Two years ago, a fire devastated the back lot of Universal Studios Hollywood, destroying prints (but thankfully not negatives) of classic horror films, along with part of the tram tour. Among the casualties was the old King Kong, a life-size mechanical replica, seen from the chest up, pulling the wires of an elevated train. Today, a new version of Kong replaces the old one, providing a climactic conclusion to the tram ride through the studios' back lot. Modeled after Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of KING KONG, the new attraction (which is billed as "created by" Jackson) is a combination of projection and motion simulation that puts you in the middle of the action as dinosaurs attack the tram and drag it into a chasm; fortunately, Kong arrives in time to save the day.
Universal rolled out King Kong 360 3-D with a red carpet press event that included studio executives happy to announce that having Kong back on the tour represents the final piece in rebuilding the back lot after the fire. Celebrities showed up to take the first ride through Skull Island, including writer-director Kevin Smith (DOGMA) and actors Mark Pelligrino (LOST), Christopher Lloyd (BACK TO THE FUTURE), and Jack O'Halloran (who appeared in the Dino DeLaurentiis KING KONG of 1976). Collector Bob Burns showed up with a stop-motion armature from the original KING KONG (1933).
Unlike Universal's TERMINATOR 2 3-D, or any of the motion-simulation rides that have graced the theme park (including BACK TO THE FUTURE and, currently, THE SIMPSONS), King Kong 360 3-D is not a stand-alone attraction; it is one of many sights to see while riding the tram through the Universal lot. Situated near the old rickety bridge (which used to sag on cue as the tram rolled over it), the new Kong attraction takes you inside a darkened tunnel, leading you to Skull Island, which is visualized on two colossal digital screens, one on either side of the tram.
After passing a smashed and smoking tram - a sign of the dangers to come - you enter a tunnel leading to Skull Island. Inside, scenes of dense foliage give way to raptors that appear to chase the tram - until they are interrupted by hungry T-Rexes, bring the tram to a stop. Just when all seems lost, Kong appears to battle the carnivorous dinosaurs. The action runs continuously on both screens as if happening in real time, synchronized so that when Kong tosses a T-Rex from one side of the tram, it appears to land on the other. The visceral impact is heightened by motion simulation, creating the illusion that the tram is being buffeted by the battling creatures. As if that we're not enough, you get sprayed by dinosaur saliva (actually water) as the reptiles shakes their heads at you.
The highlight is the convincingly realized illusion that a T-Rex has grabbed the last car of the tram, pulling it around until it is visible on the left screen - and then dragging it over the edge of a cliff, leading to what feels like a 100-foot free fall, arrested only by some convenient vines. Will Kong arrive in time to prevent you from plunging to the bottom of the abyss?
The computer-generated visual effects are well rendered, and the 3-D is nicely done. (You are told when to put on the requisite 3-D glasses, handed out as you board the ride.) The imagery is especially effective when you consider that, essentially, you are seeing two long, continuous takes, uninterrupted by editing, in order to create the illusion that you are viewing live action on both sides of the tram.
The slight downside is that the large screens (the size is necessary to fill one's entire field of vision) are not perfectly bright and clear. Also, the 3-D illusion is ever so slightly marred by the fact that, depending where you sit on the tram, you are often not watching the action at a 90-degree angle to the screen. (It feels as if you should be able to see around and behind objects, but actually viewing at an oblique angle undermines the illusion.) On the plus side, the initial glimpse of the Skull Island forest effectively conveys the sense that you are travelling past real objects.
The experience is visceral and visually impressive, but is King Kong 360 3-D worth a special visit to Universal Studios Hollywood? At a minute-and-a-half in length, probably not, but it is great to have Kong back in action on the lot. Just remember that, despite the ballyhoo, this is not a stand-alone attraction. The next time you visit Universal - say, for the annual Halloween Horror Nights - make sure you take time to ride the tram, and you will not be disappointed.
Celebrity photos from the red carpet walk-through at Tuesday's press event: Mark Pelligrino; Thomas Kretschmann and Jack O'Halloran; Christopher Lloyd.