I’m standing in a queue and a smartly-dressed woman approaches me with a clipboard. “Are you a data scientist?” she asks. Yes, I reply. “Oh, you must be our specialist in Sumerian and Assyrian archaeology!” she adds, without missing a beat. I answer in the affirmative, and we engage in a lengthy conversation about my celebrated dissertation on Mesopotamian ziggurats. Then I am given a uniform, put through decontamination, and have my money changed into plastic discs. Then I board a spaceship.
This would be an unusual scenario on any day for someone like me whose highest scientific qualification is a B in GCSE Double Science, and stranger still that it would take place in a cinema queue (an environment not known for conversations of grave academic importance). But this is Secret Cinema: where strange and wonderful encounters like this are business as usual.
Every few months these pioneers of alternative cinema programming put on epic themed events each more quixotically ambitious and stupidly entertaining than the last. They’ve had Lawrence of Arabia with bedouins and actual camels, Bugsy Malone with custard pie fights, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in a hospital. Last Christmas, post-war Vienna was recreated in a four-storey warehouse to mimic the world of Carol Reed’s The Third Man.
Any reviews of the current run must be shrouded in smokescreen, in order to comply with Secret Cinema’s ‘Tell No One’ policy. But plenty of cryptic clues are already out there: mailing list subscribers were invited to sign up to an ‘expedition’ with an organisation calling itself ‘Brave New Ventures’, with references to ‘psychological training’, and ‘discovering new worlds’.
And it’s these new worlds that we discover in an enormous disused-building-turned-spaceship, near Euston in central London. Following ‘decontamination’, we are ushered into lines based on our supposed professions (as well as data scientists, audience members are assigned to be ore surveyors, matter analysts, containment officers and control stabilisers). Then, as lights flash, sirens thunder, and launch countdowns blare from loudspeakers, the pod doors open and we ‘board’.
We’re free to mill about in our pretend space uniforms, exploring the rooms which include a plant nursery, a games room, and a science laboratory, where we have tremendous fun pretending to be knowledgeable lab technicians. A sizable cast of actors are always close by, encouraging you to lose yourself in the experience, and I spend some time discussing my research whilst surveying the surface of Venus.
Then, following some time in ‘hypersleep’, we are led into the ‘loading bay’, where what appears to be two gigantic (and apparently genuine) props from the film greets us. It’s perhaps the most impressive – and probably most expensive – part of the whole evening. Suddenly I find myself scurrying around a desolate, unearthly landscape in near total darkness, searching for lab samples. I have to remind myself that all of this is not actually real.
After a couple of hours of larking about pretending, the attending crowd of hundreds are shepherded into a chaotic ‘evacuation’. A deafening alarm sounds. Actors run through the crowd screaming in panic. I spot a couple of corpses. The staged sense of anxiety feels curiously real. Then, finally, we sit down to watch the secret film. And it is marvellous.
Little wonder, then, that audiences have been coming in droves to Secret Cinema – it’s just about the most fun it is possible to have in London. The evening could only have been improved by marginally less time spent queuing. Is it possible to give a better recommendation than that?
UPDATE (02/07/12): Since the current run is finished, we’re now allowed to say what the film was: PROMETHEUS. And the props mentioned were the actual space cruisers used in the film. How cool is that? I’ll tell you – very. This video just released from the Secret Cinema people – starring Allison Brie from Community, it seems – gives you a decent idea of how properly spectacular an evening it was. I can’t wait for the next one.