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June 06, 2012

‘Transformers’ taking new shape with Universal ride and fourth film

Posted in: Movies

Optimus Prime, voiced by Peter Cullen, greets guests as they enter the ride’s “battlegrounds.” (Universal Studios Hollywood)

This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.

Film critics who put down Michael Bay’s “Transformers” movies by calling them theme-park rides in disguise won’t change their mind after hopping on Transformers: The Ride — 3D at Universal Studios, but they might have a dramatically improved opinion of theme-park rides.

The $100-million ride, which officially opened May 24, is being hailed as a game-changer by the reviewers and bloggers who cover such things (yes, there is quite a bit of room on the Internet), and even rivals at Disney Imagineering have, in private, acknowledged that the shiny new kid on the block is pretty impressive and possibly, well, transformative.

Cars Land at Disney’s California Adventure in Anaheim, opening this month, has been the big theme park story this summer due to the scale of the project and the stakes involved for a Disney destination that was not the hoped-for success story in its first decade. Years from now, though, this summer’s opening of Transformers: The Ride might also be viewed as a milestone moment for its intriguing hybrid of digital illusion, real-world velocity and assorted atmospheric effects.

Guests, dubbed “freedom fighters” wear 3-D glasses aboard Transformers: The Ride 3D. Park attendants dress in military fatigues. (Universal Studios Hollywood)

“It’s pretty amazing what they do and how they do it,” said Bay, who was a key creative consultant to the ride team of Universal Creative (the in-house counterpart to Imagineering) and Industrial Light & Magic, the illustrious effects house that also works on the Bay robot films. “They’ve got it down to a science and they grab you, take you through this world and this story, and it’s impressive.”

Bay’s consultation may have been limited to the story, but his cinematic fingerprints are everywhere. The “physics” of the ride — like the slow-motion, whizzing metal, groaning-whirl effects used at key points — and the robot design are all from the Bay and ILM trilogy, which, for young male moviegoers, is their era-defining franchise. And despite the reviews, last year’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” stands as the third highest-grossing film of all time (trailing only “Avatar” and the final “Harry Potter” film) in international box office.

The Transformers brand dates back to the Reagan era and it may be the ultimate example of the reuse and recycle principle applied to pop culture if you consider the fact that Transformers: The Ride — 3D is a theme-park attraction based on a movie franchise based on a cartoon based on a toy. And, yes, there’s a gift shop right next to the exit with Hasbro’s latest line of mecha-heroes.

There’s plenty more Transformer action to come with a major new video game release, “Transformers: Fall of Cybertron,” due in August and another Bay movie in the works. (The director, by the way, says that the fourth film will include some redesign of the robots and an entirely new cast. He also said it will be his last and set the franchise up “for the next guy.”)

But a fan’s affection for a toy or a movie will only get them to stand in line once for a new theme-park ride, said Chick Russell, the creative director for Universal Creative, as he walked through the dim corridors of the ride in January.

“We want this to be a true state-of-the-art experience and we think we have something really special,” he said. “This is a world that, with these characters and story, is just perfect for us too.”

Veteran observers agree that the ride is pretty close to perfect. Brady MacDonald, reviewing for The Times, ranks the “state-of-the-art marvel” as one of the three best rides in the world and declared its digital accomplishments to be “far more immersive and engaging” than Disney’s Star Tours ride. Theme Park Insider, meanwhile, rates it as the new No. 1 ride in Southern California and calls it a game-changer for the way it uses 3-D to place riders within a world.

There have been some glitches. The ride seized up a number of times on its opening weekend, becoming instantly still and quiet (it’s more like a Blu-ray player than a roller coaster when in distress). There’s also a military problem; the Universal theme park employees at the entrance to the ride are dressed like soldiers and, like drill sergeants, some shout and scold the riders to enhance the illusion that a crisis situation is underway. The problem is not all the riders connect the dots or they just don’t enjoy the being yelled at by a kid in camouflage.

As tweaks are made, Russell’s hope is that the ride becomes a milestone like the one that arrived in Anaheim in March of 1967. That’s when the definition and (more importantly) the ambition of theme-park attractions changed with the opening of Pirates of the Caribbean, the first truly immersive, in-the-dark storytelling ride, with its animatronic buccaneers, music, flickering flames, the rolling water below and the cannon fire overhead — even the fireflies that catch your eye in the inky bayou night.

Bob Gurr, one of the best known Disney Imagineers (he was named a Disney Legend in 2004, a sort of Hall of Fame status within the company), who is noted for his work on Haunted Mansion, Autopia and the Matterhorn, says that the Pirates ride was a pivotal moment. He said it ranks on a short list — along with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort in Florida, Cars Land and the Matterhorn — of the “huge leaps forward” he’s seen in his 57 years in or near the business. He may add Transformers to that list in the weeks to come, he said.

“Transformers has pushed the envelope out a bit,” Gurr said, when asked what he’s hearing from peers. “It’s similar to the ‘Harry Potter’ machine, and with a bit tighter 3-D projections. I will see it soon.”

The new ride’s story finds Chicago being leveled by giant space robots called Autobots (the good guys) and Decepticons (the bad guys), and visitors must help protect the AllSpark, a sliver of shiny rock that apparently is of cosmic consequence. The attraction puts riders inside a car of sorts — it’s actually Evac, a sentient robot on wheels — that seats 12 people and then races, swerves, careens, soars and tumbles across (and under and then above) the streets of downtown Chicago, shown on 14 massive screens. Those front- and rear-projection screens display images at quadruple the resolution of HD images (to fend off the picture degradation and dimming tendencies of 3-D) and presented unique challenges in their nontraditional sizes and shapes.

Autobot EVAC transforms to become the transportation vehicle for the ride. (Universal Studios Hollywood)

Autobot EVAC transforms to become the transportation vehicle for the ride. (Universal Studios Hollywood)

The ride is not quiet (there’s 5,000 watts of sound being pumped by a 14-channel audio system) nor is it peaceful (the cars zoom over 2,000 feet of track and reach a perceived speed of 60 mph), but it is clever. The juxtaposition of urban props (chunks of masonry, mangled pipes, etc.) and the Evac car itself create a tactile foreground. Curved-screen lighting, steam and mist are some of the ways that Russell’s team masked the distance between the props and the pixels.

The most impressive trick of the senses that the ride accomplishes is the one that it does on the sly. To extend the duration of the ride, the designers wanted two levels, so riders start on the first floor, do a lap and rise to the second floor for a loop there. The trick is that riders never feel themselves going up — the elevation moment and movement are disguised by the sensation of wind at their backs (which is created by an evil, sucking Decepticon named Vortex, if you’re curious) and the wobbling struggle of the Evac car as it fights to save its occupants.

There is a moment of oven-hot heat and the splash of fat-drop mist that speak to a long tradition of Universal rides creating atmosphere — the Terminator 2 ride has a squirt moment as well and the old King Kong attraction famously roared with banana-scented breath — but here they are delivered in a concentrated and cohesive way.

That was powerful stuff to Humberto Flores, who brought his 5-year-old grandson, Elijah, to the opening weekend of the ride.

“I don’t know what to say,” Flores said with his hand on gray-bearded chin. “That is art. Really, that’s the ultimate art. It’s like being inside of a movie. I don’t know anything about [the characters] or what was going on there, but that’s something.”

– Geoff Boucher

[For the Record, 4:05 p.m. June 7: An earlier version of this post incorrectly summarized the cosmic conflict as Transformers vs. Decepticons; it's Autobots vs. Decepticons as the post now states.]

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