“The Rocket” roller coaster flies off its tracks at Ocean View Amusement Park in a terrible accident where several people die. A safety inspector is called in to investigate. Upon talking with the park administration, he suspects that this was not negligence, but rather the work of a saboteur. He’s right but that’s only the beginning.
Woefully underrated thriller stars Timothy Bottoms and George Segal in a brilliant game of cat and mouse set at a series of theme parks. Disaster films of the 70s were big on gimmicks and short on characterization. Rollercoaster was marketed around its catastrophes. And while the action is highlighted by the threat of violence, it’s the performances of these two leads that draws you in. It’s really not a disaster movie at all, but a battle of wits. The narrative strips away needless extras and lays bare an intense relationship between good and evil. Timothy Bottoms portrays the demented young man who sabotages roller coasters around the country in an effort to extort $1 million dollars from the authorities. He presents the terrorist not as a crazed madman, but as a calm handsome, preppy type. The depiction is thoroughly unexpected and goes a long way in making him a delightfully uncharacteristic villain. He’s matched in his scheme by George Segal as Harry Calder, the Standards and Safety Inspector, whom he personally selects as his contact. Segal has got a world weary cynical tone that makes the dialogue better than it‘s actually written. Together their discomforting but occasionally amusing exchanges are what drives the script.
One of the qualities of disaster epics during this era is having a large cast of celebrities. Rollercoaster is no exception: Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Harry Guardino, and Susan Strasberg all appear. To be honest, Mr. Fonda shows up for an entire five minutes. Ostensibly long enough to be credited as a star and pick up a paycheck I suppose. Helen Hunt, not famous at the time, plays Segal’s daughter. And if you don‘t blink, you’ll notice Steve Guttenberg in his feature debut, uncredited mind you, as a messenger boy who brings some roller coaster plans to Calder.
Rollercoaster was originally released in “Sensurround” which was the trademark name for a process used to enhance the audio experience. By adding extended-range bass for sound effects, the low-frequency sounds could be felt as well as heard, providing a vivid complement to onscreen depictions of the amusement park rides. First developed for the 1974 picture Earthquake, the technique was ultimately short lived as it proved to be too costly as well as disruptive to adjoining theaters in the growing multiplex setting. Lalo Schifrin (“Theme from Mission: Impossible”) contributes a memorably tense score that frequently utilizes Bernard Herrmann-esque violins for the suspenseful scenes.
I’ll admit this isn’t a complex picture. There aren’t many plot twists that will be difficult to follow. But it’s that glorious simplicity that I find so appealing. The climax takes place at the opening of “The Great American Revolution” roller coaster at Magic Mountain in Valencia, California. The unveiling is introduced with a lot of fanfare. Cult Los Angeles rock band Sparks even makes an appearance as the entertainment for the grand opening. This is a big deal people! Apparently this was the world’s first modern roller coaster to feature a vertical loop. Ah these were innocent times. Given the excitement of the cluster at the front of the line, you’d think they had tickets to the moon. In the end, this isn’t the type of film to win a lot of Academy awards, but you knew that when you read the synopsis. It is however an incredibly entertaining thriller with wonderful performances. I loved it.