Monday, May 15, 2006

The Other Side of the Rollercoaster

It is at this time of the year that the studios put out their big movies – their “tent-pole” films. Their marketers will call these “non-stop rollercoaster rides!” Rollercoaster is the term that they use to describe films with relentless action. They promise all of the thrill, chills, twists and turns of tallest rollercoaster at Magic Mountain or Great America or wherever.

Why are these movies almost always a let down? Shouldn’t action scene after action scene be exciting?

Well, ask yourself what is the scariest part of the rollercoaster? The three-story drop? The corkscrew twist? The big loop? Probably not.

Anticipation is almost always the thing that scares us most. It is the calm before the storm that is the scariest. Imagine yourself in line to go on the world’s biggest and most frightening coaster – The Widowmaker (or something). Imagine the signs warning that those with weak hearts or back problems or pregnant women should not ride. Imagine seeing others on the ride before you. They scream in abject terror. All of this is all part of the experience – the anticipation. Imagine watching the cars maneuver through the loops, twists and spills of the coaster. You watch as people exit the ride, some exhilarated, others shaken and unstable. Some are just plain ill, to put it nicely.

Finally, it’s your turn. You are ushered into your seat where you are strapped in. The safety bar comes down across your midsection. Ironically, the safety equipment makes you feel even more nervous. How bad is this thing if they need all of this stuff to keep me safe, you ask yourself.

With a jolt your car starts to move. The butterflies in your gut are flapping like crazy. The first leg on the track is level. Then you see it – the track ahead stretches up and up and up. Your car starts to ascend. Click, click, click goes the chain that carries your car ever upward. It seems to takes forever to reach the top. You wonder again just how bad the drop will be when you crest this hill.

Then there is that sweet, terrifying, white-knuckle moment when at long last you reach the top. Here it comes.

The drop itself is more of a release of built-up tension. But these precious moments of anticipation are all part of what makes a rollercoaster scary. It is not wall-to-wall action alone that fills you with delicious anxiety, but the quiet moments as well. They are the yin and yang of the experience.

Movies that wish to duplicate this feeling often leave out half of the experience. They have almost no quiet moments.

Take a film like ALIENS. Now here is a film that most people remember as non-stop action, but there are many moments of quiet. Many moments that allow the audience to anticipate how bad things are going to get for the characters in the film.

So many filmmakers now want to cut right to the chase, the big explosion, the monster, the running and jumping, the firefight, the murder. There is no click, click, click as the tension builds.

They make the mistake of thinking that because the screams come when the monster shows up, that it is only the monster that is scary. They forget about the other part of the rollercoaster ride. It’s the same as thinking that the best part of a joke is the punchline, as if the set-up did not contribute to the joke. Why not a joke with no set-up, just one punchline after another? Wouldn’t that be the funniest thing ever? Wall-to-wall punchlines!

It sounds ridiculous, but it is the same thing as wall-to-wall action. It's the same ‘just the good parts’ philosophy.

No, just as the set-up is an important part of a joke so are the quiet moments of anticipation part of an action sequence. You cannot have one without the other.

So this summer when you emerge from the theater a little disappointed that you were not more thrilled by the action ask yourself if the filmmakers bothered to remember that a rollercoaster goes both up and down. Chances are they did not.

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