(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Class Action Park
Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max
The Pitch: For an entire generation of Americans raised in the New York and New Jersey area, Action Park was the wild and crazy amusement park where the lack of rules and safety regulations forced you to grit your teeth through injuries as you endured water slides designed by maniacs. For another generation, it’s become one of the internet’s most astonishing urban legends. This place wasn’t real, was it? Everyone was exaggerating, right? The new documentary Class Action Park, from directors Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges, gathers former employees and visitors to tell their stories, alongside tons of astonishing footage from when the park was open. And it turns out Action Park was as nuts, and as dangerous, as you’ve heard.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: The COVID-19 pandemic means most of the world is unable to visit theme parks or water parks right now. And Class Action Park does a fine job of making “staying in your home and not doing anything at all” feel like a great choice. The film’s look back at this monstrous, unregulated amusement park is both hilarious and chilling, a portrait of a terrible park that could have only existed in one time and in one place. Even when the film missteps, it’s impossible to deny that the footage shown and the stories shared will leave your jaw on the floor.
Class Action Park shuffles through tones at a rapid pace. Is it a fond look back at a place that allowed kids to run free, that didn’t hold your hand as you suffered and learned as you grew up the hard way, in an age before parents become overly protective? Yeah. Is it a brutal condemnation of the park’s management and the capitalistic ideals that allowed it to thrive in the first place? Indeed. Is it a goofy collection of “Oh my God, you have to be joking, but you’re not” anecdotes about the various rides that seem like they were designed to actually kill you? Yup. Is it a tragedy about the handful of people who lost their lives at the park due to negligence from the park owner and the uncaring staff? It is.
This sometimes leads to a case of whiplash, but perhaps it’s appropriate. After all, every talking head has their own take on the park. Some stifle giggles as they recall the absurd things they were allowed to do. Others showcase regret and horror. Some remember it fondly. Some are glad it’s gone. And in the most harrowing moments, some remember their loved ones who died on rides that were never properly tested.
In its biggest misstep, the film tries to find common ground with parker owner Eugene Mulvihill, a man who honestly should’ve been thrown in prison after he was forced to spend all of his money paying the people who were killed and maimed on his property. He’s a grotesque figure, an evil man who puts the dollar above his visitors and bends over backwards to avoid responsibility for his actions. It’s no surprise that he’s seen associating himself with Donald Trump during the film. Trying to make us feel for him in the film’s homestretch leaves a bad taste in the mouth, especially after the rest of the film is so confident in its presentation.
But it’s also in this homestretch that Class Action Park makes its most powerful point. What if the nostalgia we feel for the “kids on bikes” era is misplaced? What if those years of freedom an entire generation looks back upon are being sugarcoated? What if those who remember Action Park, and a childhood without rules, so fondly are nursing trauma they do not understand and aren’t prepared to face? We’re living through a wave of ’80s nostalgia right now. Movies and shows about kids free from helicopter parents who go on adventures are more popular than ever. The natural extension of that fantasy is an amusement park with no rules where people died. Maybe it’s best to let that past stay buried.
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