Secret Cinema: The Empire Strikes Back review – “what theme parks were always supposed to be”

Fun for fans and non-fans alike... but especially fans

The Rebels are screwed. The scrappy band of outlaws have heart, yes, but thanks to Secret Cinema: The Empire Strikes Back, they also have a tonne of new recruits who can’t remember the secret code words, or even their own name.


“My face is passing out,” says one Jedi knight. “I can’t believe I’m wearing wool. Why am I wearing a robe?” 

This is your official spoiler warning. It might be idiotic to talk about spoilers for a story that’s as well known in pop culture as Exodus or Cinderella, but you should let it all come as a surprise.

Taking place in an undisclosed, truly gargantuan location, Empire marks a return to form after the PR disaster of Secret Cinema’s delayed staging of Back to the Future last year. 

Nevertheless, it gets off to an inauspicious start. The application process is frustratingly vague, aiming for mysterious but landing at ‘alternate reality promotion for Adidas’, leaving many attendees unsure what to bring or wear. According to the online personality quizzes we filled out beforehand, my partner for the evening was a ‘galactic explorer’, and should wear khaki desert wear – Luke Skywalker, essentially. Meanwhile I was ‘a Governor of the Alliance’ – the boring diplomats you can spot in the background of some scenes. 

While she was saving the universe, I would be handing out Ferrero Rocher. Leaving Earth was equally quotidian: you spend the first half an hour being hustled through a warehouse, crouching in shipping containers to hide from customs officers, random searches…it was exactly like boarding a flight at Heathrow.

But there comes a point when you leave all of this behind, and fly straight back into your childhood.

Picture: Will Cooper

Spoiler warning or not, I am going to stay vague. The most important note is this: you can choose not to take part in the storyline if you wish. But don’t. Don’t be British about this. You have to play along. You simply must. Pay attention to what the characters say and you’ll find yourself embroiled in the seedy galactic underworld, trading for ‘spice’, running messages or tracking down a mysterious smuggler going by the alias ‘Vykk Drago’.

An exchange:

Imperial officer: “What are you doing loitering in this area?”

Me: “We can loiter wherever we want, the Empire has no jurisdiction in the Outer Rim.”

Imperial Officer: “The Empire have a long standing arrangement with the Hutts…”

Me: “ Well that’s interesting, because Jabba is my uncle…”

Imperial Officer: [Pause, eyes narrow] “I would watch your tone.”

[Walks away]

Me: “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

Later a Stormtrooper threw me in jail for calling the Rebels freedom fighters.

Yes, I geeked out pretty hard, which hasn’t happened since I started writing about sci-fi professionally. (It would be like Willy Wonka saving room for dessert.) Yet even my companion, who kept calling it “Secret Star Trek” and asking after “Princess Layla,” wanted to stay to the end. Incredibly, she wanted to know how the story ended.

This is what theme parks were always supposed to be, but can’t for the crowds: you are actually in a movie, the story is taking place around you. And, like theme parks, you have to spend a lot of money to enter (£75 for adults, £50 for kids) and you can spend even more on costumes, food and drink if you choose.

Yes, it’s odd that there are cupcake stands on the Death Star (then again, our office has a ping pong table in the basement) but these are easily ignored if you are in the mood. Personally, we bought four cocktails for £30, but could have got away with spending nothing at all. The dress-up requirements make for a brilliant atmosphere, but the mise-en-scène is broken somewhat by a gang of Jedi lairing it down the street, cracking £4 cans of lager. It’s less Mos Eisley than Malaga.

Picture: Olivia Weetch

The Sith-on-tour are missing the point and so, frankly, are people grousing about the price. You could see them, as they ate their falafel while standing next to Boba Fett, taking their own temperature. ‘Am I having fun? Am I having enough fun? What is my fun/money ratio?’

Look. This isn’t an ‘immersive experience’. It’s play. Make believe. It simply has a bigger budget because, for whatever reason, adults aren’t allowed to pick up sticks in a park and have a lightsaber fight. The money is what allows us to pretend this is a cultural happening, rather than Live Action Role Play. 

It is preposterous that Secret Cinema exists. It’s the last throes of a hopelessly infantilized culture, a sign that our boredom and nostalgia have hit terminal levels. But more than this, it’s incredible fun. The experience builds into a full-scale communion for fans – sing along Star Wars – as favourite moments are recapped with wit and verve. By the time you actually get around to watching The Empire Strikes Back, it’s almost an anti-climax.

Why would I watch Star Wars, when I can live it? 


‘SECRET CINEMA Presents STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK’ runs until 27th September 2015.  Header image: Paul Cochrane