(Pocket-lint) - Secret Cinema has been going places for a while now - from humble origins, the list of franchises that the immersive event titan has now worked with only gets better.
Having already conquered the universe of Star Wars and tied things up with Netflix via Stranger Things, its latest show in London brings Marvel into the fold. We headed to Guardians of the Galaxy: The Live Immersive Experience (its full, wordy title) to get a sense of how that partnership has shaped up.
A whole new world
For those new to the concept, Secret Cinema offers you the chance to immerse yourself in a recreation of some part of a fictional world. In past cases that meant walking around Star Wars’ Mos Eisley, or Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, seeing the sights and interacting with a cast of actors in character.
In this case, a couple of locations familiar to Guardians of the Galaxy fans are open to explore, all housed in an industrial space near Wembley.
It’s all indoors, but that hasn’t stopped the Secret Cinema team from magicking up some impressively otherworldly sights, from the space-snow of Contraxia to the glowing undercity of Knowhere.
There’s fun signage all over the place and a bunch of distracting nooks and crannies to explore if you’re dedicated enough to sniff out every possible story lead.
That said, we can’t say that the world lives up to the heights of Secret Cinema’s work on Star Wars or Blade Runner, for instance - and that might well be because, for all its popularity, the cinematic world that the Guardians occupy is a slice less vivid by comparison.
Still, even with that caveat, you’ll still find this a really engaging place to just be in for a couple of hours, and that’s aided by the ever-enthusiastic cast of actors.
Secret Cinema has clearly figured out that the best way to engage a whole audience of attendees in the story of its world is to give them a central cause to rally behind.
This time out, it’s the idea that piratical Ravager clans, which attendees are each a part of, need to band together against the nefarious Collector. This “us against the system” schtick isn’t very new at this stage, but it does work, so why fix it?
As always, this means the order of the evening is to chat to anyone in a good enough costume that they’re probably an actor, to find out what’s going on and what action you can get in on.
In the course of a couple of hours, our group helped to rescue and smuggle away a kidnapping victim, negotiated a deal for a valuable bit of contraband, uncovered a secretive message from Rocket himself, and still found time to enjoy some downtime away from the pressures of the main story.
The best Secret Cinema experiences leave you wondering what was in that curtained-off room you didn’t get into, or up that flight of stairs you didn’t manage to climb, and Guardians of the Galaxy does have that sense of “I’d like to do this again to see what would be different”. That’s what we come to the movies for, people.
That said, the story itself isn’t exactly Pulitzer-quality, and things were just a little bit muddled when it came to participating in major story beats. While these are nicely choreographed, they get a little chaotic when everyone’s pressed in trying to watch, something that’s hard to avoid.
Things come to a great head with a bigger set-piece involving the Guardians doing Guardians things, although on that note we were slightly disappointed to see Rocket and Groot sidelined - finding a way to do their characters using practical effects would have been quite something.
The stagecraft is still repeatedly exciting, though, with details like Yondu’s whistle-steered Yaka Arrow shining in their verisimilitude.
To watch or not to watch
After its Stranger Things experiment with shorter experiences that skip the “sitting down to watch a movie” part of its formula, Secret Cinema has made that an optional extra for Guardians of the Galaxy.
Pay full whack and you’ll troop into a screening room to watch the second movie with some really solid immersive lighting effects, but you can also just opt to participate in the immersive experience, and then leave.
We think that would be a mistake, on balance - being able to sit and see the world you’ve explored in all its detail is a great way to reinforce what you did during your time in it, and also a good way to unwind.
Again, though, we’re a little disappointed by the lack of immersive extras, beyond some cool lighting. It would seem that the days of actors miming along to key moments or fights are done, and while some might have found those moments goofy, we loved them.
It means the film feels more separate from the experience, which might be part of the goal, but that is a smoothing-out of a fun quirky edge that the older shows offered.
Still, the reality is that even as it scales up there’s still unique alchemy at play when you commit properly to an evening with Secret Cinema. It’s like playing Dungeons and Dragons with an entire set, cast and crew there to enable your exploits, and that’s just as fun as it sounds.