The future is virtually French

Gerard Gilbert experiences a cinematic assault on the senses at the Futuroscope theme park

If you want a good idea of the how the proposed Victoria & Albert museum extension will look - it resembles a spilled bag of children's play bricks - then take exit 28 off the main Paris to Bordeaux motorway and follow the signs to Futuroscope.

Half-buried glass cubes, suspended white spheres and hemispheres and strange crystalline shapes suddenly emerge out of the flat, featureless Poitou countryside - Arthur C Clarke meets a rather naff French industrial estate in the middle of some comme-ci, comme-ca farming country. Welcome to Futuroscope - or, as it is subtitled, the European Park of the Moving Image.

Cinema as virtual reality is the name of the game. There are 16 huge screens, one the size of two tennis courts, another in a hemisphere above your head (the seats recline), another in a 360 band that surrounds you. They throw the viewer into the middle of the action - floating hundreds of feet above a rain forest, hurtling though space in a NASA Shuttle, or wandering among shoals of fish on a coral reef. Armchair adventurers look no further.

Some of these "armchairs" shake, rattle and roll, however, simulating movement on hydraulic jacks. On one "ride" you seem to do several laps of an extremely hairy motor racing circuit, and ride on a motorcycle through the narrow streets of a local French town before leaping from its ramparts. This virtual town doesn't welcome careful drivers.

A good way to relax after all that is on the Magic Carpet, which uses two giant 700-metre square screens - one under the spectators' feet - to give the illusion of floating. Vertigo sufferers should not look down, although you might want to avert your eyes completely at the sight of a 30ft Monarch butterfly lava pupating out of its exoskeleton.

Several of the screens at Futoroscope are Imax (derived by its Sony-owned Canadian creators from "maximum image"): full-frame 70mm film runs horizontally, the idea being to reproduce the excitement which had the audience running from their seats when a train hurtled towards them in the celebrated Lumiere film of 1895. More often, however, the sensation is one of wonder.

Futuroscope was the brainchild of Rene Monory, now president of the French Senate, but back in 1984 a local politician. Built with a combination of public and private finance, it opened in 1987. The annual number of visitors has grown from 225,000 then to nearly three million last year, and Futuroscope, with its allied technology park, is now the single largest employer in the department of the Vienne.

An imperious and pragmatic "can-do" Gallic politician, Monory was briefly in Futuroscope during my visit. He was attending the opening of the park's latest attraction, a 600 square metre Imax 3-D cinema, which is screening Guillaumet: Wings of Courage, the first film in this format by a mainstream director - Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Lover, Name of the Rose). The film's mountain scenery seen through the comfortable plastic wrap-around 3-D glasses (forget the old cardboard affairs) is suitably impressive, although I was more taken with the interiors, whose shorter focal lengths are more suited to 3-D. Human figures become rounded, almost tactile; it can't be long before the sex industry takes notice.

The other 3-D experience is the Solido, which takes you underwater to have starfish slither in your lap (people started trying to brush their laps at this moment) and come to nose to nose with a battle-scarred shark.

The park itself, however, is bracingly unthemed for a theme park, and I found it refreshing not to be mobbed by giant-sized Mickey Mice and Donald Ducks (although faintly disturbed to have the soundtrack from Psycho being piped out of the flower beds). An American friend, brought up on trips to Disneyland was, however, disappointed by the lack of razzmatazz, a lack which stretches to the park's hotels, comfortable but anonymous chain names likes Ibis and Novotel.

FUTUROSCOPE FACTFILE

When to go

The park is open 9am-7pm daily during the summer. A two-day ticket is Fr290 (about pounds 37) for adults, and Fr225 (about pounds 29) for under-16s (under- fives go free). Two days would be pushing it, however - you could cover most attractions in one.

How to get there

SNCF has an offer of pounds 89 for return Waterloo-Poitiers rail tickets. You take the Eurostar to Lille then change trains. Trips must be made before 15 September and you must spend three nights in Poitiers. More details on 0990 717273.

Who to ask

Futuroscope: 00 33 49 49 30 00. Poitiers tourist information 00 33 49 41 21 24.

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