Secret Cinema: The Empire Strikes Back Review

Back in 2007, Secret Cinema created something new – an immersive cinema experience, a big step away from the corporate hell of your local multiplex. Fast forward a few years and the experience has become a behemoth. After last years record breaking success of the Back to the Future events where the set involved a re-creation of the 1955 Hill Valley Town and Fair near to the Olympic Park, catering for almost 60,000 people it was always going to be a tough act to follow.

Where could they go next? Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back of course. A surefire winner with the biggest cult film following in the world. Perfect timing too, tying in very nicely with the much anticipated new film The Force Awakens, due for release this December. In a recent interview, Secret Cinema founder Fabien Riggall said that it took roughly a year of negotiating just to obtain the official license from Disney.

The scale of this latest event is massive – far bigger than any of their previous events, with the run now around 100 shows and a 400 strong team of crew and actors to provide the experience. The site roughly twice the size of the Hill Valley set and the main space itself comparable to the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Star Wars is a big deal and people expect a lot especially with a price tag of £75, so it had to be bold.

After buying a ticket, you become part of the rebellion against the Empire. Code name #RebelX.

First step is to log on to the Rebel X website and create your new Star Wars persona. After answering some basic personality questions you are assigned a character and relevant costume ideas, in one of five categories.

And so the fun begins… EVERYBODY gets involved with a costume to some degree, even if it is just a colour coded scarf. These are not compulsory but important, as once you’re inside you can get to join in with secret missions and trading with others film characters based on your role in the rebellion.

This time there is even a RebelX pop-up Store in East London. You don’t have to buy from there, many people don’t want to spend the extra cash – and in fact the best outfit on the night was a charity shop Darth Vader; black cardboard box over the head with a photocopy of Darth Vader’s mask on the front, a black bin bag for the body, a long cardboard tube painted red for a light sabre and a old desktop calculator for the chest plate. Outstanding effort and all for about a £1. Some people have spent their way to a successful outfit and others have spent hours meticulously crafting something to wear that they’ve probably always wanted to but never had the excuse to do it for real.

Photography Credit: Olivia Weetch

On arrival at the secret London venue, it doesn’t take long to get transported into a galaxy far far away. The entrance inspired by A New Hope – something i was sceptical of initially, with the film itself being Empire Strikes Back but i take it back. It is very well thought out, the set design, the flow of events and key moments (which hopefully nobody will tell you about so it doesn’t ruin the surprise) leading up to the screening are brilliantly choreographed. Within minutes of setting foot on Tatooine we were hiding from Stormtroopers who were patrolling the streets, trading with Jawas and even getting thrown out of a poker game hosted by Lando Calrissian.

Photography Credit: Olivia Weetch

Photography Credit: Paul Cochrane

In many ways, the actual screening of the film is the least important element of the night and almost an anti-climax. There are of course some surprises during the screening but there’s much more interactive fun to be had elsewhere which sadly kind of grinds to a halt once the film starts.

At points you do detect a fair amount of of confusion amongst the crowd about where to go and what they should be doing but you needn’t worry. You’re not going to miss anything major, you are ushered in the right directions when the time comes. The fact that you have time to go off and explore is the point really – that’s what helps you to become part of the immersion and shape your own unique experience. Don’t be shy, despite what your mother tells you, do talk to strangers.

Photography Credit: Paul Cochrane

Photography Credit: Mike Massaro

This time there is also a Secret Nightclub. The Star Wars Cantina – a themed bar where they serve Bounty Hunter cocktails in tin cans and test tubes whilst DJs and live acts take to the stage. There have been some special guest appearances from well known DJs including Goldie, Simian Mobile Disco, Groove Armada, DJ Food and of course, the aptly named DJ Yoda.

There are some decent big moments to enjoy. For any Star Wars fan it is unmissable, others will enjoy it too no doubt but if you are a real super geek you will be delighted by the level of detail put into the overall production, sound effects and set design.

A lot of fuss was made on social media regarding the ticket prices, and yes it is steep for a cinematic event and a big hike from last time, but if you compare to other big nights out in London such as a West-End theatre show or a gig at the 02 then it’s much more reasonable considering how many people are involved in the production.

The term ‘immersive’ is thrown around a lot these days but Secret Cinema really is that. They are pioneers, they know what they are doing and they do it better than almost anyone else. With the scale of the events now, it’s not as personal as it once was but the opportunities to get involved are still there, you just have to make the effort and find them.

Advice for anyone going over the coming months – get there early, find yourself some secret missions and get involved. You will not find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy in London this summer.

Secret Cinema presents The Empire Strikes Back runs until September 27th 2015 – Tickets available here.

About The Author

Editor, Design Manager

Pete graduated from University in 2003 with a degree in Digital Art. With a real interest in all the creative arts, he then went on to set up his own digital design agency, Elastic Eye - specialising in all forms of graphic design, web design, photography and MoreEyes VJ collective - specialising in VJ'ing, projection mapping and audio-visual performance.

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