Jet Skiers crisscross a turquoise lagoon, dodging explosions. As fireballs shoot skyward, a smoking airplane crashes into the water.
What is this? Reshoots for the video release of “Waterworld”?
No, it’s actually “WaterWorld--A Live Sea War Spectacular,” a new attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood. The 16-minute stunt show is the most elaborate live production in the theme park’s history. It is also the most expensive--which seems appropriate since the movie was the costliest ever made.
Universal has spent a reported $15 million to adapt the Kevin Costner film, which drew flak last summer for a budget that spiraled out of control because of logistical problems on the Hawaii set and conflicts between Costner and director Kevin Reynolds. The film eventually opened to mixed reviews.
Now Universal hopes its live version will score a big enough hit to deflect any unflattering comparisons.
“Forget that the film is good, bad or indifferent, we’re going to give the people something great,” said Ron Bension, chairman and chief executive officer of MCA Recreation Services, which operates the park. “We think this is as good as stunt shows get.”
The hilltop park began work on “WaterWorld” more than a year ago, before controversy beset Costner’s film. The movie cost a reported $200 million. As of Oct. 1, it had earned $85 million domestically and $92 million at the foreign box office. (Costner has not seen the attraction, but the film’s producers offered “conceptual input” during early planning.)
The stunt show looks like a bargain by comparison. It also cost less than high-tech rides such as the $60-million Back to the Future.
And the attraction features many of the same physical gags that composed Universal’s original cowboy show many years ago. Stuntmen still punch each other. They still fall from high places. But with its immense set and copious special effects, “WaterWorld” costs three to four times more than other live shows at the park.
Jet Skis and boats, made to resemble the film’s ramshackle war craft, fill the lagoon. Designers re-created the film’s dazzling effects at a fraction of the price. They also engineered stunts that can be repeated for up to 10 shows a day.
But artistic director Jim Timon wanted more. He thought about crashing a full-scale plane, with no tether attached, in front of the audience.
“We laughed and said, ‘Oh, it can’t be done,’ ” Timon recalled. “But then we went to the designers.”
Universal’s engineers assembled a catapult that could launch a craft with a 30-feet wingspan high over the set. The contraption is governed by computers and anemometers that instantly abort the stunt if gusts threaten to push the plane off course.
“What gets even more insane is that we put pyrotechnics on the plane,” said Norman Kahn, the project manager. “We control that explosion by radio frequency.”
The catapult worked so well that Universal built a smaller version to fling a Jet Ski as well.
With stunts in place, Universal built a rusted, sheet-metal facsimile of the film’s desolate atoll. The set is adorned with literally tons of props--barrels, nets, light fixtures and a phony shark carcass--all of it shipped from the “Waterworld” set in Hawaii.
Stunt men and women inhabit these environs, acting a story that loosely follows the film. An actress sails into the lagoon with news of the mythical “Dryland.” Rival “smokers” arrive soon after, attacking on Jet Skis and a boat equipped with a Gatling gun.
Dozens of pyrotechnics ignite as a 20-foot tower collapses into the water. When all seems lost, the Mariner appears. After much heroics and more fireworks, he repels the invaders.
Because all of Universal’s attractions are included in the admission price, it will be impossible to gauge if the show attracts enough visitors to justify the cost. Last summer, however, crowds often lingered outside to watch construction.
“A lot of people have seen ‘Waterworld’ and they come here with a certain level of expectation,” Timon said.
Universal now hopes to meet those expectations. The length of construction caused the show to open after peak season. Still, park executives are pleased with the result.
All the stunts and effects have taken shape as planned. They are choreographed as close to the audience as possible, close enough that guests feel the heat of explosions on their faces and breathe the acrid scent of smoke.
“This is not just a stunt show,” Bension explained. “It has got to look as bitchin’ as the movie.”
* “WaterWorld--A Live Sea War Spectacular” previews at unscheduled times daily this week and next. Regularly scheduled showings begin Oct. 21. Admission is $33 for adults, $25 for children ages 3-11, $27 for seniors 60 and over. Park hours: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Universal Studios Hollywood is located at 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City.