I don’t want to over-sell the Embassy Theatre in Wellington, but I think it may be the best cinema in the world. Certainly, at least according to my own criteria, it’s the best cinema I’ve ever been to. If I’m honest, that’s because I reverse-engineered those criteria from what makes this particular cinema so good.
The Embassy is essentially one end of Wellington’s CBD, a long Y-shaped ribbon formed by Cuba Street/Mall, Courtenay Place and Lambton Quay. In a sense, arriving in Wellington on a cruise ship or by train, it’s the end-point of the journey through the CBD, headlining the entertainment district of Courtenay Place. Like other cinemas in Wellington, the Embassy has been around a long time and had been allowed to decay somewhat. It was the revitalisation of the cinema for the Lord of the Rings premieres that triggered the general upgrading of Wellington cinemas. As shown above, the Embassy is well aware of its prominence and the importance of its recent history, enhancing it with scenes from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit for the past 15 years or so – who knows whether they’ll be able to find something equally specific in the future, but I hope so.
The entry to the Embassy is equally grand – a pair of grand staircases flank the entry, leading up to the main foyer on the first floor. A few years ago they refurbished the two small screens tucked below the main foyer, so now there is also a corridor styled as a tunnel leading into a second foyer, styled in semi-kitsch which all my friends describe as the Bond Villain’s Lair. There’s plenty of comfortable seating, and the low ceiling and soft furnishings give it a warm and intimate feel. There’s a full service bar that also serves coffee, a Wellington-essential quality. The two small cinemas are well designed and proportioned – no silly fold-down seats, or skewed viewing angle. Just the lower floor in its own right would have a strong case for meeting all my requirements.
The upper floor is grander, with a cafe and plenty of seating and a high ceiling. The windows along the front offer a decent view of Courtenay Place. But the main event is the cinema itself. I think the Reading “Titan-X” pseudo-Imax may be bigger, but the Embassy’s screen is really large enough to be getting on with! More importantly, the Embassy has seriously invested in their sound system. They were the first cinema in Wellington to install the Dolby Atmos system, which redefines the clarity and impact of the sound, putting you in a hemisphere of sound. Dolby Atmos is, in my view, far more effective at creating immersion than silly psuedo-3D through silly and irritating glasses. The Embassy does still retain a certain number of unfortunate fold-down chairs – but only in the back couple of ranks at the very rear of the cinema, where I guess they want to just pack out the house for the big events. On the whole, the seats and large, comfortable and spacious, better than the premium seating in any UK cinema I’ve visited – and if they’re not good enough, there is an upgrade available.
The Embassy tends to play the big films that benefit from a big screen and awesome sound, and they don’t tend to do too many revivals of classics. But they do participate in the NZ International Film Festival each year, so there is some opportunity to get the best cinema with the best films. I saw Taxi Driver and Amour at the Embassy, as well as Apollo 13 and its ilk. For my money, the Embassy is the best cinema that I’ve ever been to, particularly since the addition of the smaller cinemas in the ground floor. The cocktail bar in the basement is as good as any pure cocktail bar in the city, aside perhaps from the Library, and the big screen is unparalleled.