Movies Set In Theme Parks

Christopher Fowler
40-Pounds-of-Trouble-Landsc As summer films are analogous to theme park rides, it's curious that there's an entire sub-genre here - after all, the one thing a film can't do is provide you with the same level of visceral thrills - or can it? The nearest I got to Disneyland as a child was '40 Pounds of Trouble' with Tony Curtis (and Suzanne Pleshette, doomed to a life of leaning on men's shoulders looking admiringly at them in Disney films) in which Curtis took a kid to Disneyland. The 1962 film was a boring extended ad for the magic kingdom but those bright colours were a wonder to a kid growing up in dank South London. By the time we got to 'The Funhouse', Tobe Hooper's epic exploration of the creepy side of the carnie world, innocence had been packed away and replaced by dark cynicism. But then carnivals, from Todd Browning's 'Freaks' (currently on rerelease in the UK, which had banned it) to Hitchcock's 'The Jar', were a world away from theme parks, which were about the ratification and control of pleasure. It didn't take long for that control to be twisted into the thriller format, from lame bomber-in-the-park thriller 'Rollercoaster' to the rather enjoyable
'Final Destination' series (No. 3 begins on a rollercoaster), but even then the confusion between carnivals (seedy, risky) and theme parks (conformist, calibrated) had not been delineated. About 'Final Destination' Roger Ebert asked 'Has there ever been a carnival midway in a movie that didn't look like a sadomasochistic nightmare?', but in the US the gap between the 'Nightmare Alley' carnival (geeks biting the heads off chickens) and the colour-coded theme park is narrower. In the UK we've just suffered one of the few terrible theme park tragedies since the 1950s, and America has quite a history of them (it's worth going to YouTube go hear the creepy-caliope music they put on death-ride compilations). Michael Crichton's 'Westworld' made explicit the idea of controlled fun collapsing into horror. The idea of a human factor upsetting a scientific certainty occurs in his most famous novel, 'Jurassic Park', the science behind which was obsessively debunked. While Crichton extended tropes used by HG Wells and Edgar Wallace, he also created scientific verisimilitude by adding fictionalised documents and computations, using
experts to deliver cautionary lectures in a logical, mechanical technique that added frissons of fear and doubt about the future. 'Jurassic Park' had around 11 minutes of dinosaur footage carefully rationed out in Spielberg's version of his superbly constructed novel. While providing the requisite audience pleasures (touching a dinosaur, seeing a majestic herd from a distance, being chased by a T Rex) it also features suspense sequences which work perfectly without creatures (the electric fence, the car in the tree) and managed to be frightening, funny and knowing. Even the title was typically witty in a Crichton-esque way. Spielberg understood the mechanics of awe - see it from afar first, get closer, get too close. chris-pratt-velociraptor-jurassic-world It's exactly what 'Jurassic World' doesn't do. The fourquel arrives after two negligible sequels, and from the outset the problem is obvious; how do you present a terrifying loss-of-control situation and make it family-friendly using now over-familiar tropes? The answer is that director Colin Trevorrow and his army of writers haven't bothered. The park is finally open to the public and the big, bad company have genetically designed a bigger attraction for jaded tastes, the Indomitus Rex, which looks exactly the same as the T Rex. The film delivers its beats between all the product placement, essentially acting as a nostalgic rerun of the original; untidy programmer, child-unfriendly parent changing mind, wrong-headed park owner, children in peril. Chris Pratt's absurdly butch hero got sarcastic laughs in our screening, in a shameless reboot aimed at the young. Gore-free and scare-free, it relies on your anticipation of what's coming, but what can dinosaurs do at this stage but roar threateningly? Well, the raptors can form a bond with the hero. In the same way that Hollywood blunted vampires by making them overtly appealing, here we have raptors with cute names who'll respond to Pratt staring lovingly into their reptilian eyes. Almost every scene in the film is a steal from somewhere else - the pterodactyl attack filches a high-shot from 'The Birds' and blows it - and there's wall-to-wall music blasting over the painful dialogue. It could all have worked by acknowledging the massive rethink in dinosaurs (and animal theme parks) over the last two decades, or by returning a real sense of otherness to the creatures. Instead the film takes pleasure in its own ridiculousness. In a world where hippos kill more Africans than crocodiles, would any park really offer children canoe rides between diplodocuses or let plastic bubbles containing pairs of tourists loose in fields of giant roaming beasts? Being a summer movie doesn't excuse stupidity. There's a retro feel to the sexual politics, too, as the leading lady (cold, career-oriented, unloving to children) surrenders her tough persona and cowers behind the hero before being recognised as his kind of gal by her ability to fire a gun, this being the key requisite to prove oneself in Hollywood. Undemanding kids will love it and you may too if you don't think. The FX are polished and it's mildly fun. But it could have been so much more. Alternatively, see 'Escape From Tomorrow', Randy Moore's highly experimental monochrome movie shot on the fly (and presumably illegally) in Disneyland, in which a family falls apart over the course of one long hot day of queuing, buying plastic junk and being smiled to death. It's disjointed and none too subtle but has plenty of hallucinatory WTF? scenes to keep you on edge. When father starts palpitating and throws up into the 'It's A Small World' ride, you know it's going to end badly.


Jo W (not verified) Sun, 14/06/2015 - 17:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Who hasn't wanted to throw up in the It's a Small World ride?

Christopher Fowler Mon, 15/06/2015 - 06:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Jurassic World has now smashed all box office records, which Variety puts down to the rise of Chris Pratt as a superstar and the fact that its core audience never saw the original.

peter dixon (not verified) Mon, 15/06/2015 - 13:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Surely the best theme park movie was Westworld with Yul Brynner as the black-clad gunslinger robot gone mad.
Rumour has it that a TV series is in the offing

Trace Turner (not verified) Mon, 15/06/2015 - 19:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

When I was a child here in Florida, there was a theme park not too far away called Six Gun Territory that I used to beg my parents to take me to, but they never did. Then they let me watch Westworld on TV....I never asked to go again.

Mark (not verified) Mon, 22/06/2015 - 09:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Best theme park movie I can think of is "800 Bullets" closely followed by (the obvious choice) "Westworld".

Watched Jurassic World yesterday, hated it and so did the entire audience. No sense of wonder whatsoever, insulting characters and an even worse plot and they didn't even get the basic appeal right. The attraction was always to see some "real" dinosaurs and they give us some random genetically created monster instead. Should've just done "Godzilla vs. Lone T-Rex and Raptor Cub" instead.