'Spy Kids 4' Joins Hollywood's Spotty Tradition of Smelly Cinema

Past attempts to include odor in film have brought a whiff of failure—and a gross-out factor

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The trailer for this Friday's Spy Kids: All the Time in the World boldly proclaims that the film will be released in "4-D." But director Robert Rodriguez isn't quite bending the fabric of space and time. In the case of Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, "4-D" refers to something Rodriguez is calling "Aroma-Scope." Each ticket to the movie comes with a free scratch 'n sniff card, and viewers will periodically be invited to "smell" the action via numerical cues onscreen (though the only part of the Spy Kids 4-D trailer that immediately offers an opportunity for Aroma-Scope is a scene in which a bag of vomit smashes into a villain's face. Consider yourself warned).

The last film in the Spy Kids franchise, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, was released back in 2003—more than five years ahead of the massive wave of 3-D films that has now overrun the box office. The Spy Kids franchise has always aspired to be a James Bond for the tween set (right down to the pointed 007 reference in Spy Kids: All the Time in the World's title), which makes Rodriguez's reliance on unconventional "gadgets," like 3-D glasses and Aroma-Scope, seem particularly appropriate.

The cinematic integrity of Rugrats Go Wild may be up for debate, but it's obvious how awkwardly the Odorama cues were shoehorned into the film's plot

But Aroma-Scope isn't Hollywood's first attempt to bring the unique pleasure of smelling things to the big screen. In the never-ending quest for a bigger cut of the box office, enterprising executives have always looked for ways to make films more immersive. And tickling audiences' noses has been a regular and elusive goal.

The first major use of odor technology in film actually came more than 50 years ago with the near-simultaneous release of two competing formats: AromaRama (which relied on a theater's existing air-conditioning system) and Smell-O-Vision (which required theaters to be expensively custom-outfitted with a small odor vent under every seat). Though no film was specifically designed with AromaRama in mind, the new technology was hastily attached to a 1959 documentary on China called Behind the Great Wall. Smell-O-Vision debuted just weeks later, attached to a Denholm Elliott-starring Scent of Mystery. Unlike Behind the Great Wall, Scent of Mystery was designed with the new technology in mind; viewers were tipped off to the film's killer before he appeared onscreen by the smoky scent of his pipe.

Unfortunately—as with most new technologies—there were countless glitches. Scents made loud, distracting noises when sprayed, lasted far longer than intended, and were often released off-cue, which resulted in bizarre dissonance between what audiences smelled and what they saw. Critics were generally scathing; a New York Times review of Behind the Great Wall called AromaRama a "stunt" with an artistic value of "nil." After Smell-O-Vision failed to catch on, Scent of Mystery was rereleased theatrically-without the smells-under the title Holiday in Spain.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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