Thursday, May 05, 2005
Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun
Review by Sombrero Grande
Anyone who knows me or visits my Movie Mesa with any kind of regularity knows full well what a theme park fanatic I am. Recently I was searching to see if there were any potentially interesting documentary films that have been made on theme parks, amusement parks, rides, themed attractions, etc., and about all I could turn up was a DVD of a 1997 IMAX film entitled Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun. The film professed to give a history and scientific explanation of roller coasters and thrill rides, but 40 disappointing minutes later (that's how long the film lasts) I found myself prepared to file the biggest false advertising lawsuit since Lionel Hutz's case against the makers of The NeverEnding Story.
Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun begins with a BRIEF history of the first roller coasters and then goes on for what seems to be just as much time talking about the history of flight, leading into the concept of flight simulators. From there the movie makes more detours into discussing sound systems, film size, frame rate, computer generated imagery, etc., all building to the ultimate goal of the film: to beat the audience over the head telling them how great IMAX-based motion simulator films are. That’s right; the whole thing is a goddamned commercial, so transparent it would make the people who create toy-based Saturday morning cartoons like Yu-Gi-Oh! and G.I. Joe blush.
I can't even figure out who this wreck would appeal to. It was obviously designed to drag full classrooms of children into expensive-ticket IMAX theaters with the promise of seeing lots of cool roller coaster footage paired with educational content to make the whole thing field trip-worthy. However, aside from the so-quick-you-could-miss-it-if-you-blink mention of the earliest roller coasters, there's really very little educational content here. Other than the repeated use of the phrase "technologically advanced" and a passing mention of the concept of "physics," I couldn't see any real "science" being espoused at all. Instead, the film's guiding purpose is to hype giant-screen simulator rides as the next step in thrill rides, giving theatergoers a taste of what’s possible through giant-screen teases and urging the audience to try it with moving seats.
Falling into a trap that many IMAX films do, Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun relies on "ooh" and "aah" impressive visuals at the expense of storytelling. Some visuals, like an extended segment showing a space shuttle lift off, serve as vital a function to the narrative as the appendix does to the human body. Despite narration by Harry Shearer, whose talent in the voiceover world can readily be recognized in multiple characters on The Simpsons, the far-from-roller-coaster-like-pacing makes the film utterly snooze-worthy. Time and time again, a brief bit of introduction merely announces another visual sequence which ends up demonstrating surprisingly little. Granted, the visuals would have been far more striking in an actual IMAX theater than my TV set, but then why bother dumping the film onto DVD at all? Even though there’s nothing inherently wrong with "eye candy," if a film professes to be more than just impressive visuals, they should be taken to task for not providing anything else. Explanations (the implied "educational" components) are so shallow in depth that nothing new or interesting is revealed, leaving the entire film to be nakedly shown for the mere marketing platform that it is.
And don’t get me started on the cringe-worthy old miner character who shows up on screen from time to time to humiliate himself in a role that makes Pauly Shore look dignified.
Part of me doesn't even want to try to offer suggestions on how the filmmakers could have possibly steered this train wreck around--it was that disappointing--and yet I can’t help but think of the multitude of obvious missed opportunities. The film could have expanded on the mentioning of the first roller coasters, describing how they worked and then moving gradually into the development of steel coasters as opposed to wooden ones (Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun doesn't even make that distinction). From there, different kinds of thrill rides could have been introduced alongside the film's description of the Big Shot ride atop Las Vegas' Stratosphere tower. Flume rides, for example, could have had more coverage than a single shot of a boat tumbling down a drop.
Considering the focus of the film, you'd think the discussion of motion simulators could have actually mentioned SOMETHING about HOW they work, getting into HOW the visuals and movement coincide to trick the body into thinking it’s all happening, instead of casually dismissing the entire endeavor with the trite description, "a roller coaster for the mind where the body comes along." (During Thrill Ride's history of simulators, it doesn’t even mention the first big flight simulator ride, Disney's Star Tours. There’s a passing reference to Star Wars and then a thinly veiled slap about no one wanting to "sit in a box" when they can ride in a technologically advanced theater with a giant screen. Instead, Back to the Future: The Ride is given a starring role in the film, being, as far as I can recall, the only ride shown whose name gets mentioned at all.)
The discussion of motion rides then could move on--assuming the IMAX lobbyists didn't get in the way of the content of the film--to motion-based rides that actually move through spaces. The Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland opened in 1995, so time-frame-wise it would have made an ideal end-cap to the 1997 film about the evolution of thrill rides, perhaps followed by a tease of The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride to come at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in the next few years. Of course, that's all if we lived in an ideal world where competing parks wouldn't insist on top billing for their attractions or else they're not interested (a practice that seems to keep Disney out of even the TV-based theme park documentaries) and IMAX producers decide to get serious and allow "content" to overcome "gimmick."