Referring to a pulse-pounding film as a "roller-coaster ride" is the most overused piece of hyperbolic weaponry in the critic's arsenal. Along comes "Thrill Ride -- The Science of Fun," an IMAX spectacular whose very title eagerly courts the metaphor. Unfortunately, it's a spin around the big screen that seldom attains bar-gripping speed, and whose twists and turns are surprising for all the wrong reasons.
There's an easy confluence of subject and approach in this 1997 pseudo-documentary. The dizzying, eye-filling IMAX cinematography -- which has in the past taken us to the peaks of Mount Everest and the depths of the seven seas -- is the perfect tool to place an audience in the front seat of the world's most vertigo-inducing theme-park attractions. Uncov-ering the physics behind the fear justifies "Thrill Ride's" inclusion on the Orlando Science Center's screening schedule -- just barely.
There's not a lot of science on offer here, at least not much that rises above the lowest intellectual denominator. Today's kids are far more techno-savvy than this sketchy, all-ages report assumes. Adults will likely find it difficult to concentrate on the script once they recognize the voice of comedian Harry Shearer, who moonlights as a nonironic, unseen narrator. (At one point, Shearer recites a story a journalist wrote about an early 'coaster; the dialect he gives the reporter is hilariously identical to the one he uses as newscaster Kent Brockman on TV's "The Simpsons.")
The thin scholarship wouldn't be much of a loss if "Thrill Ride" expended the remainder of its resources on spectacle. But we spend more time waiting to mount this film's precious few e-ticket rides than we would on a holiday weekend at Disney. A large chunk of its paltry 40 minutes recounts the development of motion simulators by NASA and the U.S. military, a flag-waving back-story that might hold the interest of Tom Hanks but is utterly unnecessary for Orlando viewers to endure. We've been on the "Back to the Future" ride; we know what a motion simulator is. And we've tuned out by the time the movie gets around to telling us how it works, much less allowing us to clamber aboard.
Neither is it a kick to visit the desktop work station of a CGI wizard whose artistry, we're told, is the creative seed of an unforgettable ride. The camera zooms in on a lonely, stationary computer, and not even Shearer's praise of the device as a "high-speed, mega-RAM marvel" can hide the fact that the IMAX lens is being wasted on a still shot of an appliance.
When we do get to strap ourselves in, the old-fashioned roller coaster receives short shrift. The movie's climax is devoted to a no-brakes tour through a computer-generated "ride film" that (sorry, SEGA addicts) can't compare with the real thing. The best segments center on metal-and-wood monstrosities like Busch Gardens' Kumba and Montu, whose cars zoom toward the heavens and drop like stones, causing our stomachs to pitch and roll. But even those scenes lack something; we never quite forget that we're sitting safely in a theater instead of soaring across the sky.
Maybe the roller-coaster experience isn't totally instinctual but depends on a variety of right-brain factors: the ability to calculate height, the knowledge that people have broken their necks (or worse) on these things and the suspicion that the 17 year old at the switch wasn't properly trained. Without those irreplicable agents of unease, "Thrill Ride" never throws us for the loop it intends to.