Movies We Like
Situated somewhere in the middle of two closely related movie trends of the 1970s - the "All-Star Cast Disaster Movie" (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake) and the "Terrorist Disaster Movie" (Two-Minute Warning, Skyjacked, Black Sunday) - Rollercoaster from 1977 nestles nicely in its own netherworld, not realizing that the genre was running out of steam (Beyond The Poseidon Adventure anyone?). Although the "Disaster Movie" would continue to reemerge in Hollywood for decades under new guises (Independence Day, 2012, Dante’s Peak, etc.), its Golden Age was really when a guy like George Kennedy or Charlton Heston was at the rudder and stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age were still available to be carted in on their wheelchairs to make an appearance and collect their checks. Rollercoaster did manage to dig up a couple of legends (Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda) and a sorta cult name actress (Susan Strasberg, maybe more famous as the daughter of Actor’s Studio guru Lee Strasberg), along with a pair of '70s names (George Segal and Timothy Bottoms). Director James Goldstone, whose most important credit may actually be the second pilot of the Star Trek TV series, manages to employ some Alfred Hitchcock cat-and-mouse tricks to generate suspense and give a dying genre a last gasp of breath.
To think that Bottoms started the decade off with two great movies (The Last Picture Show and The Paper Chase), in Rollercoaster he plays “Young Man,” a zombie-like psycho who is blowing up rollercoasters around the country in order to extort a million dollar ransom from the companies that own the parks. After an explosion on a rollercoaster, ride-inspector Harry Calder (Segal) is the first to figure out that this was no accident. He’s a regular guy with a teenage daughter (Helen Hunt, in her first movie) whom he often pawns off on his girlfriend (Strasberg), and a deep anti-authority complex, to the chagrin of his hateful boss (a brief Fonda clearly trying to up his SAG pension numbers). Bottoms makes Segal his point man as he threatens more bombings and the FBI joins him, with the angriest FBI head-man of all time (played by the one time great Widmark, who just spews intensity here) who seems to hate Segal even more than Fonda. The highlight is an intense scene in an amusement park, as Segal is forced to deliver money to Bottoms and instead ends up carrying a bomb onto a coaster. It all leads to Segal having to argue with the dumbbells in charge of the investigation and a showdown with the terrorist who looks to ruin the upcoming 4th of July festivities at one of the many possible amusement parks in America (and he does end up slightly disrupting the big Sparks concert at Six Flags Magic Mountain).
The film was presented in “Sensurround,” the sound system that was meant to vibrate movie theater chairs, a quick but expensive cinema fad that started with some hype for the movie Earthquake but died off a few years later with the flop that was the theatrical repackaging of the TV show Battlestar Galactica. Here, the actual rollercoaster footage is pretty spectacular - cameras in the cars, attached to the sides and on the tracks - and with the special loud Sensurround speakers it must have been a fairly exhilarating experience in the theaters. Unfortunately, the same summer Rollercoaster was released a little sleeper named Star Wars also came out, making everything around it obsolete for audiences looking for new thrills.
George Segal was at the peak of his stardom, moving easily between comedy and drama, and he does his charming, concerned wisecracker well in Rollercoaster. His career got on the radar in critically acclaimed films like King Rat and Ship of Fools and he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But he found his comfort zone in popular films like The Hot Rock, A Touch of Class and Where’s Poppa? He did important character driven work with quirky directors including Irvin Kershner (Loving), Paul Mazursky (Blume in Love), and Robert Altman (California Split), in films that were deemed important, but may not have lasted the test of time. Besides Rollercoaster, Segal appeared in another high-concept film in 1977, the comedy Fun with Dick & Jane featuring Jane Fonda, and though it might have taken some time to sink in, Rollercoaster appeared to be the last time Segal was expected to carry a big budget potential tent-pole on his own. The lackluster public response may have contributed to the end of George Segal the superstar.
As a kid I remember when Rollercoaster aired on TV. I saw the preview and my heart went aflutter, the specter of amusement parks sent goosebumps over my body (with no actual amusement park experience, my eyes had been opened to the potential magic by Kiss Meets The Phantom of the Park, that Brady Bunch episode at King’s Island, and the school carnival in Grease). Rollercoasters plus bombs on rollercoasters equaled the coolest idea I had ever heard of. Decades later I finally saw Rollercoaster and I wasn’t disappointed. It delivered what it needed to deliver. And yes, bombs on rollercoasters are still pretty exciting.