Universal Studios Hollywood’s new ride for 2012 has the capacity to transform the world. Can it live up to the hype?
Right now, there’s not much flair and festivity around the massive, grey show building taking form in Universal Studios Hollywood’s backlot. It’s a rather nondescript structure, with a few large air conditioners on top and a fair share of fire escapes, and not particularly different from the dozens of other large warehouses strewn throughout Universal’s Californian property. But this building is an entirely appropriate habitat for its impending, soon-to-be residents; it’s more than meets the eye.
Transformers The Ride is expected to open in Spring 2012 on Universal’s Lower Lot, and all sources indicate that it will change the West Coast park for the best. Meanwhile, a near-identical version of the ride will open at Universal Studios Singapore on December 3, 2011.
Reclaiming A Crown
There’s no question that, especially in the last decade, Universal has taken steps to transition the Hollywood park into a thrilling, multi-day destination like its Universal Orlando Resort. Hollywood has finally restarted itsHalloween Horror Nights after a period of inactivity and the Orlando event's rapid growth in popularity. They’ve also opened their own Revenge of the Mummy rollercoaster (albeit, alongside Orlando’s superior take on the concept), and fire forced their hand on updating the age-old King Kong portion of the studio tour into the popular technological take, King Kong 360 3-D.
And, finally, it appears that Universal has decided to implement the groundbreaking motion-base dark ride technology made popular on The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure. The ride system – absolutely revolutionary in 1999 – sees dark ride carts attached to a motion-base physically travelling on a track through a warehouse and interacting with 3-D projections that integrate seamlessly into physical props and tactile effects.
In other words, your vehicle gets tossed and turned as it moves through scenes like a traditional dark ride. In the case of Spider-Man, there’s fire and water to further amp up the immersion factor, and in both Spider-Man and Busch Garden Williamsburg’s popular follow-up, The Curse of DarKastle, the culmination is in a mostly-psychological, simulated drop from hundreds of feet in the air, as projected on massive, all-encompassing Omni-Max style screens.
What We Know
Granted, there’s not too much official information out there about Transformers The Ride, and unlike Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s “secret” rollercoaster, Verbolten, construction is entirely indoors, and thus hidden from prying eyes.
But Michael Bay (director of the three Transformers films) did visit Universal’s Islands of Adventure a number of years ago for a behind the scenes tour of The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man shortly after publically stating that he would not support the ride until he felt it was done right. So his involvement seems to indicate that his vision is being done due diligence, and perhaps with the same motion technology.
Even if it does reuse Spider-Man’s technology, Transformers will be a massive thrill for the public, and still a groundbreaking ride for enthusiasts. Whatever is going into the building looks to be two stories tall, which means that the motion base system may encounter its first substantial grade change since its 1999 debut. It’ll also take on the action-packed style of the films (doubtlessly projected with and on the highest-quality, cutting edge HD technology), and will doubtlessly involve even more physical sets and effects than its predecessors.
The Universal Studios Singapore incarnation of Transformers The Ride is expected to open in December of this year, so the marketing train is a little further on the tracks: photos of the ride’s queue have surfaced, and it truly looks fantastic, which is a vibrant sign of the detail-oriented experience that Universal is so known for coming back up to bat with Transformers.
Extending the movie universe
Transformers The Ride will include a waiting area themed around a top-secret facility operated by NEST, the shadowy organisation that features in the Transformers movies. At its heart will be a shard of the AllSpark, a cube of energy that creates life from mechanical objects. The robots will both do battle over this object, with riders being carried inside a new Transformer known as EVAC.
The attraction's scenes will include subway tunnels, city streets and rooftops, with EVAC being hunted down by the Decepticons. The story of the 4-minute ride is said to be a "natural follow-up" to the movies, rather than based on them directly. It will be told through a variety of simulator and 3D effects, and will place riders at the center of a battle between the human-friendly Autobots and the evil Decepticons.
Transformers: The Ride will be a popular attraction Universal Studios, and a major draw for visitors. However, I do have to question the choice of intellectual property. Transformers was a popular enough film financially, but the franchise has been met with less-than-superb reviews from critics and viewers alike. The all-out, explosion-packed, CGI battles are what the films are known for, and indeed, perhaps those are the part of the films that are meant to translate to the ride. But in a park that celebrates Hollywood’s classics, it’s hard to imagine Transformers standing alongside King Kong, Jaws, Terminator, and Jurassic Park in terms of longevity and long-term critical popularity.
It may have been inappropriate for Universal Studios Hollywood to simply copy Spider-Man (especially thirteen years later – imagine how the Facebook page would enflame after that announcement), but to me, the development of a Transformers ride feels like it’s missing something. Like Orlando’s Twister: Ride It Out (which has admittedly run its course, based on a “fad” film that was very, very popular in 1996, but which was not still ride-worthy even by the new millennium), I fear that a decade down the road, Transformers: The Ride will feel worn and dated, lacking the staying power and classic status of other Universal rides’ films.
One might even venture that Universal might re-think plans for Transformers The Ride if construction wasn’t already well underway, now that we’re basking in the remains of two poorly received sequels (having a 20% and 35% respectively on film review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes). That said, both were cash cows, which matters far more than reviews, or quality in today’s Hollywood. So in that sense, Transformers: The Ride does indeed capture the cinematic expectations of the 2010s, which has got to be worth something.
Will Universal Studios’ spring 2012 addition be a tremendous draw for the park? Absolutely. Will it represent a sizable technological upgrade for an already-innovative ride system? Undoubtedly. And while I may have reservations about the theme (granted, I’ve never been a fan of those films myself – at least I’m consciously aware of my bias), Transformers: The Ride has the ability to change my mind and I really and truly am looking forward to it. And if we can expect Singapore’s to be an exact duplicate, then we’ll know sooner rather than later if this mega-attraction will offer enough to withstand the test of time or if we'll wish it would just roll out.