Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun

Aside from some spectacular footage shot by a 60-pound Imax camera attached to a fast-moving roller coaster, "Thrill Ride" is a big disappointment. Thrill seekers will be frustrated by rapid shifts from "deconstruction" of the way film movement works to super-animated forays into mines, fantasy castles and outer space, among other destinations.

With:
Narrator: Harry Shearer.

Aside from some spectacular footage shot by a 60-pound Imax camera attached to a fast-moving roller coaster, “Thrill Ride” is a big disappointment. Thrill seekers will be frustrated by rapid shifts from “deconstruction” of the way film movement works to super-animated forays into mines, fantasy castles, prehistoric dinosaur herds and outer space, among other destinations.

Viewers craving a little edification will feel slighted by pic’s incredibly elementary presentation — in no particular order — of the history of roller coasters, motion pictures, motion simulators and computer animation. Indeed, the film’s ups and downs, which may formally follow the trajectory of a functioning roller coaster, don’t really flow together into one seamless ride.

One hokey device is a recurring toothless, bearded old miner (Paul Harper) who addresses a presumably ignorant audience directly (it feels like an episode of “Captain Kangaroo” or “Howdy Doody” crossed with a pedestrian travel brochure). This is clearly intended to ground the high-tech pic for the average viewer, but does so by way of footage from Belgian-born director and computer graphic imagery expert Ben Stassen’s earlier computer-graphics ride film, “Devil’s Mine Ride.”

When film begins to tread heavily into motion simulation — the topic takes up half the movie — one realizes that primary goal is to make sedentary spectators comfortable with the concept. Pic’s annoying voiceover narrator comments, “The motion simulator has merged with motion pictures to create a new form of entertainment, the ride film: It’s Coney Island meets Hollywood.” Press kit goes even further by noting, “There is a big potential for ride films. A number of Imax theaters have already purchased motion simulators to be placed next door.”

Still, the eight-story-high screen is seductive, even if occasional archival footage and historical illustrations are reduced to a much smaller scale and generally shown, for no apparent reason, in groups of three identical images. Besides the roller-coaster scenes, shot in Tampa’s Busch Gardens Theme Park after five months’ prepping, knockout footage includes Las Vegas’ Big Shot — where people move rapidly up and down a 160-foot cylinder atop the world’s fifth-tallest building — and lesser-known motion simulation devices used for astronaut training, such as a powerful centrifuge for humans know in the biz as the LRV: Lunch Review Vehicle.

Along the way, it is interesting to learn that the roller coaster was developed by a Frenchman in the early 19th century as a belated response to Russian ruler Catherine the Great’s desire to ice sled all year, and that “even Einstein was impressed” by the machine. But these facts are minutiae in a film that frequently focuses on kinetic effects.

Technical credits are fine, as expected from the Imax format, and Michael Stearns’ score, which ranges from atonal avant-garde jazz to African drums, suits the visuals well. One of pic’s more irritating weaknesses is bad dubbing for the old miner, especially given project’s high-tech conceits.

Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun

Production: A Sony Pictures Classics Release of a New Wave Intl. production. Produced by Charlotte Huggins. Directed by Ben Stassen. Screenplay, Kurt Frey, Stassen.

Crew: Camera (color, 70mm Imax 2D), Sean Phillips; music, Michael Stearns; production design, Ray Spencer. Reviewed at Sony Lincoln Square Cinema, July 16, 1997. MPAA Rating: G. Running time: 38 MIN.

With: Narrator: Harry Shearer.

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