ELECTROSHADOW FIELD TRIP NO.1
Singapore always gets the good stuff.
When I first heard about Universal Studios opening up across the causeway, I took the news with a mixture of excitement and mild annoyance. The lifelong movie geek in me (not to mention my inner 5-year-old) was pretty stoked that a Hollywood-based theme park would be so close to our shores. The true-blue Malaysian in me however, wasn’t too crazy about the “so close” part. My patriotic pride grumbled, “It should be on OUR shores, dammit!” Especially considering the fact that Resorts World, the company behind it is Malaysian in origin.
But the cold, hard truth is that an undertaking as massive as this could only have been pulled off in Singapore. The reason our neighbours down South always get the good stuff is because they know how to manage and promote something successfully. After all, we’re talking about a nation renowned for their clockwork efficiency. And running such a technically and logistically complex amusement park requires military-level coordination. Based on what I experienced during my recent visit, that reputation remains intact. With a few minor (albeit forgivable) hiccups.
The first thing any visitor to the island state will probably notice is how clean the whole country is. Maybe a bit too clean. It’s like you’ve entered The Matrix, in one of its early simulations of reality where the machines programmed the world to be pristine and perfect. Stepping into Universal Studios Singapore (USS) immediately gives you that same sensation. Everything looks and feels brand new. It’s not because the park opened just last year either. Trust me, if it were in Malaysia, you’d have litter lining the sidewalks, toilets in shitty (haha) condition, and stuff already starting to show signs of substandard build quality and/or abuse. So I’ll take a slight whiff of artificiality over shoddy presentation any day.
Occupying nearly 50 acres of land on Sentosa Island, USS is comprised of seven zones: Hollywood, New York, Sci-Fi City, Ancient Egypt, The Lost World, Far Far Away, and Madagascar. Even before we arrived, I’d already mapped out the place in my head, with an idea of which attractions to go for and which ones to skip. So we wouldn’t waste any time. Anyone who’s ever been to a crowded theme park will tell you time is a precious commodity.
Photo ops with Ms. Monroe do not include upskirt shots.
Past the giant rotating Universal globe at the entrance, we were greeted by the sight of Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe roaming the sidewalks. We had just entered old-world Hollywood. Or at least a fairly convincing approximation of it. I must say the talents were quite well cast. Chaplin had the mannerisms down pat — penguin waddle, cane twirl and all, while Monroe had that requisite breathy flirtatiousness. I waited for her skirt to go flying up but alas, no convenient gust of wind came to bring that scene from “The Seven Year Itch” to life.
Further down the street, Frankenstein’s monster was busy scaring the crap out of visitors with the old grab-em-from-behind routine. Parked along the kerb were an assortment of vintage vehicles, from an “American Graffiti”-inspired hot rod to the kind of cop car you might see in “Dragnet”. All that was missing was a bunch of greasers. There was however, a trio of singing waitresses dubbed Mel’s Dinettes. They did an impromptu dance to a breezy doo-wop number. My dad would’ve totally dug this.
The city block segued into a more contemporary appearance, signaling our entry into the New York zone. Interestingly, the landmark USS chose to depict Gotham wasn’t Times Square or the Metropolitan Museum, but the New York Public Library. Good call I say, as the building evokes just as many cinematic moments. Like the Ghostbusters running helter-skelter down its steps after a spooky encounter.
This being Singapore, these cars probably got issued a fine for exceeding the vehicular age limit.
An usher emerged from an alley on the left and announced the next showtime for NYC’s main attraction: “Lights Camera Action! Hosted By Steven Spielberg”. Once we were herded inside a large warehouse, a prerecorded clip featuring The Bearded One played on a big screen. He told us we would be witnessing first-hand the technical trickery that goes into the making of a hurricane disaster scene. At first, I thought that meant they’d be showing us a step-by-step demonstration of how to create practical special effects on set. An exciting prospect in theory, but not in real life. I’ve spent a lot of time on film shoots throughout my career and let me tell you, they’re deathly boring. Effects scenes take ages to prepare, with a lot of people standing around discussing stuff or walking around moving stuff. Generally, there’s nothing to see if you’re a passive observer.
Fortunately, Spielberg didn’t actually mean he’d be giving us an exact recreation of an on-set shoot. The show is really just a combination of mechanically-controlled props, pyrotechnics, wind and sound effects, with a couple of shock-the-audience gimmicks like water splashes thrown in. While cute, it’s certainly not an accurate representation of the filmmaking process. It would’ve been far more enlightening (and relevant) if the show had incorporated an explanation of how things like explosions or stunts are conceived and executed. I left the set partially drenched and with my enthusiasm a tiny bit dampened. Hopefully, the next attraction would be more satisfying.
On Altair IV, you have to be THIS long to get on the rides.
Around the corner, the architecture took a turn for the futuristic. We were now in Sci-Fi City. In a nearby window display, I spotted two classic robots from the Universal Pictures stable: Huey from “Silent Running” and Robby the Robot from “Forbidden Planet”. I doubt many visitors would recognise them, since they aren’t as iconic as say, C3PO or R2D2. Still, they managed to put a smile on this geek’s face.
All of a sudden, a group of kids ran past me, babbling excitedly. This could mean only one thing. We’d reached the star attraction of USS, “Transformers: The Ride”. My resentment for Michael Bay’s raping of my precious childhood property notwithstanding, I had to admit the buzz in the air was infectious. It was the one ride everyone was there to experience. And I mean everyone. The sign at the entrance said the waiting time would be approximately 15 minutes, but that turned out to be a gross underestimation. We were in line for a good 45 minutes! We could’ve gotten the Express Pass to bypass the crowds, but at an additional SG$50 each it’s only worth it if the entire park is crazy packed.
The upside is that Universal found a clever way to make queuing up less painful. The lanes were laid out within a building designed to look like NEST, the top-secret government base for the Autobots. At every turn, LCD screens on the walls played a constant stream of “briefing” videos, which explained that we, the audience, had been recruited in the war against the Decepticons. As valuable assets, we were to be transported to safety by the Autobot Evac (a new character created specially for the ride). It’s a nice way to involve the audience even before the ride begins, and further drum up anticipation for what’s to come.
Top: The Allspark Shard. Above: Scorponok’s tail. Out of shot: Ah Bengs complaining loudly in Hokkien.
At the head of the queue, we discovered part of the reason for the ridiculously long wait. Evac can only take 12 passengers at a time, and although there are four carriages at one go, that’s still a very small capacity for such an in-demand attraction. As I put on my 3D glasses, I muttered under my breath, “This better be better than the movies”.
All skepticism was swiftly erased. Evac took us on a wild, and sometimes literally breathtaking race through the city, all the while battling or evading a furious assault by the Decepticons. The cool aspect of this ride is that it seamlessly switches between actual sets and 3D screens, blurring our sensorial perceptions of reality. Too bad the 3D wasn’t 100% crisp, or the effect would’ve been even more startling. The best part came towards the end, in a violent showdown with Megatron. The big bad boss grabbed us, took us flying vertically up to the tops of the skyscrapers, then flung us face-first down towards the ground. As we went into a steep nosedive, my fellow passengers screamed in white-knuckle terror. And I was grinning like a mental patient. At the very last second, we were caught by none other than Bumblebee. Hooray! Evac then smashed the Allspark Shard he’d been protecting into Megatron’s chest (a rehash of the first film’s climax) and the villainous mechanoid collapsed in a pile of lifeless metal. People cheered.
The ride had one last delight as an encore of sorts. As we “drove” back to the start point in a tunnel beneath the city streets, we looked up to see an amazing sight. It was the mangled, life-sized corpse of Megatron, half-fallen through the broken pavement above. The light in his eyes slowly faded, but we were kinda expecting him to wake up and thwack someone. Sadly, he remained dead. I pointed at him and yelled “Haha! Megatron you LOSER!!” Everyone laughed… Not so much at what I’d said but more as an expression of exhilaration for what we’d just experienced. Those 3 intense minutes were lightyears better than all 3 of Bay’s rubbish movies put together.
Life-size models of Evac and Bumblebee. For SG$5, Megan Fox will do a bikini car wash. Make that RM5.
Now, what was the best way to follow up on such a high? Why, with a double rollercoaster ride, of course. We headed straight for the “Battlestar Galactica: Human Vs Cylon” ride, and discovered that there was absolutely zero queue for this. Presumably because most people do not fancy the possibility of reenacting that opening sequence from “Final Destination 3”. Good. We weren’t in the mood to line up again, no matter how good the ride. BG is billed as the world’s tallest dueling rollercoasters, which means there are two rides happening simultaneously on intertwining tracks. We tried the red-themed “Human” one first, and found it a little lacking. Honestly, I was bored about halfway through the ride, and started heckling the kid next to me. I hollered above the din, “Hey boy. Your seatbelt looks a bit loose, lah.” I doubt he heard me though. He was too busy throwing up in his mouth. LOL moment.
The blue-themed “Cylon” ride looked more promising. For one, your legs are suspended, and the track features upside-down and corkscrew loops. Y’know, like proper, self-respecting rollercoasters should. As we left the launch station, we saw the “Human” car pulling up alongside ours. I couldn’t resist going, “You’re all going to die.” A fellow smartass in that car shouted back “Look who’s talking. YOU’RE going to die!” I would’ve loved to carry on that witty debate, but the tracks quickly diverged, and sent us spiraling down into a mist-filled pit. A pretty nifty idea, I must say. On the whole, the BG rollercoaster was alright. A little tame for my tastes, though the blue one was fairly thrilling.
“Say, what’s that bolt doing there lying on the tra—aaaaaaarrrhhh!!!”
Cis bedebah! Raja Kala Jengking kembali daa!
The next zone took us way back in time, to Ancient Egypt. Being an avid student of Egyptology, I got a kick out of seeing recreations of the Valley of the Kings. Nevermind that the hieroglyphics on the walls were mostly gibberish. Rick O’Connell, the dashing hero from the “Mummy” franchise appeared beneath the giant Anubis statues for a photo op. He didn’t bear much resemblance to Brendan Fraser, instead reminding me of another actor: Ezra Miller (“We Need To Talk About Kevin”). Even more amusing was the distinctly Malay dude playing the Scorpion King. Then again, since Polynesians and Malays are ethnic kissing cousins, I doubt Dwayne Johnson would mind too much.
We entered the temple of Imhotep to check out “The Revenge Of The Mummy”. There was a short wait for this ride, with the lanes similarly built into the layout of the temple. The interesting aspect of this ride is that it takes place mostly in pitch darkness. A little too much darkness, if you ask me. At first, it’s quite scary as you can’t see where you’re going. Then, you’ll be wondering if they’re just being cheap. The few Boo! moments are effective — if you’re 8 years old, or have the constitution of Jell-O. I’d rate this just above those funfair ghosthouse rides, with the advantage of better production values. Skip it if you’re pressed for time.
With 3 more zones to cover, we decided to break for lunch. It was already close to 3pm and we were starving. We browsed a number of eateries, before settling for Mel’s Diner back at the Hollywood zone. I’m no fan of fast food, but the charming retro décor won me over. Would’ve been nice if the jukebox was functional, and manned by some George McFly-looking nerd. We wolfed down our American-ish burgers and fries, then proceeded to explore The Lost World.
Foot odour 65 million years in the making.
As we walked up to the oversized gates of “Jurassic Park”, John Williams’ awesome theme music soared in the background. Much as I wanted to discover what the “Jurassic Park Rapids Adventure” had to offer, I had no intention of getting drenched. So we opted to take a leisurely stroll in the area. The deliberate irony of the situation then struck me. We were in a theme park based on a movie about a theme park. Sweet. For those game enough to get wet in the river ride, USS had a solution. Step into a Drying Pod and you’re hit with a stream of warm air until you’re nice and toasty. Now this is one thoughtful amenity, and also pretty amusing to watch.
The other attraction in this zone is the Waterworld show. However, the next showing was in an hour’s time, so we went over to the Far Far Away zone for the “Shrek 4D Adventure” first. The line for this was a little longer than “The Mummy”, but I’d heard it was worth it. The show is a 3D short film, with added real-world elements (the so-called 4th dimension) to enhance the experience. For example, when onscreen spiders dropped onto the ground, we received a sudden tingle at our feet. Cheap gags, but fun nonetheless. I gotta say I giggled when Gingerbread Man spat at the screen and it translated into a face-full of water for us… courtesy of a hidden spray planted within the seat in front. William Castle would be proud. The 50s film director pioneered the art of theatrical gimmicks, like putting buzzers in seats.
The Royal Palace and Shrek’s humble abode. Like your average Singaporean luxury condo versus HDB flat.
After the Shrek show, we still had some time to kill, so we popped into the Madagascar zone for a while. This one is mainly for young children, so don’t expect anything too mindblowing. The penguins doing a live boogie session to “I Like To Move It (Move It)” did get the crowd — and me — clapping along, though.
It was drizzling by the time we got to the “Waterworld” amphitheatre, which was quite apt. The set was basically a vast pool done up to look like the weathered old atoll of the film. Although the house was packed, a large number of seats in the lower tiers were curiously vacant. This was the splash zone, which means… well, you get the picture. We chose the relative safety of the upper tiers.
As far as live stunt performances go, this was among the better ones I’d seen. The actors were clearly pros who could stage a fight scene as confidently as they could maneuver the jetskis and boats. Plus the guy who played the Kevin Costner role had way more hair than Costner himself. Talk about creative license. I noticed that the timing for some of their actions in relation to the explosions was a tad off, but that’s totally understandable. It’s tremendously hard to execute choreographed stunts to split-second timing. So, kudos to USS for pulling it off, day in, day out without anyone getting hurt. Or Costner-actor-guy’s wig falling off.
One of the above attractions was a complete washout.
What a shame then, that the last stop on our tour turned out to be such a dud. I thought “Monster Rock” would be a nice cap to the day’s activities. Watching the classic Universal monsters perform musical numbers a la Broadway could’ve been quite entertaining. Instead, it was the biggest WTF of the day. For one, the monsters had all been reinvented to give them a modern look. Dracula now sported a studded leather jacket with a crucifix emblazoned on his chest. Last time I checked, vampires tend to avoid wardrobe choices that could kill them. And Wolfman now looked more like Wolverine. But in a basketball uniform. Seriously. What’s worse were the song choices. They simply did not make any sense. Maybe I’m missing something here, but I don’t quite see the relevance of the Mummy singing Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative”. It’s either you keep the monsters to their classic look and have them sing modern pop songs, or contemporize them but keep the musical numbers old school. Updating both just kills any sort of context for the audience.
Okay, so that didn’t work. But it’s a testament to how well-run and (mostly) well-executed the entire theme park is, that this one blunder didn’t do anything to diminish my overall experience. The staff is attentive, knowledgeable and courteous, something the Malaysian hospitality & service industry really needs to learn from. All in all, Universal Studios Singapore is a resounding success and certainly a world-class tourist attraction. Singaporeans should be proud. Electroshadow’s official verdict is: USS is great fun, so go check it out!
Malaysia still has better food, though.
(PS: A big thank you to Electroshadow reader Maxine for the free passes! Love ya, babes!)