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Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun

Yes, but where’s the art?

By Vladimir Zelevinsky


Museum of Science

Directed by Ben Stassen.

Narrated by Harry Shearer.

Thrill Ride, the OmniMax movie about rollercoasters and motion simulations, currently showing at Boston Museum of Science, is a strange experience. The whole film is a bundle of contradictions; some of them working toward improving the final result, some -- highly detrimental. Let me count the ways.

Thrill Ride is not your typical OmniMax movie, simply because it’s not a nature-themed documentary. It is a movie about rides. It begins with an amazing opening sequence -- the hair-rising plunge into an abandoned mine on the mining cart. The mine is computer-generated, for sure; but the level of detail and the realism of this sequence is so heightened that even remembering it makes me dizzy. The magic of this opening is quite clear; at the back of my mind, I kept remembering that I’m simply sitting in the newly remodeled OmniMax auditorium, and all I was witnessing were images on a huge screen. But the illusion of breakneck motion was profoundly pervasive. As far as openings go, this one scores big.

The next segment concerns rollercoasters, and here some strain is felt. To begin with, the movie sticks to its title, The Science of Fun, and devotes precious minutes of screen time (as all large screen movies, this is around 40 minutes long) to elementary exposition concerning kinetic and potential energy, wide outside shots of the rollercoasters, and rather boring historical chronicles. In its quest to be informative, which is barely achieved, Thrill Ride doesn’t always remember to be entertaining. Oh yes, the two point-of-view sequences of actual rollercoaster rides are good, but there’s a bit too much padding.

And even these rides are like a pale copy of the real thing. Yes, visually they are aces, and the sound (newly redesigned sound system is a marked improvement over the old one, although I miss the old Leonard Nimoy-narrated opening) is just right. But rollercoasters are more than merely sights and sounds; there’s also the feel of wind on your face, the tickling subconscious thought of an inherent danger, and, most importantly, gravity. With all of its cinematic tricks, Thrill Ride can’t provide for the feel of centrifugal force messing up with my feel of where down is.

Next sequence -- about Airforce and NASA using flight simulators -- is again aiming to be educational, and ending up being simply boring. The tired device of splitting the giant screen into the square lattice of smaller screens works very rarely, and it certainly doesn’t work here, when every single miniscreen isn’t displaying anything remotely engaging. The next fragment about the special sound effects falls equally flat. The problem is that this film tries both to be about rides and being one, and I’m afraid these two don’t mesh very well.

After this waste of time, Thrill Ride segues into its main portion, truly the reason why this film was made. We are in the hands of special effects artists, who create virtual rides on their computer screens, rendering the fantastic environment up to the smallest of details, and utilizing cutting edge technology only to appeal to our basic thoughtless instincts.

The results are a mixed bag. About half of the sample rides are absolutely jawdropping, being literally transporting in their inventiveness. A futuristic tour of the orbital station is a marvel, both spectacular in its artistry and utterly convincing in its realism. Some segments from the classical Universal Studios Back to the Future ride are highly inventive as well, as is the nightmarish tour of a horror-movie mansion. Some of the sequences are a bit spoiled by the unnecessary “educational” information superimposed on the screen; but that’s not the biggest problem.

The biggest problem, of course, is the same one which plagues a good deal of Hollywood’s special effects spectacles: with all the money and technical expertise visible in every frame, a good deal of it sorely lacks any semblance of art. The dinosaur segment, for example, looks rather artless and, thus, fake. The final sequence, the whirlwind tour of the history of universe, is so poorly written and paced, that all the amazing visuals barely register; it ends up being rather headache-inducing.

So here we go; Thrill Ride is one part amazing, one part innocuous, and one part nauseating. I rather wish it had less science and more art.