Giants of the silver screen

26th September 1997 at 01:00
Futuroscope is a cinema park of spectacular constructions which take film-going far beyond the traditional experience. Roger Frost reports

France's Futuroscope is a gem of a theme park but try telling that to the kids. You could say it's a feast of amazing things on huge cinema screens. Or that it's more memorable than anything else they'll ever visit. Just don't say they'll be trading the white knuckle rides of Alton Towers (see page 24) for lots of nice cinemas because it will not cut the French mustard.

Set in Poitiers, this "theme park of the moving image" is another top attraction - pulling in three million visitors a year. The landscape is filled with the most awesome cinema buildings shaped as massive prisms, domes, cubes - all very striking, inviting and high-tech. Over the past 10 years, the surrounding area has become a centre for high technology with businesses, research institutes and information superhighways. At the National Tele Learning centre nearby, for instance, distance learning materials are piped to a 1,000 French schools.

There's plenty of cutting edge in Futuroscope itself. Forever stuck in the mind is the Magic Carpet cinema with not just 600 square metres of screen upfront, but with the same again beneath the glass floor of the auditorium. The film shows you a crisp and perfect image of a butterfly hatching from a larva. You watch it fly - with the land disappearing on the screen beneath your feet, it is more like flying yourself.

This was moving, but never as much as Le Cinema Dynamique ,which would lose nothing in translation. Here you are held in a hydraulic seat which jostles you in sync with the film. It's about a bridegroom's race to the church, with enough speed boating, cliff falling and typical French driving to send your seat in all directions.

There are more of these, attracting big queues in high season. In Street Luge you get a first-person view of a sort of skateboard dodging cars and lorries in a downhill race. In another you are on a helter-skelter, with yet more side-to-side lunging, but this time they turn on fans to add a highly appropriate breeze. One coping strategy is to sit cool, go with the flow and say it's not real. Your screams, however, will be real. Insides well churned, it's off to Omnimax - an IMAX cinema where the film is made with a fish-eye lens and projected on a 180 degree screen. It's an educational film which takes you from inside the atom to beyond the edge of the galaxy. It takes you through step by step over several minutes, and it takes you through again in warp speed. With your field of vision filled, the experience is little short of immersive and makes a teaching point that few will fail to grasp.

The range of cinema technology here merits discussion before and after any visit. Call it science, technology, media or art, Futuroscope's ability to surprise rather than numb the senses feels magical. Take the Wall of Images, where the presentation, the story of la Vienne department, is shown across a spread of 850 TV monitors. Or take Cine-Jeu - a life-sized, computer game where you play table tennis on the largest of computer screens.

If anything is harder to follow, then maybe it's the 3D Imax cinema. You sit with polarising spectacles as the 40-minute film tells the story of a pilot crash- landing in the Andes. Quite how the action happens over the heads of the people sitting in front is magic itself, but the wings of a plane seem to clip their heads.

Another cinema, called Solido, needs liquid crystal goggles to give viewers an unusually real experience of life on the sea bed. It uses a wrap-around rather than flat screen. If all cinemas used these brilliant illusions, television could not compete.

In summer there is an evening laser show. It is set around a lake in an open-air theatre, where laser beams send images across the water to rousing music. Clips of film are projected onto a fine mist - one moment a huge liner crosses the lake, next a couple tap dance on its surface.

Note that for most films other than this you will need their special headphones to listen in English - I'd say they were as essential as is a two-day visit.

Bed and breakfast is about Pounds 10 each person- it is probably easier to get a travel agent to fix up a complete package. The luxurious way is to take the Eurostar from Waterloo and change on the other side for the TGV train to Poitiers.

Parc du Futuroscope, RN10-BP2000, 86130 Jaunay-Clan, France. High season admission Pounds 18 or Pounds 14.50 for children aged 5-16. Two days that rises to Pounds 32 and Pounds 26. General information tel: 0171 355 5110, reservations and prices tel: 0171 499 8049.

Details on the Internet: For Rail EuropeSNCF reservations call 0990 300 003. Groups department: 0171 633 9000

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