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Terminator 2: 3-D

Call it a "show;" call it a "dark ride." Whatever you call it, T2:3-D is still one of the greatest attractions ever created.

Universal first came to the big Orlando theme park party in 1990 with Universal Studios Florida, a more elaborate version of the "backlot tour" park the company operates in Hollywood, California. Filled with one-of-a-kind rides based on blockbuster movies like King Kong, Earthquake and Jaws, USF was an ambitious attempt to out-Disney Disney. Early months were marred by technical difficulties, but those problems were ultimately surmounted and The Studios quickly became Orlando's second most-popular draw.

What put USF truly on the map was a multi-million dollar marvel that did indeed give the Disney folks a run for their money: Back To The Future: The Ride. This amazing motion-simulator attraction begins with a lengthy pre-show starring two of the BTTF trilogy's characters, Doctor Emmett Brown and Biff Tanen (hilariously played by Christopher Lloyd and Thomas F. Wilson). We discover that Biff, petty thug to the core, has stolen one of the Doctor's levitating, time-traveling De Loreans and we must board our own to chase him down and bring him back. During the course of our madcap pursuit, we crash through a futuristic city, into the gullet of a raging dinosaur and over the edge of a prehistoric lava-fall before making it back to the Doctor's lab - four incredible minutes of rip-roaring action.

With the De Lorean's swoops, dives and lurches mated to special effects-crammed film sequences projected on a huge overhead dome, the illusion is nearly seemless. Upon its debut, Back To The Future: The Ride brought the simulator ride to a whole new level and for years, it reigned as the premier attraction behind Universal Studios Florida's gates. But that reign ended in 1996, when the park opened its Terminator 2:3-D "virtual adventure."

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Terminator 2:3-D - Battle Across Time is a supercharged third chapter in the Terminator saga created by writer/director James Cameron. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, the first Terminator flick introduced us to a flesh-covered "T-800" robot sent back in time from a nuclear holocaust-devastated future where sentient machines rule over mankind. The cyborg's mission? To "terminate" Sarah Connor and preemptively destroy the son she hasn't yet conceived. As poor Sarah eventually learns, her unborn son John would become the leader of a human resistance movement against the machines. She barely survives, but before the end credits roll, the first Terminator is smashed beyond repair. And Sarah is pregnant.

In the eye-popping sequel, Terminator 2; Judgment Day, a far more deadly "liquid metal" T-1000 is sent back to kill John, now an adolescent. Sarah, John and a reprogrammed older-model Terminator sent to protect the boy do spectacular battle with this relentless, morphing creature and the T-1000 is ultimately melted in a vat of boiling metal. Yes, the film ends on an upbeat note but the story isn't really over...

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After the sequel raked in more than $500 million worldwide, Universal Studios purchased the rights to create a theme park attraction based on the Terminator series. The company then hired Landmark Entertainment Group (creators of Star Trek: The Experience), to develop a stunt show that would put guests right in the middle of a Terminator battle royale. Led by Landmark CEO Gary Goddard, a creative team began storyboarding ideas. It soon became clear that a show limited to live performances could never capture the explosive intensity of the two motion pictures, so Goddard and his designers instead proposed that three-dimensional film sequences be incorporated into the final product. Universal agreed and the Landmark crew went back to work.

When the reconceived storyboards were presented for approvals to James Cameron, he was so excited by the project that he chose to helm the creation of the filmed sequences, bringing along his Digital Domain special effects corps and convincing the feature films' original cast (including Edward Furlong and Robert Patrick) to participate. With all primary talent assembled, Universal enthusiastically signed off on the undertaking and Cameron got busy overseeing what would be, frame-for-frame, the most expensive live-action movie ever produced.

To create the illusion of three dimensions, two cameras must simultaneously film every sequence, already a demanding set-up. Further complicating matters, T2/3D's show-stopping finale required interlocking 3-D images across multiple screens, something that had never been done before. Each of the three screens measures 23 feet high by 50 feet long, and when the movie fills the entire expanse, we're talking about a 150-foot-wide panorama. To capture enough crisp detail for such a grand presentation, the filmmakers chose to shoot the action on high-resolution 65mm film stock, necessitating the use of cameras approximately four times larger than standard equipment. Rigging two of those cameras together created a brute the size of a washing machine, weighing 450 pounds, and that bulky contraption had to be highly mobile. Towards that end, an elaborate pulley system was devised that allowed for sweeping camera moves at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. As Russell Carpenter, director of live-action photography said, "We could literally fly through explosions."

And there were explosions aplenty. Nighttime live-action segments were lensed on a one-million-square-foot "set" around an abandoned steel mine in California's Mojave desert. After scattering the battered wreaks of more than 100 cars, trucks and buses throughout the area, pyrotechnics teams went about blowing nearly everything to smithereens. Four-story buildings, not scaled miniatures, were reduced to flaming rubble.

Once principle photography was completed, 47 Digital Domain CGI artists toiled over high-powered computers, layering innumerable digital effects over the footage.

Meanwhile, show producers were preparing T2/3D's non-cinematic ingredients. Due to the technical complexity of the concepts Landmark and Cameron cooperatively envisioned, a feasibility-study prototype of the T2/3D show chamber was set up at a rented airplane hangar in Van Nuys, California. Inside this top-secret facility, the attraction's developers tested and retested the interaction between the in-theater stunt performers, moving sets and props, and the projected images. Before, during and after film production, live-action choreography had to be honed to split-second perfection.

As all the elements came together, technicians began assembling the actual show chamber, packing it to the rafters with high-tech gear: over 100 miles of cable that snake through the attraction and connect the various audio, video and show control devices; six animated eight-foot-tall T-70 "Cinebotic" Terminators, driven by 3,000-pound-per-square-inch hydraulic pump systems; a one-of-a-kind Harley Davidson "Fat Boy" motorcycle that, along with its propulsion mechanism, tips the scale at 1,500 pounds. You think your home stereo equipment is impressive? The T2/3D theater features a custom audio set-up that pumps 45,620 eardrum-pounding watts through 159 speakers.

It took literally hundreds of specialists, months of work and over $60 million to put it all together. But that effort paid off in spades.

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T2/3D is not a standard dark ride, per se; the theater seats do pack a few motion-based surprises, but there are no moving vehicles to speak of. But as a fully-enclosed amusement park attraction, this sucker is in a class by itself. During one show I saw, the first major 3-D effect had a stranger on my left nearly throwing himself over the arm rest and into my lap. It's that good.

We enter the Cyberdyne headquarters for a splashy corporate presentation of their latest technology. While waiting on line, overhead monitors play a series of beautifully-produced videos illustrating some of Cyberdyne's recent history, including the bizarre attacks of a lone psychotic terrorist by the name of Sarah Connor. We also get a couple of safety tips to observe while inside the facility. I'll only say this: keep your hands off the pretty gadgets on the walls; Cyberdyne is watching.

We pick up "safety glasses" to wear once we're inside the main theater, then we head into the theater lobby. There, we're greeted by a perky, officious public relations executive who gives us a taste of what we're about to see. She gets the ball rolling with another slick corporate video presentation, a morbidly humorous taste of the "better living through technology" that Cyberdyne has planned for the world. Featured, of course, is SkyNet, their new self-defense computer system, ready to go online. As we already know, this is very bad news indeed. Suddenly, the video signal goes funky - Sarah and her son, John Connor, have broken into the facility and... well, here's where things really start to happen.

We're quickly ushered into the huge theater. Once we're seated, the PR lady takes to the stage and proudly announces Cyberdyne's latest achievement: the new Terminator-series T-70 combat robots. From with wings rise six full size prototype Terminators, armed to the teeth. We're instructed to put on those "safety glasses" and in an ear-shattering racket, we watch a display of their prowess. Their machine guns blast away at targets hanging on the walls, sending real paper shards fluttering down over the audience. Do they actually fire live rounds? Probably not, but I wouldn't stand up to leave at this point.

Sarah and John Connor make their dramatic entrance, weapons drawn, and start going at it with the Terminators. Running and jumping across the stage, they manage to disable the 'bots. Looks like the coast is clear...

But then that big metal Cyberdyne logo hanging on the back wall of the theater starts to change. Do the words "liquid metal" sound familiar? (This is when that guy on my left began to freak out.) Yes, folks, it's the T-1000, and he's comin' at ya! It's looking grim for our heros. Suddenly, a mist-enshrouded time portal opens in the center of the wall and our Terminator pal bursts through astride his trademark "Fat Boy." He pilots the bike down across the stage and scoops up John in the nick of time. Narrowly escaping the T-1000, they ride back into the time portal and back to the future. (By the way, if you were impressed by the - yawn - flying chandelier sequence in Broadway's "Phantom of the Opera," wait'll you get a load of that Fat Boy racing all over the stage and then plowing back into the time portal.)

Now we're fully in 3-D World and we're just getting started.

John and the Terminator hustle across the battle-scarred wasteland that is Los Angeles, 2029, post-Judgment Day. The plan is to head for SkyNet and take out the core, destroying it forever. They've got the T-1000 on their tail, huge "Hunter-Killer" flying gunships overhead, these new mini Hunter-Killers buzzing around like aluminum death-gnats, and there's even another old-school Terminator thrown in for good measure. Mix that all up and you've got an action sequence that never slows down. Pulsing laser fire and massive balls of flame explode before our eyes as in-theater wind, smoke and light effects draw us right into the spectacle. One particularly cool effect: as a Terminator gets "disassembled" in a fiery cataclysm, we watch from above as its steel skull rises towards us, crackling with electrical sparks in a final death grimace.

Against all odds, they arrive at SkyNet, one scary-looking place. Once inside, they hop on board an elevator to sink into the core. The side walls of the theater rise and our seats rumble as we descend with them. Now the image fills the three screens, practically wrapping around the entire audience. You can feel the tremor of communal excitement rippling everywhere.

Once they reach the core, all they have to do is toss a little boom-boom into the room and split. But SkyNet has something waiting for them: the T-1,000,000.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys, and girls, you may never see a more effective 3-D sequence than the jaw-dropping climax you witness here. What seems to be a 30-foot-tall static metal form slowly begins to move. As our heros race to plant the explosives, the metal warps into a monstrous, gleaming spider, bristling with dagger-sharp appendages. When that roaring beast starts stomping around and reaching off the screen, jabbing its spiky tentacles right towards your eyes, I defy you not to lean away. At the last second, the explosives detonate, our seats shudder and a billowing cloud of smoke fills the theater.

It's beyond awesome.

I've had the pleasure of experiencing T2: 3-D on many occasions and at the end of every show, the audience clapped and cheered with unrestrainted enthusiasm; standing ovations are not uncommon. The Hollywood Studios property now has its own version of T2: 3-D, where it's proven to be as just as popular, and Universal is installing a third version at its park now under construction in Osaka, Japan.

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And what could be cooler than all this? Well, I'll tell ya: a fourth feature-length Terminator film is in development.

To which I can only reply: "WE ARE NOT WORTHY! WE ARE NOT WORTHY!"

All photos on this page courtesy of Universal Studios, unless indicated otherwise

 

 

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© Robert Coker.
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