presents: The Empire Strikes Back. But after the euphoria wore off, we were left thinking about a particular problem: how do you review an event without giving anything about it away?

So here’s what we can tell you about what our journey was like:

On our way to the secret location, we try to ask an attendant for directions. But ahead of us, there’s a mother dressed in Han Solo vest and leg pouches, watching quietly as her little Jedi son is asked whether he’s ready to join the Alliance by a ready and willing marshal. After replying in the affirmative, the kid is inducted into a secret handshake before the marshal sends him on his way, never once breaking character. Here, the mother as much as the son indulges in fantasy play, without embarrassment or irony. There are no zips on the back of costumes to point at here; the illusion is so all-consuming that parents are swept in completely, opening themselves to a bonding experience otherwise inaccessible.

On our way in, it becomes clear that there’s a great diversity of ages and abilities- groups of parents and children abound, along with adults, from professionals all the way down to students. And despite the physical and hurried nature of the experience, the staff are carefully and quietly inclusive of visitors with disabilities- they are ushered out of areas ahead of the crowd, or given a guard to help out. At no point does anyone break character and bring them down to earth; they, like everyone else, are transported somewhere else for the evening.

Before going further, we are instructed to turn off all phones, etc. and place them in sealed pouches. While it was initially frustrating not to be able to take pictures of the awesome things we saw, it also helped us feel more in character. Everyone was paying attention to what was around them instead of trying to grab the best selfie to represent the day. The outside world completely fell away to such an extent that the return at the end felt distinctly jarring.

As we enter the main room of the event, it’s clear that this attention to detail applies to all aspects of the presentation. We’re whisked away on a thrilling plot-line that cleverly references the Star Wars films, but doesn’t feel disrespectful or dumb- it’s not The Empire Strikes Back On Ice. The authenticity of the location is genuine; even the food and drink on sale ties into the theme. I have a merguez wrap- it’s sublime. The drinks (mine were tall and vodka-based) are on a  par with any other bar in London, only here we’re on another planet. In discussion, we wish we could just come and drink here every night.

There’s a relatively strict dress code- the look’s best described as military rebel chic- but the idea behind this becomes apparent as we realise it’s difficult to know who is just an attendee and who is part of the fiction of the plot-line. We get lost trying to find specific characters before we remember that marshal’s secret handshake- and things start to fall into place.

So sure, we can’t talk about the set, or set pieces, or the characters, or plot lines. We were sure we’d find that restrictive and frustrating when it came to the review, but talking after, we agreed we wouldn’t want to spoil it for the world. It really is best to go into the experience with no expectations. Something the Secret Cinema team is excellent at establishing is basic trust- the feeling that we will be in good hands, no matter what happens. And as the plot-line draws to a close and the movie begins to play, it’s to our delight that the action hasn’t stopped, but rather continues alongside what’s on screen.

I’m struck by the experience of watching the film, because although I’ve seen it many times before, I’ve never watched it with an audience like that. The immersive theatre isn’t just a sideshow or an excuse to drink before the movie, but a way of building the excitement for the audience and setting the tone for the film they’re about to watch. Gone are apathetic smartphone browsers and disinterested parents- here is a hungry, happy audience, ready for thrills. They laugh, shout, and scream ‘eww’ at one particularly incestuous moment. Maybe Secret Cinema isn’t a dumbed-down, lightened-up Cliff Notes take on screen classics, but a sort of call to action for film exhibitors, to get audiences excited about film again.

After the showing, we head downstairs to the bar to have one last drink and consider the night. One young woman tells us that it was in fact her second night in a row- after the performance the night before, she had immediately booked to go again. Here experience tonight was completely different from the night before – there’s that much going on! There’s no greater reflection of a multi-faceted and innovative approach to storytelling and cinematic presentation that is unrivaled in the UK ( and judging by this year’s Back To The Future screening in LA, possibly the world). And, after my first Secret Cinema experience, I spent the whole way home thinking about how many times I would go to the next one.

Secret Cinema Presents: The Empire Strikes Back will be playing in London through September 27. For tickets and more information, head over to the Secret Cinema website.

About the author

Will Webb