Sense of Wonder: King Kong stomps onto Universal Studios

This Tuesday, wearing my other hat – as proprietor of Hollywood Gothique, the website of Fantasy Films, Mystery Movies, Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in Los Angeles – I attended the press preview of the new “King Kong 360 3-D” attraction, which opens today at Universal Studios Hollywood. For those who don’t recall, Universal’s back lot was devastated by a fire two years ago that destroyed 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. The replacement Kong is a combination of 3-D projection and motion simulation modeled after the 2005 remake of KING KONG directed by Peter Jackson, who is given a “created by” credit for the new attraction.

Peter Jackson appeared via 3-D video clip

Peter Jackson appeared via 3-D video clip

Universal rolled out King Kong 360 3-D with a press event that featured celebrities walking the red carpet, studio executives expressing their pride at getting Kong back on the tour, and a 3-D video clip of Jackson himself, who explained his involvement by saying, because the KING KONG film does not lend itself to a sequel, he “was just thrilled to have an excuse to go back and have a bit more fun with King Kong.”

Fun is the operative word. I was not a big fan of Jackson’s KING KONG (reviewed here), which was like watching a rough draft of a concept, in which each and every idea is included, whether or not they gel, and I found the special effects set pieces like the dinosaur stampede and especially the Kong-Tyrannosaurs battle (dangling from vines in a chasm) to be laughably absurd. Fortunately, this kind of excess, which works to the detriment of a narrative film, is perfectly tuned for a theme park ride, where visceral impact outweighs any credibility concerns. King Kong 360 3-D is one wild ride.

However, potential visitors should consider that, unlike Universal’s TERMINATOR 2 3-D, or any of the motion-simulation rides that have graced the theme park of the years (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 seen the tour through the back 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.

The crushed tram does not bode well for your chances on Skull Island.

The crushed tram does not bode well for your chances on Skull Island.

After passing a smashed and smoking tram – a sign of the dangers to come – you enter a tunnel leading to Skull Island. Inside, images of dense foliage give way to raptors that appear to chase the tram – until they are interrupted by hungry T-Rexes, bring the tour 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 visual 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 – 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 tram takes visitors into the jungles of Skull Island.

The tram takes visitors into the jungles of Skull Island.

The computer-generated visual effects are well rendered, and the 3-D is also nicely done. (You are told when to put on the requisite 3-D glasses, handed out as you board the tram.) 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 your entire field of vision) are not quite perfectly bright and clear. Also, the 3-D illusion is ever so slightly marred by the fact that, depending on your seat in 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 them 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 old King Kong, destroyed in the 2008 fire

The old King Kong, destroyed in the 2008 fire

The experience is 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 back lot. Just remember that, despite the ballyhoo, this is not a stand-alone attraction. However, if you are considering a trip to Universal’s’ theme park, it is definitely worth the wait in line to take the back lot tour. You will not be disappointed.

Celebrities who attended the debut included Christopher Lloyd (BACK TO THE FUTURE), Mark Pelligrino (LOST), and Thomas Kretschmann (the 2005 KING KONG) and Jack O’Halloran (the 1976 KING KONG).

Christopher Lloyd Mark Pelligrino (LOST) Thomas Kretschmann (from KING KONG 2005) and Jack O'Halloran (from KING KONG 1976)

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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