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T-2: 3D, Universal's new attraction based on 'Terminator' films, combines live-action with a short 3-D movie.

May 06, 1999|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine sitting in a dark movie theater watching a giant metal spider closing in for the kill--and then, all of a sudden, it bursts into a million pieces, shrapnel flying not just across the screen but also out of it. You duck, you flinch, your hands jump to shield your eyes from the flaming spider parts speeding toward you.

That's essentially the in-your-face experience of Terminator 2: 3D, the newest attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood. Officially opening today, it's two parts 3-D film and one part live action, with stuntmen popping out of the screen in a sleight-of-sight blur between fantasy and reality.

The 3-D film, which has been playing at Universal's Florida park for the past three years, is impressive. It's a 12-minute taste of a 70mm feature-quality production, with convincing special effects and the original cast from the "Terminator" films, including Arnold Schwarzenegger. The live-action stunts add a few bangs, though at times the stage show feels a little hokey.

The $65-million attraction, designed by director James Cameron, picks up right where "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" left off. Machines have taken over the world and are threatening to stamp out human existence. Patrons take a "tour" of Cyberdyne Systems, the evil machine-making company, and are soon flung into a harrowing glimpse of a future apocalypse.

The experience starts in the lobby of Cyberdyne's headquarters, a futuristic, stainless steel structure custom built for the ride. There guests watch a spoof corporate video. Right when the video turns to Skynet, a robot-controlled military system that is threatening the world, Terminator characters Sarah and John Connor interrupt the program and urge guests to get out of the building.

The video monitors then cut out--the "pre-show" ends--and doors swing open for guests to step into a cavernous 700-seat theater. The whole ride lasts 20 minutes, but almost half of that is the "pre-show," a clever way to keep people entertained while waiting for the real fireworks (similar to the pre-show for Universal's Back to the Future ride).

Visitors barely have time to sink into their seats when the shoot-'em-up action starts. A stuntman dressed like Schwarzenegger's "Terminator" character zooms on stage on a motorcycle and guns down mechanical enemies at will. Some of the bad guys are blown away at point-blank range.

Parents should note that the noisy carnage may be upsetting for preteens. Universal maintains that the ride is suitable for ages 8 and older; it has posted signs outside advising guests of its intense nature. Officials say that there haven't been any complaints about the violence thus far and that realistic battle scenes are part of the ride's thrills.

"By design, we try to be a little bit edgy," said Bob Brisco, president of Universal Studios Hollywood. "Disney really owns kids 6 and under. For kids older than that, we're a favorite destination."

But the attraction's primary appeal isn't the staged gunplay but the 3-D movie. It opens when the bike chugs offstage and Schwarzenegger materializes, in all three dimensions, on the big screen. Actually, it's three big screens, spanning 25 feet high and 165 feet across. The Terminator and John Connor race to destroy Skynet, fighting all sorts of robotic miscreants.

Patrons sit in their seats to watch. Unlike the Back to the Future ride, T-2: 3D is not a simulator. Except for one drop, which isn't very fooling, the seats stay still like a conventional theater.

The best 3-D is when the two square off with a Mini-Hunter, a tiny flying saucer that looks like a hubcap with red, beady eyes and a gun. The Mini-Hunter banks left, then right, then seemingly leaps out of the screen to hover right in front of the viewers' eyes. You want to smack it away from you. Arnold does that a few seconds later.

Cameron, who directed both "Terminator" and "T-2," went to great lengths to ensure the 3-D thrills wouldn't cause headaches. For example, after the Mini-Hunter appears in full 3-D, it recedes back into normal perspective. Not cutting shots while an object is in 3-D is easier on the eyes, said effects guru John Bruno, who co-directed the film with Cameron and monster creator Stan Winston.

Cameron's team also became the first to shoot a 3-D film like an action film by moving the camera during chase sequences. This was no small feat, considering that a dual-lens 3-D camera is as big as a refrigerator. The lenses on a 3-D camera are 2 1/2 inches apart, the same distance between the eyes. The 3-D effect is created when the film is projected by two projectors on the same screen. The 3-D glasses, handed to guests as they enter Cyberdyne's lobby, are coated so that each eye sees only the image from the corresponding projector, which creates the illusion of depth.

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