“Nothing Can Go Wrong”

Our Love Affair With Theme Park Disaster Films

I’ve never been a thrill-seeker. I’ve gone skiing the same number of times I’ve gone on a loop-de-loop rollercoaster: a white-knuckled once. But our culture has a fascination with being thrilled. We tiptoe through haunted houses, peer through our fingers at scary movies, and strap ourselves onto parachutes and jump out of airplanes.  

We get a thrill from the idea that we are cheating death. Humans shouldn’t know the experience of dropping at terminal velocity, of staring a lion in the face, or, hell, of traveling at 60 miles per hour. These things are, by nature, unnatural. And unnatural things are always thrilling.

So it’s no surprise that our pop culture has a similar fetish for thrills. Action movies and disaster movies are huge components of Hollywood, and just about every popular movie at some point places its characters in some kind of physical danger (seriously, try to name an exception). But what happens when you combine our love of thrills with our love of getting thrills from watching people in danger?

You get theme park disaster movies. There’s the Jurassic Park series, sure, but the genre really dates back to the 1970s, with Westworld (1973), Rollercoaster (1977), Jaws 3-D (1983), and others from the era that birthed the disaster movie as we know it. In all of those films, regular folks like you and me flock to a theme park with the expectation of flirting with danger from a position of immutable safety. But things, obviously, don’t go as planned.

What happens is that the very attractions set to amaze and astound the guests wind up being their demise. Through some technical malfunction or unhappy error, the dangerous elements that were supposedly neutralized reveal themselves not to be so neutralized after all. In Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs escape their cages. In Rollercoaster, a bomb is planted on a speeding you-know-what. In Jaws 3-D, a shark sneaks into SeaWorld and starts doing what sharks do best. The list goes on.

And we, the viewers, see our own worst fears gratified. Since our anxieties about riding on rollercoasters are, in effect, irrational (the Consumer Product Safety Commission wrote in 2005 that there had been 52 amusement park deaths nationwide in the 14 years prior), there’s something morbidly satisfying about seeing those fears proven rational after all: “See, I told you I was right to be scared!” It doesn’t hurt, either, that we’ve survived all our own rollercoaster rides, giving us a sort of battle-tested arrogance about the whole affair.  

Westworld is another, earlier example of Jurassic Park writer Michael Crichton wishing ill upon amusement park guests. “Nothing can go wrong,” the loudspeaker intones as guests enter West World, a futuristic theme park populated by robots, for the first time. It’s as close to Chekhov’s loudspeaker as we’ll ever see on film.

The park is a place designed purely for hedonism. Guests pay exorbitant sums to run amok in a recreated Wild West town, fighting and fucking and doing whatever else they feel like to the android inhabitants, which are repaired nightly. It’s meant to give guests experiences that should be unknowable to them, not the least of which is killing without consequence. It’s unnatural not to morally struggle with murder, argues writer/director Crichton, who came to a similar conclusion in Jurassic Park: Humans shouldn’t play God.

West World is essentially Grand Theft Auto come alive: Since the victims aren’t technically human, no moral issues arise from their slaughter. It’s thrilling to the guests—and gratifying to viewers when order as we know it is restored, when the debaucherous guests receive their comeuppance for killing beings that look and act pretty damn human. A bug makes all the robots malfunction, and a park-wide massacre (of guests this time) ensues.

The guests’ hubris is consistent throughout the films of this genre, and it is essentially what marks them for death. After all, who are they to defy death? Why should they get to see a dinosaur or go on a loop-de-loop, when those unnatural acts were never supposed to be done in this world? Their ever-awaiting comeuppance can be seen as karmic. No film illustrates this as well as Final Destination 3 (2006), which follows a group of teens who narrowly escape a rollercoaster disaster, only to be methodically tracked down and killed by a bitter and vengeful Death itself.

When we’re at a theme park, there’s a tiny, irrational part of us that believes we won’t make it out alive—that this rollercoaster is going too fast to stay on the tracks, or that this robotic gunslinger is going to pull out his robotic six-shooter and blow us all to pieces. “Many of the elements of the resort are dangerous. That’s part of the appeal,” explains the head engineer of West World when evidence of the malfunction begins showing. But it’s the second part of his statement that captures our interest as viewers: “But should they become truly dangerous…” Here his voice trails off, leaving us to grab our popcorn and fill in what we know to be true. Should they become truly dangerous, that’s when the fun can really start.

And we keep going back for more. Jurassic World 2 director J.A. Bayona confirmed last month that 2015’s (abysmal yet maddeningly successful) reboot was intended to kick off a new (hopefully less abysmal) trilogy, and an HBO reboot of Westworld premiered on October 2. Created by Christopher Nolan’s brother and collaborator Jonathan, it stars Ed Harris as a fail-proof robot cowboy who will eventually, and I’m just spit-balling here, fail and go berserk on some guests. Roughly 3.3 million people watched the pilot last week, matching True Detective’s previous record for the network’s highest-rated series premiere.      

Despite growing up as a non-daredevil kid, instead of strapping myself into a rollercoaster, I found my thrills in Zoo Tycoon. I’d fill a virtual zoo with attractions and animals, even splurging for the “Dinosaur Digs” bonus pack so I could pretend I was Dr. Ian Malcolm, and make sure it was popular and teeming with people. Guests would crowd around the velociraptor cage, eyes wide open as they watched the terrifying reptiles stalking around, knowing deep down that, even though that irrational part of their brain was frightened, they were safe in the face of danger.

Then I’d remove all the fences.

Thrilling, isn’t it?