At a fan-favorite amusement park on the west coast, a man (Timothy Bottoms) walks around the park, taking part in some carnival games, eating some cotton candy, and then late in the day, he pulls a radio transmitter from his pocket and explodes a bomb on the park's oldest, safest and most loved rollercoaster, killing all aboard the ride. An inspector from the Department of Standards and Safety, Harry Calder (George Segal) is called in to investigate, his most recent inspection turning up nothing three months earlier. Just days later on the east coast, another rollercoaster accident claims more lives. The rides in ruins with no clues or evidence, Harry is convinced the accidents are tied together, especially when he finds his own connection about the owners of the amusement parks. Can he convince someone of his theory? He may not have to. The FBI, including lead agent Hoyt (Richard Widmark), have been called in to investigate. Can they stop the bomber before he strikes again?
With the success of the disaster movie wave waning some by 1977, director James Goldstone's film hit theaters the same summer as a mildly successful movie, Star Wars, and managed to hold its own, finding a niche with audiences. I liked this movie, didn't love it. It's cool to see a disaster movie that doesn't depend on some natural calamity or a giant skyscraper on fire, but instead a suspense story that is uncomfortable, really gets the adrenaline going at times, and works because...well, let's face it. Something like this could happen. For the most part, it avoids all the pratfalls that helped doom the genre. It never gets too jokey or goofy, never feels like we're watching a novelty film, there's no huge all-star cast. This is a movie about the build-up and the suspense, not a gimmick.
As for the cast, there really isn't a huge listing. George Segal has always been one of my favorites, and I liked him a lot here as Calder, the inspector who feels some responsibility for the bombings (it was his inspection) even though it wasn't his fault. He's Joe Everyman, a regular guy trying to do the right thing. That's tough when everyone around him is seemingly challenged. Richard Widmark does a good job in that department as Hoyt, the veteran FBI agent who, dammit, is going to do things his way and isn't going to take any advice from some wanna-be investigator. Segal and Widmark are the stars though, their arguments and discussions about how to handle things providing some of the movie's strongest moments. In the meaningless cameo department, Henry Fonda is around for two scenes as Davenport, Calder's boss who he's always busting his balls about one thing or another. The same for Harry Guardino as a police officer kinda attached to the case who hangs around for a couple scenes.
And then there's that bomber fellow, played to perfection by Timothy Bottoms. An underrated actor who never became a big star, Bottoms is listed here only as 'Young Man.' He's never given a name or any background, leaving his intentions or motivations in the dark. He says to Calder at one point over the phone that it's all about the money, but something else we never really learn about seems to be lurking. Would it have been nice to get a little explanation? I'd think so, but it works without it just the same. This guy doesn't care if lots of people get killed. He's going to accomplish what he wants. Bottoms does a creepy, sinister and underplayed job here. The character doesn't seem to have a pulse until late in the movie, a monotone delivery and calm mannerisms adding to that creepy nature. A solid part, avoiding as many cliches and stereotypes of disaster movie villains, suspense/thrillers too about psychopaths, madmen and murderers.
For the most part here, it's the set pieces that work. Well, two out of three at least. The opening bombing is slowly developed, tension hanging in the air just waiting for the explosion. Bottoms is at his eerie sinister best in this scene, not saying a word as he moves very deliberately around the park waiting for his chance. When the explosion comes, it's startling and unsettling as expected. The same for the finale, Calder, Hoyt and a team of agents trying to find the bomber as a new rollercoaster is unveiled to throngs of people, an extended sequence that takes most of 30 minutes. The weak point is in the middle, Bottoms' bomber sending Calder and the agents on a wild goose chase across a park as he tries to get his hands on a $1 million dollar ransom. His solution? Have Calder -- communicating via radio -- go on a bunch of rides to lose his tail. The potential is there, but the scene just keeps going, almost 20 minutes of painfully slow build-up with no real payoff. Still, a .667 batting average ain't bad, is it?
Overall, there's some cool positives. It was filmed on location at several actual amusement parks (talk about a whole bunch of positive advertisement, huh?!?), including Ocean View Park in Norfolk (the first sequence), Kings Dominion in Richmond (the middle sequence), making that long sequence very bearable, and Six Flags Magic Mountain for the finale. The actual parks provide some cool backdrops for the developing story, as well as a quick detour later to Navy Pier and the Hyatt Regency in Chicago. So what to say in the end? It's a good movie with some really solid moments that's hamstrung by some really slow-moving sequences. Worth it, an entertaining disaster movie. Also worth mentioning? Look for a young Helen Hunt as Segal's daughter and Steve Guttenberg in a blink and you'll miss it appearance.
Rollercoaster (1977): ** 1/2 /****