We are all afraid of something. Ron Weasley had severe arachnophobia. Jesse Eisenberg’s Columbus had a fear of clowns in Zombieland. And Scottie in Vertigo was afraid of heights. To have fears is to be human and to be sympathetic towards others’ fears is to be compassionate. During this time of great division in the film community, we ought to be more sensitive towards Martin Scorsese’s possible fear of theme parks.
This current discourse all started when Scorsese likened Marvel films to theme parks in an interview with Empire magazine. Since then, Twitter has not shut up about it and journalists haven’t stopped asking other directors to wade into the debate. What hasn’t been considered, until now, is the idea that Hollywood filmmakers are actually terrified of theme parks. And the Taxi Driver director chose to communicate his anxiety under the veil of MCU criticism because the world’s most popular franchise was unlikely to suffer collateral damage.
Indeed, Scorsese’s potential fear makes perfect sense. Scorsese loves cinema. Cinema also happens to be an anti-amusement park propaganda machine. It has been for decades. So repeatedly echoed is this attitude, that film studies courses really ought to devote classes to it.
Let’s pivot to another of the world’s most popular franchises: Jurassic Park. In the very first installment, John Hammond invites a small group to visit his almost complete theme park — a marvelous zoo that is home to a plethora of genetically engineered dinosaurs. After a storm damaged the park’s electricity system, all hell — and the dinosaurs — break loose. It becomes feeding time for the dinosaurs. And the meal? Oh, just a few of the visitors. Clearly fun can come at a cost. Jeff Goldblum famously says, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” His character is talking about the biology of the newly resurrected dinosaurs. But perhaps the filmmakers were really referring to the physics of rollicking rollercoasters.
Stepping back twenty years takes us to the 1973 film Westworld, in which guests can fork over $1000 a day to experience historical periods with the help of lifelike androids. But all is not well. A strange infection spreads amongst the hosts, making them betray their programmed protocols. The result: murder, murder, murder. Once again, the dangers of theme parks are communicated through the greed of mankind’s scientific endeavors.
What Jurassic Park and Westworld also have in common is their commitment to their cause. Jurassic Park had two sequels in 1997 and 2001 and even saw a reboot in 2015’s Jurassic World. If this wasn’t enough, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and Sam Neill are set to reunite in Jurassic World 3 to once again bang the drum of a decades-old Hollywood agenda. Similarly, Westworld had a sequel in 1976, as well as two TV shows: A short-lived stint in 1980 and again in 2016 as one of the most expensive TV shows ever. The resources deployable in the name of the anti-theme park agenda are boundless.
Sometimes theme parks can be more realistic in their depictions, only to be fronts for far darker activities. Wonder World in Beverly Hills Cop III is a front for a counterfeiting ring that printed fake American currency. In Scooby-Doo, Spooky Island successfully attracts unwitting tourists so a secret demon cult could extract their souls, possesses their bodies and establish a 10,000 years-long reign under the orders of an embittered, anthropomorphized puppy. “Despicable” indeed, to re-use Francis Ford Coppola’s words. And in Toy Story 4, Woody and Forky are at the mercy of the unhinged Gabby, a doll who keeps the company of various ventriloquist dummy goons. Yes, this example only poses a threat to toys; apparently the fear of theme parks is being promoted to all kinds of audiences (the real and the inanimate). The threats need not be extreme, either. The complicated web of romance in Adventureland is enough to put anyone off of both love and theme parks.
But such commitments to the anti-amusement park sentiment are sometimes deemed too conspicuous by filmmakers. Some are more concise when weaving this message into their narratives. The opening scenes of Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams sees the First Daughter dangerously climb The Juggler ride. Putting aside questions about whether modern audiences could relate to feeling concern for the First Family, this stunt comes as a warning to parents about what could go wrong if they take their children to amusement parks. Hopping from one film’s beginning to another’s end, take a look at Zombieland. It is established that the Pacific Playground is a zombie-free zone — evidently, the undead are more enlightened than us when it comes to the dangers of amusement parks. When Wichita and Little Rock finally arrive, they draw the attention of nearby zombies by turning on all the rides and lights. Surprise, surprise, an exhilarating and life-threatening bout ensues.
All this tragedy begs one question: Has anyone in a film ever had a pleasant experience at a theme park? Clearly, Hollywood filmmakers haven’t. Hence their longstanding aversion to the thrills of a rollercoaster ride. So, whether you agree or disagree with Martin Scorsese’s critique of comic book films, I invite you to read between the lines when Scorsese says ‘theme park films’ are “taking over the theatres”. Just like Spooky Island, there may be something far darker lying beneath the surface.