Event Review (mild spoilers): Secret Cinema Presents: The Empire Strikes Back

Secret Cinema Presents Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is on now until 27 September 2015. You can buy tickets at www.secretcinema.org/tickets.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

In light of Secret Cinema announcing that Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back  would be their next live “Secret Cinema Presents” production for summer 2015, it was all too tempting to reach for the ‘evil Galactic Empire’ allegories. After all, the once-tiny immersive cinema group, which began with a screening of Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park in 2007, has now morphed into a Death Star-sized behemoth. Secret Cinema events now promise not only huge recreations of cinematic worlds, but lengthy periods of pre-show immersion, provided you pay the whopping £75 that tickets now cost (plus costume fees if you want to go that far). The ‘secret’ element now appears to be all but relegated to the much smaller and one-off ‘Secret Cinema X’ event strand. Bigger, louder, more expensive; that seems to be the direction founder Fabien Riggall wants to take this project.

But when the opening of last year’s Back to the Future event was delayed due to the difficulties involved in recreating the fictional town of Hill Valley in Hackney, questions about “Imperial overreach” were in the air. For this year’s show, Riggall seems not to have been chastened, choosing instead to capitalise on the imminent Star Wars: Episode VII release by building the this season around what is still the most popular number of the soon-to-be-expanded Star Wars film franchise. But then, if you are going to charge £75, you need a crowd-pleaser like a Star Wars. Secret Cinema’s The Empire Strikes Back did start on time this season, denying disaster junkies the amusement of another round of Buzzfeed posts cataloguing the rants of disgusted ticket holders. As with the £3.5million-grossing Back to the Future event, this new show has already warped the UK box office charts and netted some nice new royalties for the Star Wars brand’s new owners, Disney. But is “the force” truly with it?

It has to be said that the immersion factor is hugely helped by setting the production indoors. One of the big problems with the Back to the Future event was that it was hard to maintain the spell of being transported to Hill Valley when all you had to do was look up to see a Marks & Spencers logo glowing above you, surrounded as you were by supermarkets and car parks. Several shows were also affected by storms during that season, with little rain cover on the set. This time, everything in this new event is inside, which does mean it gets swelteringly hot, but the tighter confines, crowds and foggy gloom actually helps paper over the cracks in the film world where reality might bleed through. Of course, there is only so far you can go, even with tonnes of sand, to turn a warehouse into planet Tatooine. The bigger Secret Cinema gets, the harder it will have to work to paper over the cracks in the illusion of the film world, and the more they will probably charge to cover the cost of doing so.

Anyone with a vague knowledge of Star Wars will note that the aforementioned planet Tatooine is a setting from Star Wars: A New Hope, not The Empire Strikes Back. That is one of the oddest things about this Secret Cinema season; the film being shown is actually not the one being used as the basis for the production. Still, provided you have your tongue firmly in cheek and haven’t grown out of your sense of play, there is a fair amount to enjoy as you slide into the world of George Lucas’s original 1977 space opera. There are actually several different film zones compressed into the one location, and within each various mini-narratives are played out by the actors, so as to bring all those geek memories to the surface. Tickets holders, who are treated as potential “Rebel Alliance recruits”, are first brought into an industrial-looking space station set, to be briefed by various scenery-chomping Secret Cinema actors playing Rebel Alliance commanders. Guests are promptly whisked to the world of Tatooine. Some quite slick CGI visuals are deployed to give the effect of travelling there, with a few easter eggs and familiar sights thrown in to get the juices flowing.

The organisers have done pretty well with the planet Tatooine sections, packing so many people and well-costumed actors into a desert location does recreate, to a degree, that sense of improvisation and everydayness that made Star Wars: Episode IV’s planetside settings feel so rich. This part of the show is where ticket holders have the most chance to wander around (and fork out for the expensive food and drink). Later however, the narrative flow appears to speed up, and the transitions to other worlds get more hurried and less logically laid-out. Before you know it, you have jumped from Tatooine merely by wandering next door, and are now a spectator to re-enactments of the last 30 minutes of Star Wars, with fan-favourite moments being played out on the gantries and stairwells above you, and it all becomes more like a ride. Concealed by fog and the darkness of the environment, and cheered on by several hundred slightly boozy fans, the instantly-recognisable silhouettes of Star Wars characters and gadgets can pack a surprising visual punch.

Fun though this is for those of a certain generation and mindset; if you are not the kind of person who enjoys dressing up in a brown robe and waving a glowing stick around whilst slightly tipsy, or being in a room with people who do, you probably shouldn’t bother forking out the £75. Likewise, if you merely like, as opposed to love Star Wars, don’t bother. And certainly don’t think about going if you are one of those types who are like to start griping about the areas where the reality – this being just a warehouse behind a BHS in Canada Water after all – seeps through the illusion. If you are likely to feel driven to niggle one of the Secret Cinema actors into breaking character and admitting its all a bit childish, you’ll be disappointed, so don’t make the trip.

Even hardcore fans might find themselves a little put-off by all the pre-show build-up, which has been playing an increasingly prominent role in each of these mega-shows. Signing up online in advance for a Rebel Alliance character identity, which conveniently pushes you towards kitting yourself out via a Secret Cinema pop up store in East London, feels like a cynical grab for an extra £5-30 from those fearing they’ll look out of place. Yet this writer saw no evidence that dressing as a particular character actually came to anything during the actual show. Again, it might have been a case of not being in the right place at the right time so as to be assigned some kind of mission, but that is small consolation for someone who has read all the barrage of emails beforehand, and then paid top dollar to look like an X-Wing pilot hoping it will serve a purpose. Why not just declare people can dress up as any Star Wars character they please? Many do anyway, and shaking your head at the devotion of those parents who have gone ‘full Jedi’ with their kids is actually one of the more amusing aspects of the night.

The strongest moment of the show is actually viewing the film, but this just showcases Secret Cinema’s weaknesses when they start operating at this end of the scale with anything less than superb window dressing. A live show of this monolith of pop culture – with Yoda’s fortune cookie wisdom and Vader’s hissing paternity claim all but hardwired into the brain –  is an experience no TV or laptop screen can match. Yet, even with some surprise live extras backing up the big screen action, this is the least technically complex moment of the entire evening. You don’t ultimately need a huge warehouse set and £200 costumes to recreate that feeling of knowing, when you are fist-punching the air and hollering as that AT-AT Imperial Walker falls into the snowy plains of planet Hoth, that all the other people around you are doing the same thing.

Event Review (mild spoilers): Secret Cinema Presents: The Empire Strikes Back
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