Designing a fully immersive world for an audience to step into is a painstaking process, requiring an exhaustive eye for detail and a strong visual sense (the recent Punchdrunk theatre performance of the Lynchian Hollywood fable The Drowned Man was a shining example of what can be achieved). Even before the near-disastrous PR mishandling which hobbled the opening to their latest venture, there was the feeling that the world-building experience offered up by Secret Cinema could do with a creative shot in the arm. Previous events had received some mixed notices and meeting the audience’s expectations against the costly entrance fee is always a tricky and challenging proposition. Happily, Secret Cinema has upped its game with the recreation of 1955 Hill Valley, bringing to life an iconic and much-cherished cinematic landscape.
The nostalgia-sodden world of Back To The Future was always going to be the company’s greatest challenge, and the scale here has previously been unseen with Secret Cinema. But rather than getting lost in the sheer scope of the project, the attention to detail here is both precise and attention grabbing as a spectacle. Based within a car park in Hackney Wick, East London, the tall and imposing sight of Westfield Stratford City shopping centre and the remains of the Olympic legacy looms large over the production. Yet rather than distracting from the recreation of Hill Valley’s town square (complete with the infamous, pre-lightning struck Clock Tower) there’s something both comforting and delightfully unusual about this. It’s like the audience is almost hermetically sealed in that cinematic world.
In an attempt to maintain some level of secrecy, phones are taken off you on entry (who would want to see such anachronistic devices polluting the period setting, anyway?) before passing by Old Man Peabody’s ranch (a small petting farm here). Buildings and locations which form much of the character of the film are present. Lou’s diner serves cups of alcoholic Tab (presumably something the wholesome teens in that era weren’t offered) and future mayor Goldie Wilson glides around, offering you his chirpy and optimistic outlook on life whilst feverishly sweeping away.
If you’re lucky, you may be privy to catching Marty McFly’s first interaction with his father from the booth you’re sitting in. Hill Valley High School, though considerably downsized here, does offer plenty of space to jive around during the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, with its mix of classic numbers being spun by a DJ and a young rockabilly wannabe hitting the microphone. In order to create a fully functioning town experience, the square has many other additional spaces unseen in the film, but carved out from the kind of classic Americana tropes and iconography which seem so alluring to a non-US crowd.
The makers have also taken care to build a loose narrative around the evening itself before the screening, where willing audience members are selected to take part in a parade around the square. Period vehicles whizz by (a vital component to the evening which no doubt gave the organisers a massive headache and may very well have contributed to the delay) and even though you’re cognisant of the artificial world around you, there’s a huge urge to enthusiastically wave your Hill Valley flag at the passing school bus.
Settling into the actual screening (the immediate hushed atmosphere which met the opening Universal logo is a testament to just how loved the film is) and the next surprises of the night are unleashed. Some cinema purists may balk at the idea of real-time re-enactments running simultaneously with the action on screen. While this kind of event certainly isn’t advisable for any first-time viewers, a firmly established film like Back To The Future lends itself to this experience and, without going into further spoiler territory, fans will be delighted with what happens here.
Make no mistake – your wallet may take a severe pounding once you’ve put down that initial ticket fee. Food will set you back a fine penny, and refreshments aren’t cheap. Word of advice – make sure you bring money with you. Aside from a couple of cash machines, there aren’t any card transfers on site. After a shaky start, Secret Cinema has really come up with the goods. Film still exists as a communal experience, and however much that has evolved, these kinds of events are there to happily remind us of the shared joy of witnessing entertainment on a grand scale. Hearing the thundering applause and cheers of hundreds of fans as George McFly offers a grateful wave to his son, Earth Angel swelling up on the soundtrack, is just about as touching a cinematic experience as you can get.
Back To The Future: The Live Cinema Experience runs until the 31st August. Main image courtesy of Al Overdrive.
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