SECRET CINEMA LONDON – The Empire Strikes Back



“REBEL X?”…”WITH YOU!” From teasing hastags, to giant projections on the side of locations hidden throughout London, to the call of actors returned in unison by the night’s latest batch of intergalactic travellers these words have been filling streets, minds and inboxes for the past few months. So began a Friday night the likes of which, as a fan of Star Wars since I was three, I’m unlikely to experience again.

In 2013, a good friend of mine said “I’ve bought two tickets to Secret Cinema, I don’t know what it is, come with me?” I’d heard of it, had an idea of what it was but had never been. “Sure, why not?” We registered online, downloading new profile pictures and receiving instructions on how to dress on the night. Later came details of the location (always secret, usually in London) and subtle clues as to the world we’d be entering. As it happened, I managed to fluke a correct guess based on the pink, cursive font used in one of the communications. A few weeks later, dressed as inhabitants of some retro, dystopian future we entered a disused 1980s office block dressed almost head to toe in environments and moments from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Both an inventive expansion on its ideas and a recognisable recreation of specific scenes, we barely caught the end of the movie itself. Instead, we spent the night soaking up every floor, posing for photos and stopping occasionally for food and drink.

A year or so later, that same friend and I enthusiastically arrived at Hill Valley (actually a transformed carpark near London’s 2012 Olympic Park), this time as two High School students ready to soak up the stylings of 1955 (as well as a brilliant, hidden club frozen in 1985 complete with arcade machines, cocktails and live synth bands). After a seriously false start, cancelling the opening week of nights due to unknown production issues, Secret Cinema was back on track with its highest profile endeavour yet. While the movie was no longer secret, the location still was (unless you happened to pass by, spotting a familiar clock tower from outside the park) and leaks of what lay within were kept to a minimum by a ban on cameras and smartphones, allowing only cheap disposable cameras to be purchased from inside the 80s club. Memories could still be cherished, but were much harder to put on Instagram. We had a great night, not to mention a hugely memorable dinner punctuated by George McFly (notepad in hand) arriving at the table next to us to ask his wife-to-be to accompany him to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. This was followed by Biff, a scuffle, the classic musical sting blasting from speakers around us and, later that night, the best viewing of Back to the Future I’ve ever had, with the most appreciative audience you could ask for.

Fast forward to June 2015 and Secret Cinema launches possibly its most ambitious night of “immersive cinema” yet. Having secured the license to build upon (in my view) the Star Wars’ universe’s finest chapter The Empire Strikes Back. Like the year before, the movie was advertised in advance, but the location is communicated via boarding instructions from our intergalactic travel agent. Along with it, cryptic emails arrived (too cryptic for some sadly, as complaints have filled the event’s Facebook page over the preceding weeks) asking us to register, complete a personality questionnaire and thus be assigned a character type and appropriate costume. My partner and I were to be Starfighter Pilots, part of Rebel X, the band of hopeful rebels aiming to smuggle themselves off this planet and into the stars.

Frantic eBaying, sewing, fabric dying and a little light woodwork later we were all set. Before arriving at perhaps Secret Cinema’s largest indoor space yet, we’re met at the station by stewards emblazoned with indecipherable but authentic looking alien slogans and logos that had adorned our emails and printed ID cards. Following directions we ran inside, treated to a genuinely exciting opening half hour. The detail, the lighting, the density of the population (both paying customers and SC actors) is truly impressive, as is the high quality moving imagery that ushers us from one environment to the next.
Online and printed publicity has been rife in recent weeks. itself sharing very mildly spoilery images of Tatooine, a brilliantly realised set containing various places to eat and drink, huts to explore, characters to meet and missions to complete. I’ve no idea what I was supposed to do with the pouch of Spice I bartered my circuit board for, instead choosing to sample the authentically stand-offish “hospitality” of the Cantina bar staff. It could have been worse, no-one lost an arm. For what little point it served, bartering with a Jawa was still a geeky pleasure.

Bellies filled, UK TV celebrities spotted (Jonathan Ross, high profile TV chat show host and husband of screenwriter Jane Goldman, in full Jedi garb) our first destination started to empty and we were ushered onwards by an Imperial Commander.

What followed was a fantastic moment connecting what we’d seen so far to the screening of The Empire Strikes Back itself. I’ll keep details to a minimum but we now found ourselves seated in one of three screens, ready to watch the movie (Special Edition, but at least most of the changes in this one are actually improvements). We had prime position near the front, occasionally being congratulated for our heroic efforts at the first Death Star, which meant we had a great view of not only the movie but also the live theatrics that play along with it. As with previous incarnations of Secret Cinema, actors come and go lipsyncing to scenes and even mirroring fights with perfect timing. The audience whooped, booed and applauded with glee.

Year on year, Secret Cinema has become more elaborate and considerably more expensive. £78 (around $120) is a ludicrously high price to pay to go watch an old movie. It’s a huge fee to pay for a day in a Theme Park, but SC isn’t really either of those things. There are, in my experience, few shows on the London West End with these production values. Even if there were, how many of them have a stage this large and how few would happily let you wander round and mingle with the actors? Viewed at theatre prices, this is not far off average and just as (if not more) satisfying. You’d pay a good percentage of the ticket price just to attend what, after the movie, becomes perhaps the best Star Wars themed nightclub in existence. There’s something truly special about throwing shapes in the Mos Eisley Cantina, smiling as couples re-enact ‘using the Force’ through their dance moves.

This year, security is tighter than ever. Huts have cameras inside to prevent the use of “communication devices” with Storm Troopers rushing in to admonish anyone trying to snap a cheeky photograph. It is a shame not to have at least a tiny snippet of the internal atmosphere captured to look back upon, but for an experience built on secrecy it makes sense. Instead, there’s a joy to feeling part of the 99% of attendees who make an effort with their outfits, who speak of shuttle departure times and hidden rebel plans. Even the tickings off are delivered in character.

Walking into the sands of that wretched hive of scum and villainy is a unique rush. Decades of (wavering) fandom culminating in a flood of childhood imagination made real.

For the third time in recent years, I loved Secret Cinema. It knows.

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