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There's something in the air these days and it smells like the future of the movies.

Last week Robert Rodriguez announced that the latest Spy Kids movie will be one you can smell. With each ticket to Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World (to be released on Aug. 19), moviegoers will be handed a card with a numbered set of smells. At appropriate times during the screening, viewers will be prompted to wipe their finger on the card and take a whiff.

Movies that smell haven't had the best reputations, especially since John Waters's use of "Odorama" in his 1981 film Polyester, where audience members were given scratch-and-sniff cards which included the aromas of glue, gas and feces.

Over the decades though, the attempts to improve movies with a third sense, after sight and sound, have often been taken seriously. Most recently, in 2005, selective screenings of Terrence Malick's art-house film The New World offered some pine-scented epiphanies.

With the successful revival of 3-D, the time may finally be right for an aromatic comeback. Way back in 1933, the Rialto in New York installed the first movie smell system. (It was later scrapped because the smells were easy to create but harder to get rid of.) Most famously, there was Smell-o-Vision, developed by Elizabeth Taylor's third husband, impresario Mike Todd, and if he hadn't died in a plane crash, we might all be smelling movies today.

Unfortunately, a competing technology, Aromarama, tainted the field, by adding bad smells to a documentary Behind the Great Wall. (Time magazine reported that it made the pine forests of Beijing smell "like a subway men's room on disinfectant day.")

Smell-o-Vision ended up being used only once - in the 1960 film Scent of Mystery, produced by Mike Todd Jr. which included a perfumed cameo by Taylor.

Now a new version of smell-o-vision may be in the offing. This week, scientists at Samsung Electronics in Korea in conjunction with the University of California, San Diego, published results of their research into a compact device that could fit on the back of a television, and emit smells in programmed sequences. One of the scientists, Sunho Jin, has already said it will take just one deep-pocketed movie producer to take the idea from concept to practical use.

At the science-fiction end of the scale, in 2009, New Scientist magazine reported that Sony had made a patent application for a device using ultrasound signals to directly stimulate selective parts of the brain to induce the perception of scents in a viewer or game player's mind.

On a more familiar level, odour manipulation is a fact of life in all kinds of public areas, including malls, high-end food stores and Vegas casinos, many of which are provided with programmable "scent systems." Tests prove that pleasant smells tend to make people more receptive and generous, giving the casino operators another helpful edge.

Perhaps better movie odours might even improve the dispositions of movie reviewers. Do you remember the nineties animated television series The Critic? Voiced by Jon Lovitz, it featured grumpy film critic Jay Sherman, whose favourite put-down was: "This movie stinks!"

In the near future, that characterization won't be good enough. Exactly how does the movie stink? The burning rubber of the latest action flick? The old-sneakers stench signalling the arrival of the zombie army? Or the cloying cologne of another romantic comedy?

We can only feel pity for future movie-ratings boards, as theatres and producers probe the limits of a whole new sense to offend.

Opening next week

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog takes us up close and in 3-D to see the paintings in southern France's Chauvet caves, first discovered in 1994, and considered, at 32,000 years old, the earliest known works of art.

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

After leaving The Tonight Show, comedian Conan O'Brien goes on a musical and comedy tour of the United States and Canada, in this mixture of performance and backstage footage. With Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and Eddie Vedder.

Horrible Bosses

The summer's latest bad-behaviour comedy stars Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis as three milquetoast, abused employees who finally decide it's time to take extreme action against their abusive bosses (Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Colin Farrell).

The Tree

Charlotte Gainsbourg stars in this Australian drama about a woman who struggles with recent widowhood and a daughter who believes her late father lives on. Director Julie Bertuccelli previously directed the 2003 French-Georgian drama Since Otar Left.


A lonely zookeeper (Kevin James) is helped by the animals under his care to woo the woman he loves (Rosario Dawson). It turns out the animals can talk, and, judging by the voice cast, make jokes: With Adam Sandler, Sylvester Stallone, Nick Nolte, Don Rickles, Judd Apatow, Jon Favreau and Cher.