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Scaring Up Fun and Fears

Universal Unveils 3D Attraction Amid Concerns Over Violence

May 07, 1999|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNIVERSAL CITY — Sophie Johnson came all the way from Nottingham, England, only to be scared witless by the "Terminator."

The 8-year-old with hearts on her sandals and a face full of freckles emerged from "Terminator 2: 3D," which opened Thursday at Universal Studios, squeezing her father's hand, ready to cry.

"It was horrible, Mummy," Sophie told her mother, who was waiting at the attraction's exit. "That thing blew up in my face and felt like it was going to hurt me. There was so much shooting."

The Johnsons were among the throng of families drawn to Universal's theme park for the opening of the attraction, which blends a three-dimensional movie with a live stunt show.

Before entering, the Johnsons asked a park attendant whether the attraction is appropriate for Sophie and her 3-year-old sister. The attendant told them that it wasn't scary and to park the 3-year-old's stroller at the gate, the family said.

But after watching scenes of point-blank shotgun killings, thundering explosions and an actress getting choked on stage, the Johnsons left regretting they had listened to the attendant's advice.

"T-2" is opening 2 1/2 weeks after the school shooting in Littleton, Colo., and amid heightened concerns over violent images in entertainment.

But Universal executives say the $65-million attraction is not too violent for most guests, though they concede it may be inappropriate for children under age 8.

Nevertheless, attendants Thursday encouraged parents to take toddlers into the attraction, and gave directions on where to park their strollers.

Also, there were no signs posted Thursday advising parental guidance, though Universal said the signs were posted before and will return.

Universal executives said they are sensitive to the post-Littleton climate, and as a result are reevaluating the tone of the Terminator radio advertising campaign, aired earlier this spring, before it resumes.

"We want to be responsible here," said Eliot Sekuler, spokesman for the theme park. "We are cognizant of the atmosphere in which we are marketing and may change the ads this summer."

Make no mistake about it: T-2: 3D is no more violent or intense than the typical big-budget action movie. It is essentially a continuation of the "Terminator" films, featuring the same cast, including Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The attraction begins in the lobby of evil Cyberdyne Corp., which is trying to take over the world with machines. After a short "pre-show" video, guests slip on 3D glasses and are ushered into a 700-seat theater. There they watch a choreographed show that blends stunning 3D effects on film with shoot-'em-up action sequences on stage.

Many people came out of the show dazzled, saying the 3D effects were the best they had ever seen. Teenagers, especially, liked the action sequences in the film, directed by James Cameron.

Some parents said T-2: 3D was fine for their kids.

"It may be a little loud, but it wasn't too violent," said Sal Gomez, of La Puente, who took his 3-year-old daughter through the attraction.

But others, such as the Johnsons, said the attraction was too violent.

Chris Sommers of Salt Lake City didn't appreciate the part of the film when Schwarzenegger sticks a shotgun in an pursuer's face and blows his head off.

"My son grabbed my hand and wouldn't let go," he said.

Child psychologists say children are impressionable to images of violence and can copy what they see in the movies. After the Colorado campus shooting, which left 15 dead, many pundits were quick to lay blame on stylized images of violence in popular entertainment.

This week, the U.S. Senate's Commerce Committee held hearings on violence in the media.

Myron Dembo, an educational psychologist at USC, suggests parents use a three-step process when considering questionable content.

First, Dembo says, parents should learn about the movie, game, attraction, TV show or recording before they allow their children to experience it. Secondly, they should gauge from previous exposure how the child will react. And thirdly, if parents are going to expose the child to violence, they need to discuss it with the child afterward.

"If your child watches a shootout, you need to ask questions like, 'Do you think the person would get up if that was a real gun?' " he said.

Most kids filing out the exit of T-2: 3D seemed aware of the difference between staged gunplay and the real thing.

"Shooting people is a bad thing and you could go to jail real easily," said 9-year-old Mitch Sommers.

Violence in theme park attractions has not come up in the post-Littleton discussions on the media's role in glamorizing violence.

But theme parks have an even higher responsibility than movies or music to be sensitive to children because they are designed to be fun, safe places for families, said Judy Marlane, chairwoman of the radio-TV-film department at Cal State Northridge.

"It behooves anybody who is making an attraction to assess the level of violence and think of the ramifications," Marlane said.

Universal is mindful of the impact its attractions have on children, said Bob Brisco, president of Universal Studios Hollywood.

"We look at everything we do with an eye toward families," Brisco said. "We think T-2 is extremely safe and entertaining and unmistakably science fiction set in a futuristic world."

The new attraction is a copy of a nearly identical T-2: 3D at Universal Studios Florida. Brisco says that ride has not drawn any criticism in the three years since it opened.

Brisco also said he did not get any complaints about violence from people who tested T-2: 3D here before it opened.

That didn't mean much to the Johnsons.

As Janice Johnson stepped out from the attraction's awning into the glare of the sun, the squint on her face couldn't hide how upset she was. The family was headed to the E.T. ride, with glum Sophie trailing behind.

"I don't understand it," Janice Johnson said. "Shooting off someone else's head is not my idea of entertainment."

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