Directed by James Goldstone
Written by Richard Levinson, William Link, Sanford Sheldon, and Tommy Cook
There are a few movies—say, Vanilla Sky—where just describing its genre constitutes a somewhat serious spoiler. Likewise, there might be a comparable number of movies that saying what genre it isn't is a spoiler, and I wonder if this is actually a problem with the whole "disaster movie" label. After all, when I say Airport is "only a disaster movie by tradition," I'm making an unmistakable implication about what does not happen in it, which leaves you with a fairly constrained set of alternatives about what does. You've probably also figured out that I bring it up because today's subject, 1977's Rollercoaster, is also only a disaster movie by tradition—frankly, it might only be a disaster movie by pedigree, as it was produced for Universal by Airport sequel and Earthquake impresario Jennings Lang, and two of its writers were Richard Levinson and William Link, two of the authors of The Hindenburg. Or maybe it's a disaster movie because it so aggressively courted the same audience of cinematic thrillseekers who'd turned up for disaster movies across the 70s, most notably by way of Lang's deployment of bone-shaking Sensurround sound during its initial theatrical run, one of only four movies to ever use the technology (the first of which was Earthquake in 1974), and the only one, period, that used on-set sound recording for the whole mix. The system had some fairly obvious applicability to disaster movies generally, and very obvious applicability to a disaster movie about amusement parks. I'm sure it was rad, though of course I have no idea. (As for the other two Sensurround movies, you'll agree that while 1976's Midway makes sense, the final film to be released in Sensurround was the 1978 theatrical version of the pilot for TV's Battlestar Galactica, and so now I get to remember that as a weird footnote to the history of sound on film.)
Or maybe Rollercoaster is counted as a "disaster movie" just because it came out in a decade crawling with them. It at least nominally fits some of the requirements for an Airport-style disaster flick, but when director James Goldstone repudiates the label, preferring "thriller" or "Hitchcockian suspense"—a not-uncommon deflection, as the term "disaster movie" always had somewhat hacky connotations—you have to admit it, he's 100% on the level, because that's exactly what he made. I only belabor it, really, because it's the most salient weakness of Rollercoaster: that it isn't a disaster movie, and would be better if it were, but only because it's so good at being a I-don't-mind-invoking-his-name-either-Hitchcockian thriller that it whets a nasty appetite for viciousness which only a movie which committed a massacre could have satisfied.
Instead, the "disaster cinema" aspect of Rollercoaster is effectively contained entirely to its prologue, which starts out with our villain, a never-named young man (Timothy Bottoms, who is, indeed, credited as "the Young Man"), carefully surveilling the Ocean View Amusement Park in Los Angeles from afar. (The "Los Angeles" part, of course, is the film's conceit to allow some of it to be shot in LA and for its hero to be soaked in a certain ineffable Californiana; the real Ocean View was a continent away, in Virginia.) Later that day, he manages to plant a small bomb on the park's big coaster, and that night visits again to set it off by radio at the perfect moment for the resulting damage to spill a train's worth of passengers all over the park, in a genuinely frightful setpiece of rollercoaster cars coming apart and flying spectacularly through obstructions, with enough actual human stuntwork and actual human reaction shots to prime you for Goldstone and editors Edward Biery and Richard Sprague's illusion of several perfectly-cut insert shots of car-loads of dummies getting violently smooshed upon the pavement below. With his mission accomplished, our young man vanishes into the night.
The "accident" at Ocean View, however, brings in the man who shall, improbably, prove himself the bomber's nemesis, Harry Calder of California Building Standards and Safety (George Segal, who passed away this March). Calder has his own problems—we meet him as he's paged in the midst of some pretty loopy aversion therapy to help him quit smoking, and he's navigating a recent divorce and a new relationship, as well as joint custody of his kid—but he's struck by the inexplicability of what happened at Ocean View, as he'd inspected the coaster himself just three months earlier, and there are other elements of the structure's collapse that don't quite make sense, either. But another "accident" occurs in Wonderworld (intended to be Kennywood here in Pittsburgh, but Kennywood declined the free advertising for obvious reasons; needless to say, Disney was right out), and by pure chance Calder sees the item in the paper. Now he starts to suspect—and more than suspect, when he gets the runaround from the owners of the parks, whose secretaries' too-revealing excuses put them and the owners of three other amusements firms all in the same hotel in Chicago on the same day. Calder wheedles a flight out of his boss (Henry Fonda, representing the "all-star" casting model in its failure mode, as he graces us with just two scenes, only one of which actually puts him in a room with Segal). Calder confronts the owners, who admit they're being ransomed; but the bomber is there, too, and this puts Calder directly in his sights. So while Calder's solved his mystery, he's also accidentally recruited himself into the bomber's plot as his delivery boy, and he's in no position to refuse when the FBI comes and drags him off to King's Dominion to make the money drop himself. This doesn't go according to plan either, and now he's made the mad bomber actually mad.
So: you can see the absolute biggest way this isn't a disaster movie isn't that its villain fails to blow up enough stuff (though this is its biggest problem overall, and even with its preferred "bomb thriller" designation, there's still a rather noticeable paucity of bombs actually getting set off during this film's last hour and forty minutes). But no, what I mean is how it is totally, exclusively focused on just one single protagonist, so much so that I didn't even bother listing the names of anybody else in the film, and only listed another actor besides Segal and Bottoms because Fonda's too big to overlook even if his role here could be. (That said, it's at least worth mentioning that Richard Widmark plays the FBI's most prominent representative, a crabby agent named Hoyt, and that Rollercoaster was the silver screen debut of several notable newcomers: most famously, Helen Hunt plays Calder's tween daughter, but Body Double's Craig Wasson and Steve Guttenberg in an awkwardly oversized suit likewise appear in a couple of semi-memorable featured extra roles, because while it's not a disaster movie, we do get enough random bystanders for some amount of disaster movie-like texture.)
Still, it's a movie devoted to the unlikeliest of heroes, a civil servant who, more-or-less just by doing his job correctly and diligently, falls ass-backward into a supercriminal's plot. There are many things to love about Rollercoaster in spite of its flaws, but Calder might be the easiest. He's simply a great little character, an enjoyably wry and irritable mid-career professional who's routinely the smartest man in any room, with a lot of shading that draws out more dimensions than you'd necessarily expect, from a resentment toward an ex-wife that he has the decency to have a sense of self-deprecating humor about, to his constant fiending for nicotine, even to his apparent toleration of a certain level of corruption from his superiors because he's basically too pragmatic to go whistleblower (I rather like the scene where he gets his plane tickets to Chicago paid for by his department because he blackmails his boss, which is so office-politics petty it rings completely true). There's something fascinating, too (even a little gratifyingly Great Society), about a thriller that pins its hopes of preventing catastrophe on a paper-pushing bureaucrat rather than on a first responder or somebody with a personal stake in the matter, and Segal's performance offers an edge of smugness and abrasiveness to our put-upon not-quite-an-everyman that fully brings out the idiosyncrasy of a character archetype that, as far as I know, exists solely in this movie, the safety inspector on the edge who doesn't play by the rules.
He's matched by Bottoms's villain, who's equally good with much less material to work with, a compellingly blank evil served well by Bottoms's blandly-handsome looks (he resembles a college-aged Patrick Bateman), as well as his general sense of amused detachment. Arguably, his affectless mien and pure-greed motives should make him boring. But Bottoms doesn't play his bomber as devoid of any personality, it's just that his personality is entirely made out of defects—he's plainly having fun, even if he has his priorities straight, and there's just something about how damned reasonable, polite, and quietly, insistently entitled Bottoms remains, even in extremis, that paints a pretty complete portrait of an aspiring gentleman sociopath. (At one point there was a "disgruntled Vietnam vet" angle to inform his bomber's backstory, but this was cut except for a brief exchange with an employee at Ocean View, and, without anything else, this comes off more like our young man would hardly have done anything so common as get drafted, and even if he did serve, he certainly wouldn't be interested in discussing it with some carny.) Meanwhile, Bottoms also finds some interesting ways to stuff cotton candy into his mouth as a bit of actorly business while he waits for the right moment to set off his bombs, though a number of shots just find him disappearing right into crowds; he's there, but as invisible to us as he is to his pursuers. Of course, one of the cute little holes in the movie is that he would absolutely be able to achieve the same ends of terrorizing amusement park owners into submission with timed bombs, but that really would be boring.
What's so distinct about Rollercoaster, however, is how Goldstone and his screenwriters frame this battle of wits, and one of the other things to love about Rollercoaster is how it takes advantage of its settings. Levinson, Link, and Sanford Sheldon's screenplay could've been twenty pages long, though the movie runs just shy of two hours; I could easily understand somebody else going entirely the other way on this, but Goldstone pushes up against the very theoretical limits of how much suspense you can wring out of a basic situation, and I admire the hell out of Rollercoaster for it, and the way, for reels upon reels, it turns into something more like an impressionistic documentary about amusement parks that we know happen to have a bomb somewhere in them. (Even in its non-park scenes, I love its messy cinematography and beautifully cluttered, lived-in mise-en-scene.) The film is built around just two scenes, together taking up more than half its runtime, 25 and 35 minutes long respectively, the first at King's Dominion and the second—the finale—at Magic Mountain in Santa Clarita, which is unveiling its Great American Revolution coaster on this 4th of July, a ride inspected by none other than Calder. The latter bears one of the film's few genuine annoyances, when it contrives to put Calder's daughter and girlfriend at the park during the action, and for all it actually does anything with them I can only assume the writers just didn't want you to think they'd forgotten them. But for the most part, these are great sequences, and ballsy ones, just very long collections of location footage (Rollercoaster is plausibly Defunctland host Kevin Perjurer's most favoritest movie ever), that nonetheless remain interesting because we're told something might explode.
The King's Dominion sequence in particular is almost nothing but twenty minutes of winding you up and appreciating a villain being clever, whilst Segal scowls his way across the park attractions—Rollercoaster is worth watching solely for how hilariously miserable Segal looks as he lugs his suitcase from ride to ride under the bomber's radio dictation—and it climaxes, as cinema anyway, with an extremely nervy helicopter shot that starts itself off pretending to be a POV shot from the Rebel Yell rollercoaster and then spins off into space so that for several seconds you think, "holy shit, they just killed the protagonist." The movie is full of cute, chintzy-but-well-done fakeouts like that; the Magic Mountain sequence features the rock band Sparks (Lalo Schifrin's generally-strong score finds its finest moment when it merges with a bitchin' Sparks anthem about suicide and we wonder if the bomb's going to go off now), and part of their stage show involves fiery pyrotechnics. You can see, anyway, how this film could have required two editors, and though Sprague and Biery were mostly TV guys, there's nothing televisual about the film's construction, maybe thanks to cinematographer David Walsh, whose bright summery photography merges seamlessly and stylishly with the vastness of the second-unit work (I adore a couple of 70s zoom-lens shots through a merry-go-round), and altogether it kind of feels like the answer to the weird question, "what if the opening of This Is Cinerama had a bomb plot?"
The downside is that, once past its opening, all Rollercoaster ever wants to do is edge you with suspense, and it's a little maddening; the "Hitchcockian" part, of course, is how ably and perversely it aligns you with its villain, so that, honestly, even if he doesn't get to succeed, you still desperately want to see him do a lot more damage on his way out. Yet the same process that allowed for all of that fantastic location work probably preempted any possibility of actually fucking those locations up; even in the unlikely event Lang could've gotten permission from the parks' owners to showcase their rollercoasters' destruction, any attempt to do so certainly would've ballooned the film's $9 million budget to something more like twice that if they wanted it to look remotely convincing after spending an hour and a half in very real, very tangible amusement parks. But it does feel like the film's missing something vitally important, and even though, after two watches, I think I'm ready to meet it where it is and call its ending "fitting," I'm still left with the same opinion I had the first time: Rollercoaster is an outstanding bomb thriller that could have been an all-time great disaster movie, and paying off on that promise even slightly would've been useful for the bomb thrills, too.