Thursday, May 20, 2004

Sombrero Grande at MIB: Alien Attack

Men In Black: Alien Attack is out of this world
Sombrero Grande went to Universal Studios Florida and all I got was this lousy review

Theme park review by Sombrero Grande

Last weekend I managed to wing my way down to Orlando, Florida. The last time I was there, a little over ten years ago, I took in Walt Disney World, so I figured this time this movie/theme park nut should stop in to see the parks of Universal.

For a California-boy like me who’s quite familiar with Universal Studios Hollywood, many various attractions at Universal Studios Florida were little more than deja-vu. Universal Orlando doesn’t have a studio tram tour, because there really isn’t much of a “studio” there at all; with no backlot there really isn’t any reason for it. Instead, many of the little “attractions” that pepper Hollywood’s tram tour show up as separate rides in Orlando. Earthquake: The Big One is nearly identical to the Earthquake experience in Hollywood, except that before you board your subway train bound for the collapsing set there are a few brief “shows” that demonstrate how movie effects are done. If you’ve been to Hollywood, you can easily skip this one.

Jaws takes the experience up a few notches from its Hollywood counterpart. Park guests board tour boats for a trip around the infamous Amity Island with a live guide at the helm. The ride begins peacefully enough passing by several waterfront residences. I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but the fact that there are no people and no movement around these quaint houses--just the sound of chirping birds in the distance--creates an oddly disquieting feeling. The boat makes a turn around a lighthouse (on the other side of the water is a small church with a prominent graveyard--a nice, subtle bit of foreboding staging for this turn in the ride) and suddenly the demeanor of the boat’s live guide dramatically changes. We see the boat in front of us sinking into the water, torn apart, pieces everywhere, with no one to be seen. Of course we know right away who’s responsible for this and his telltale fin is soon seen circling our vessel. The ride makes its way through three more, distinct areas before concluding, making it a nice upgrade from the Hollywood version. Being “in the water” nicely heightens the sense of danger this time around instead of just sitting in a tram adjacent to it.

There are several other stand-alone Hollywood attractions which can be found in nearly identical form in Orlando, like Back to the Future: The Ride, Shrek 4-D and the E.T. Adventure (which is no longer at Universal Hollywood). There are also a few unique attractions. Twister: Ride It Out is one of these and is essentially a live special effects demonstration along the same lines as the Backdraft show in Hollywood (in Twister: Ride It Out you stand in a room and a tornado is created in front of you). I can see why Twister was a better pick for the Orlando park than Backdraft because who’d want to go from the humid heat of central Florida into a room filled with blazing fireballs? Wind and rain sounds much more pleasant. While there’s some very nice theming in the waiting area, the attraction itself was rather disappointing to me. Despite standing in the front, closest to the action, I never felt especially thrilled. There were a few minor mechanical effects during the show but mostly it’s just a lot of wind with some sprinklings of water. I have to say the Backdraft show is more exciting (though between the two films, Twister is the better one--take THAT, Ron Howard!)

But there is another attraction unique to Universal Studios Florida that is so much fun that it, alone, could demand I take another trip across the country to experience it again and again. Ladies and gentlemen and resident extraterrestrial life forms, I give you Men In Black: Alien Attack.

Looming over the farthest corner of the park, the Men In Black: Alien Attack show building resembles the look of a 1960s-era World’s Fair structure. This is part of the genius of this attraction. Upon immediately entering the building, guests find themselves in the waiting area for a show called “The Universe and You”. A sign on the wall indicates that the show will begin in 5 minutes and a cheery tune plays, reminiscent of something you might have heard in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland circa the mid-‘60s. In fact, the various World Expo attraction posters in the outdoor queue spoof the style of the old Disneyland attraction posters from the ‘50s and ‘60s (oddly enough making them the second instance of mimicking such Disney posters at Universal Studios Florida--the other attraction that does so is Shrek 4-D). The effect of this is that, for me at least, the posters have a vague familiarity to them, as if I’d seen them before somewhere, aiding to cement the idea that “The Universe and You” is a real show from the 1964 World Expo that has been transplanted (much like several Disneyland attractions were from the 1964 World’s Fair) at the theme park. The people who scripted this ride are obviously theme park nuts like me so before anyone else would have figured the attraction had begun yet I was already enjoying the clever inside jokes.

What happens next is a fun surprise, which caught me a little off guard even though I was expecting it. I won’t go into details, but the “Universe and You” show is just a cover for the entrance to a secret MIB training grounds. Agent Zed (Rip Torn) apologizes via loudspeaker to us for the “theme park nonsense” as we step into an elevator and plunge deep underground. The line winds through familiar sets, hallways right out of the movie, the MIB command center and even the break room complete with the skinny worm-like aliens!

It seems that the MIB search for the “best of the best of the best” now includes screening Orlando tourists as we’re strapped into 6-person vehicles and each given an alien-zapping laser gun. The ride is like a giant ride-through shooting gallery, an elaborate live video game, complete with your tabulated score at the end. Right in the middle of your standard training session, very similar to the one in the movie full of wooden alien cut-outs, a real alien spacecraft crash-lands just a short distance away. It’s a prison ship and the alien inmates are escaping into the streets of New York. The MIB needs all the help it can get what with the plethora of “bad guys” suddenly popping out everywhere, so we trainees get a sudden battlefield promotion and are sent in to help. From this point on the ride is mind-bogglingly full of detail--and aliens--so there isn’t really any time to enjoy the scenery, just scan it for bad guys to shoot. And they’re everywhere! I rode Men In Black: Alien Attack 8 times--yep, that’s how much I loved this ride, and a sign of how addictive it is--and I’m sure I never got close to finding all the targets in the ride. Aliens of all shapes, sizes and imaginative visage are literally popping out of everywhere. Even the riders in the opposing vehicle (with whom you’re competing for the best score) turn out to be aliens at one point and you have to shoot them! If your car gets shot, either by aliens or the other vehicle, you’ll spin out, making it very difficult to get a bead on any targets.

At the end of the ride each car gets a score and depending on how well you did different things will happen. Agent J (Will Smith) shows up to rate your performance in an often quite funny video recording. If your score was average, a John Madden-like alien will tell you to do better next time, but if you did quite well you’ll instead see a different alien tailoring the last suit you’ll ever wear who tells you it’ll be ready next Wednesday.

If I have a nit-pick with this ride it’s that right after your car is swallowed by the giant bug, a curtain rises and you find yourself back at MIB where your performance is rated. Huh? It gives the impression that maybe the entire “alien attack” was fake and merely a more involved training session. I’m not sure if that’s what the ride designers intended, but that’s how it comes across.

Around the last turn, just so there aren’t a bunch of Florida tourists running around knowing about all this MIB stuff, J flashes you with the MIB memory eraser and you disembark through what appears to be the “Universe and You” attraction exit. Perhaps that’s why I rode Men In Black: Alien Attack as many times as I did--every time it ended I thought to myself, “hey, I should go on the Men In Black ride!” The only telltale sign left of what’s really going on behind the “Universe and You” false-front is the shadow of one of the worm aliens audibly complaining from a control booth.

I haven’t enjoyed a theme park ride this much since the Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland opened in the mid-‘90s. Never before had the world of Men In Black appealed to me much, but Men In Black: Alien Attack made a fan out of me--at least for that day. I found myself swaggering along to Danny Elfman’s score as if I were an ultra-cool, alien-busting secret agent as I strolled through the line for the umpteenth time, the employees recognizing me and rolling their eyes. The best theme park rides are truly immersive experiences, and how much more immersive can you get than that? While I found Universal Studios Florida to be an above average theme park, it’s this truly standout attraction (which, in my opinion, alone is worth the price of admission) that makes the park a must-see.


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