Whether you love the Transformers movies or you spend hours online composing detailed take-downs of its many perceived flaws, you’ve likely said the following words regarding them: “It was just like a theme park ride!” Well, starting Friday, you can experience first hand what a Transformers theme park ride is actually like, when the imaginatively titled Transformers the Ride 3-D officially opens to the public at Universal Studios Hollywood. I got a chance to preview the ride already, though, let me just spoil things for you right now (UNNECESSARY SPOILER ALERT): In every way that matters, riding the Transformers ride is exactly like watching a Transformers movie, but better.
Like many theme parks, the line is itself an attraction, a series of elaborately displayed Transformers props and video screens with various Autobots explaining the main plot. You’re at a base for the Transformers division of the military, i.e. NEST, that for some reason is housed in the middle of a major downtown urban center. (The visual effects team at Industrial Light & Magic used the streets of Chicago as their template.) Because the base is housing a shard of the mechanical, life-giving All Spark, it is under siege by Megatron and his Decepticon minions. So you and your fellow queueing strangers must don “protective” 3-D glasses, hop in an Autobot named EVAC, and escape the base with the All Spark. (For anyone trying to place this story within the Transformers movies — don’t. While the ride was created over the two years between 2009’s Revenge of the Fallen and 2011’s Dark of the Moon, it has its own unique storyline.)
Finally, the ride begins. EVAC zig-zags between a set made to look like bits of the base and the city beyond, but the action unfolds almost exclusively on a series of massive wrap-around projections screens, as various Decepticons try to take the All Spark from you, and various Autobots violently stop them. You crash through buildings, fly through the air, and even leap inside the Deception called Devastator. It barely makes any sense, but you’ll have too much fun dodging the flying glass and fired projectiles to care.
“When you go see a movie, even if you bring something forward in the screen, it’s always going to be cut off by the border of the screen,” explains Jeff White, one of the visual effects supervisors at ILM who’s worked on all three Transformers films as well as the new ride. “The ride was entirely new for us. The audience can’t see the edges of the screen, so we can bring our characters as far forward in 3-D as we wanted to.”
In effect, the ride is the perfect distillation of the Transformers experience: Giant robots fighting quite literally right in front of you, with little extraneous plot (and zero screaming Shia LaBeouf) to get in the way. The ride itself was mainly directed by Universal Studios’ exec Thierry Coup, but Michael Bay consulted on the project to be sure it had the right Transformers flair. “We were using the exact same crews from ILM that he used on his films,” says ride producer Chick Russell. “[Bay] reviewed the script, and he reviewed all the shots. He made adjustments in terms of the color and the way the characters were looking.” Bay even managed to slip in a little Easter Egg homage in the ride to…himself. “In the scene when we’re still inside NEST with Bumblebee inside a hangar, you can see the tail section of a plane in the distance,” says Russell. “It’s the tail of Michael Bay’s plane.” Does the plane suffer some awful, metal-crunching fate? “No,” says Russell with a laugh. “That plane is left perfectly intact. Not a scratch.”
To get a better sense of the visuals involved, check out this featurette from Universal Studios on the making of the ride: