'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

rowan_lasso 615.jpg

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.

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.

The twin failures of AromaRama and Smell-O-Vision killed smelly cinema for more than two decades. It wasn't until 1981 that filmmaker John Waters revived the concept for an offbeat, low-budget satire called Polyester. Polyester starred cross-dresser Divine as Francine Fishpaw, a housewife with a philandering husband and an overactive sense of smell.

It was Waters who invented a far more manageable and far less expensive solution to the odor distribution problems that plagued both AromaRama and Smell-O-Vision: Each Polyester ticket came with a scratch 'n sniff "Odorama" card, and a corresponding number flashed in the corner of the screen when the audience was supposed to smell something. Never one for restraint, Waters included flatulence, dirty sneakers, and glue among the film's 10 odor cues. (For the morbidly curious, the Polyester DVD comes with an Odorama card.)

Though Waters's experiment was generally successful, it was more than two decades before another filmmaker followed his example. In 2003, Nickelodeon resurrected the Odorama concept for a film that combined two of its most popular series: Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys. Unlike Waters' offbeat film, Rugrats Go Wild was a marketer's dream: The "Odorama" cards that accompanied the film were obtained at Blockbuster and Burger King (Rugrats Go Wild did follow the example of Polyester in its gross-out appeal: Two of the film's Odorama scents were fish and feet).

Viewed today, Rugrats Go Wild offers a prime example of the problem that underlies all cinematic gimmicks like Odorama. Watched on, say, Netflix, the Odorama-inspired moments are deeply awkward. Take, for example, a scene in which a main character spreads peanut butter across a loaf of bread and lustily sniffs it—weirdly, and pointlessly if you don't have an Odorama card with a peanut butter scent. 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.

Which brings us to Spy Kids: All the Time in the World. We'll find out tomorrow how well Spy Kids utilizes its odor technology. If history is any indication, AromaScope will never be utilized on the scale that 3-D has been used in recent years. But as box-office attendance continues to drop, Hollywood studios are looking outside the box for a way to make the theatrical experience something that can't be replicated at home. Maybe your nose is the answer.