The spy story has infiltrated every medium, but rarely do audiences see covert agents slip onto a spotlit stage. That’s not to blame playwrights; with all due respect to the hit Broadway version of The 39 Steps, a farcical rewiring of both an early-20th-century espionage novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s own 1935 man-on-the-run adaptation, the theater doesn’t exactly demand the stealth and physical brutality required of 00-agents. And as we know, Cirque du Soleil is firmly on team Avatar, so those acrobats haven’t been any help telling spy sagas on stage.
Polygon is diving into the world of espionage throughout fiction and pop culture history with Deep Cover, a two-week special issue covering all sorts of spy stories and gadgets.
This is what makes The Bourne Stuntacular such a revelation. Flying somewhat under the radar at Universal Studios in Orlando — the attraction was set to launch pre-pandemic and eventually popped up in the fog of June 2020 when parks began to reopen — the stunt show adapts the visceral thrills of the Jason Bourne movies through a melding of technology and practical effects that’s performed eight times a day. Even compared to legendary shows like Disney’s Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular and the Waterworld Stunt Show, there’s nothing quite like it. And that was the goal from the very beginning, when park creatives began poring through the Universal license library looking for inspiration for a new show.
“We wanted to do a little more than what traditional stunt shows were,” Deborah Buynak, senior vice president at Universal Orlando Resort, tells Polygon. “We wanted to be able to travel to different locations. When doing stunts, you’re usually locked into the architecture and the scenery of a set. Whereas if we were moving to different locations, once we can change up that architecture, there’s so much you can do. It’s not the same fistfight over and over again. It involves travel, it involves different buildings that you can swing off, jump off, and have different types of fights going on.”
Like the shaky-cam legacy of the Bourne movies, the Stuntacular needed to deliver hard-hitting verisimilitude at a global scale, in a package that was full of spycraft mumbo jumbo. Even for a theme-park stage show, that started with a story, which, according to Buynak, emerged through constant back and forth between writers, action designers, and technicians who brought years of stage R&D to the fold. Bourne film producer and Steven Spielberg confidante Frank Marshall assisted in the development of the Stuntacular, allowing the creative team to lift and remix elements from the original movies.
The Stuntacular really begins before the show starts. Guests in queue are first ushered into a large standing room area dominated by a large screen that sets up the “story” of The Bourne Stuntacular. On screen is actor Julia Stiles, reprising her role as Nicky Parsons, a former logistics coordinator for Bourne’s former employers and currently one of Bourne’s few allies, who congratulates the guests on their recruitment as part of the CIA’s “situation analysis team.” Parsons gives a quick overview of Bourne’s backstory from the movies before getting to the point: Bourne is on the run (again), and it’s up to the guests assembled to monitor his movements and figure out why. To do this, the guests are ushered into an “observation room” (ie. theater) to observe Bourne’s actions “in real-time” using “enhanced virtual surveillance” technology (i.e. the Stuntacular show).
As Buynak puts it, there is no linear path to creating a show like the Stuntacular, in which so many elements need to coalesce. Like in a film, all the elements — practical effects, stunt work, set builds, video shoots — were outsourced to various companies then funneled together in a warehouse in Los Angeles where the creative team could rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. And from the very beginning there was a variable, there was an X factor to making it all work, or rather a question that would help the show level up: How could the Stuntacular feel more immersive?
“We knew that we wanted to change viewpoints, like you were watching a movie,” Buynak says of the question that popped up early. “But if we move the camera point of view, could we also move the point of view from the audience of this practical set, that’s going to sit in front of a screen? A screen could help us take us to these different locations.”
The big twist of the Stuntacular is that instead of a static backdrop, Bourne’s new adventure plays out in front of a giant 3,640-square-foot screen. At 130-feet wide and 28-feet tall, it’s one of the largest structures ever built for a Universal show and takes advantage of technology that is hush-hush. When I ask if the tech is comparable to Industrial Light & Magic’s Stagecraft tech, used in tandem with the Unreal Engine to create digital filmable backdrops on recent projects like The Mandalorian, Buynak simply grins and “similar to all that.” However it’s truly done, what’s obvious is that the digital backdrop takes the action off the rails. And watching the show, you feel it.
Here’s a taste: The Stuntacular opens with a scene of Bourne earning a living as an underground prize fighter in Tangier, Morocco before being tipped off by CIA agent Andrea Dixon that the agency has traced his location and dispatched assets to neutralize him. Bourne eludes his would-be assailants, averting gunfire and climbing over rooftops and hanging off of ledges before sneaking away. The scene shifts to Bourne infiltrating the Security of Defense’s house, wherein Bourne dispatches with a Black Ops team before leading a cop car on a high-speed chase through downtown Washington, D.C., eluding his would-be captors once again. Ducking into an industrial building, Bourne fights off a team of security guards before riding an elevator to the upper levels of the facility, dodging gunfire and eventually escaping.
The show then jumps to Dubai, wherein Bourne is seen fighting a would-be assassin, drowning them in a nearby pool before throwing them off the ledge of a skyscraper. From there, he spars with a sniper dangling by a wire from the helicopter as it bobs and weaves between skyscrapers and a nearby oil rig, then lands on a moving sports car, whose driver fires on the car’s tires. We won’t spoil the end, but more things go boom.
The Bourne Stuntacular is a genuinely stunning experience. Sean Lyle, who portrayed Jason Bourne on one sunny afternoon earlier this spring, steps on stage as a character defined on-screen by Matt Damon, and finds his own take on every fist fight, shootout, death-defying escape and thrilling chase sequence — it’s a legit performance. But the screen is the real star of the show: convincing visual effects technology combined with inventive physical setpieces and cleverly timed pyrotechnics combine to create a cohesive experience.
Part of this is just the unfathomable amount of work going into every second of the live performance. On top of the digital backgrounds, the team at Universal employs a projection mapping system that allows another layer of effects to drape over the action, requiring actors to hit precise marks, sometimes with vehicle props. It takes 13 technicians manning 70 “enable buttons” for all the effects and cues in the Stuntacular to be pulled off with maximum safety.
But brutality is still key. Buynak says the Universal team worked with Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum stunt coordinator Jeff Imada to create continuity in the fight styles and parkour moves of the franchise. The really, really hard part of doing so had nothing to do with making contact, but slowing down the action. In the D.C. sequence, a cop car (completely digital) pursues Bourne (real actor), who hightails it on a motorcycle (real prop) before leaping to safety on a lamp post (real lamp post). The drama then downshifts speed, as the street backdrop curves along a Z-axis to reveal a different vantage point. Mind you, the actor is flipping in slow motion.
“What it takes for the performers to maintain that slow motion,” Buynak says, “while using the strength of their body to hang, lift, and spin off the light post — that is almost more difficult for them than going full speed because they’re fighting against their own muscles and their own body to hold themselves in a slower state of movement than if they were to just let momentum swing them.”
The IMAX-worthy spectacle of the Stuntacular is only rivaled by the unlimited possibilities of the technology and stunt manpower that brings it to life each day. And like anything empowered by digital tech, it seems ripe for an evolution. While Buynak says there are no plans to change the Stuntacular in the immediate future — in post-pandemic time, the show they’ve toiled over is just finding audiences for the first time, even three years later — but could the show get a sequel? Or would we call it a remaster?
“All those things you talked about, does it make it possible?” Buynak says. “Absolutely.”