Review of Secret Cinema: The Empire Strikes Back

So, despite having countless articles, stories and other random pieces sitting the drawer ready to be published, I have, unexpectedly, decided to ignore them all and update the blog with something I did last night. The reason? At the time of writing there are still four weeks of Secret Cinema’s “Empire Strikes Back” event left and, well, if you’re a Star Wars fan you need to go. Actually if you’re not a Star Wars fan you need to go. This is an astonishing event and worth every penny of it’s hefty price tag.

It’s tricky to review in detail because it’s secret by name and secret by nature. The location is not revealed to you until 48 hours before your departure (though it’s no real secret that it’s in London somewhere), no phone or camera are allowed at any time, and all correspondence is in ‘code’. In truth, as much as I want to tell you all the details and gush about it, it’s far, far better if I don’t. Better for you, that is, the surprises should be surprises. I may do an updated blog after the event has finished with all the details if there’s any demand, but we’ll see.

I went with my 8 year old son, Jed, and my friend Matthew Harlow. I’d already been doing the role play part (if you like doing this, you’ll get even more enjoyment out of the event, but it’s not compulsory to get involved to this level) with Jed for some weeks, secretly booking the tickets and then showing him the coded communications I’d been receiving. I created a backstory that we’d been chosen by the Earth based underground rebel alliance for a top secret mission that no-one on the planet knew about. Over the days, his excitement grew as we prepared outfits with items we found around the home and charity shops, trading items and did our homework based on the information provided on the secret communication channels set up by Secret Cinema. He still had absolutely no idea what was going to happen, even as were arrived at the Earth Cargo Airlines Terminal, a huge (and very real) heavily fortified space port smack in the middle of London.

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Wow! Earth Cargo Airline Terminal THX1138 turns out to be real! Jed and I pose outside before being led through some very heavy security.

Following instructions from stern looking members of the rebellion eager to avoid the gaze of the Empire, we ran through dark, atmospheric and incredibly detailed corridors with scarves up and googles on to hide our faces. We stayed low to avoid detection. We were taken to briefing points where we learned who our contacts would be at our first destination and what our missions were according to our factions previously assigned through the secure communication channels. Phones and cameras were sealed in silver bags, not to be reopened until well after the event was over. We were, literally, disconnected from the Earth and for some of the younger attendees, I got the feeling this really was the first time they’d been without communications devices.

I’m already loathed to reveal details of the Space Port because you should experience the impact yourself, so I won’t give you specifics. Instead I’ll give you enough information for your own imagination to paint a picture that will give you the same feeling, but will still be woefully inaccurate when compared to the real thing. Think Heathrow, cargo loading bays, announcements, screens, the noise, feel and smell of an extremely busy, well used airport (spaceport), in a dysfunctional, steam punk-esque future. There you are. Now imagine it fifty times better and you might start to get close.

Travel time via hyperspace (a journey not without event I hasten to add) was quite short to our first planetary destination and those who are Star Wars fans would probably know where it was if I mentioned we ended up at Dock 84. Imperial presence was strong, and a couple of quick, very public arrests by extremely intimidating Stromtroopers from those within our ranks reminded us who we were up against.

It probably took us a full twenty minutes to take it all in. We were actually there. I mean in the sense that every detail reminded our senses impeccably where we were, the sights, sounds, even the smells and the throngs of like minded and similarly dressed people around us, each with their own unique take on the outfits for their factions. The sky, with the twin suns gradually setting over the next few hours was a brilliantly subtle touch and so typical of the detail that’s there if you want to find it. We wandered through the town, with the thick sand getting into our boots, and the spicy smoke that hung in the air infiltrating our lungs. We smiled at other rebel members, we interacted with a few using the coded initiation we’d been given and glanced nervously away as patrols of stormtroopers barged past us periodically, sometimes returning with a struggling rebel who’d been careless with their identity.

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Outfits by The British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research and some creative imagination!

However, it quickly became clear we weren’t sure what we were supposed to do. We had bought items to trade, but it wasn’t clear who we were trading with or why, although we gradually picked up this was wasn’t our final destination – we were only half way on our journey! I loved this mystery actually, because it gave it a real sense of suspense, chaos and yourself actually being part of the story unfolding. It also wonderfully backed up the story I’d been telling my son, who ultimately STILL had no idea we’d basically come to see a film. Frankly, I thought he was going to implode with excitement at several points, but he threw himself into it brilliantly and confidently, often winning approving comments from the characters (professional actors) on the set.

I mustered up the courage to speak to one of the characters, using my best Star Wars vocabulary “Excuse me, friend, are you XXX XXXX? (name obscured to keep identity hidden) “I understand we need to seek passage to XXXX XXXX (location hidden), where might we find transport, pilots and what payment would suffice?” He was very accommodating and it became clear what our mission was and that we’d had to be careful. Some of the items we were carrying were contraband on this planet and any deal that would need to be done, would need to be done outside of Empire’s knowledge.

Of course, you don’t need to do any of this if you don’t want to. You can just eat and enjoy the atmosphere rather than looking for the underground world that is happening right under your nose and hidden in plain sight. But I wouldn’t recommend that – this is a classic case of the more you put in, the more you will be given back in return. In fact, this is exponentially so, because it is clear that the main characters will interact as much as you want to. If you ever wanted to be in a Star Wars film, this is the closest you’ll ever get. They never break character, ever, and they are utterly dedicated to their roles. Kudos to you, Secret Cinema, job done.

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All signs in the Space Port are in Bocce as well as English. If you know a few phrases of Bocce, it will do you well at your first destination.

It also became clear that events from Episode IV: A new Hope, are being played out around us. We mere attendees are not privy to the timetable, so if you’re in the right place at the right time (which we often were) you get to see the action unfold as if you’re in a 3D film. A major fight in a very famous, faithfully re created Star Wars bar (complete with band and alien girl dancers), Luke losing R2 right as we were talking to C3PO, jawas roaming looking for droids to scavenge and steal, deals and underhand transaction occurring around us. All done impeccably and in complete respect to the film.

We learned our contacts, used their names to speak to other contacts and did several deals in doorways and hidden corners, even learning a shortcut to avoid interrogation at customs on the way. That’s real that interrogation, by the way, make sure you’ve got your ID. That’s all I’m saying.

Our mission accomplished, mainly thanks to the trading skills of my 8 year old son, we bought passage to our next destination via shuttle and … well, let’s just say we didn’t end up where we planned. I can’t say any more at all in reality without giving away details that you really shouldn’t know before you go.

The second ‘phase’ was just as slick as the first ‘phase’, but in our case, our group got separated when one of the actors accidentally sent us the wrong way (thinking we were at a different stage I suspect) and we found ourselves back where we started and unable to return. A quick discussion with one of the security guys (the actors just would NOT break character and therefore couldn’t help!) and we were escorted back to ‘phase two’ by the back door. However, without knowing what we were supposed to, we ended up lost for around twenty minutes until we finally worked out, with a bit of coded help, where we should be. It was the only time the ‘fourth wall’ was broken and it was unfortunate as it temporarily broke the spell, but it wasn’t the end of the world and it was instantly forgotten when we were back on track.

After the role play action finale (huge and impressive, again, can’t say anything more at this stage) it was time for the film. Yes, this four hour build up was really just to show ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. Jed, still reeling from what he’d just seen, saw the cinema and said “Is there a film as well?” When I explained it was his favourite of the six, he couldn’t believe it. We’d done our job – he’d done the entire thing without knowing what he’d actually come here for.

But this is Secret Cinema. Of course it’s not just a film. No, as the action unfolds on the screen, actors play out some parts, lights and effects transcend the screen and things happen around you. To me, compared to what we had just experienced, it was a bit of a let down, but only because the build up had been so spectacular and NOT because the efforts here were poor. I was just in a different zone and wanted more of what I had experienced. It must be conceded it was a pretty awesome thing to watch the film with a group of impeccably dressed individuals ( now numbering around 1500 over three screens I’d guess), whooping at the action parts, and cheering when the heroes do something, well heroic.

Afterwards, as the credits rolled and we were ushered out, we elected to spend a last few minutes back in a familiar looking booth in that famous bar, Matt and I with a beer and Jed with a Coke, something he never normally has. It suddenly felt like a proper lad’s night out, except we were in a galaxy far, far away, dressed in robes and faction scarves, watching an alien lady with an insect head dance to a strange rhythmic beat. And what could be better than that?!

One word: Recommended.

Secret Cinema runs until September 27th 2015. Website here: http://www.secretcinema.org. Tickets around £78 adults, £50 children (8+).

UPDATE: The event has now finished, but Secret Cinema produced this wonderful little video that perfectly captures the day – brings back some wonderful memories! May the force be with you, always.

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