TRON: Legacy

>> Saturday, December 18, 2010

I'm not sure how often it is you go to a movie and it's exactly what you expected--no better and no worse, exactly as good and exactly as bad as you went in thinking it would be, hitting exactly the notes you thought it would and delivering the precise elements you came in for. A movie might be close, but I'm not sure how often it just hits right where it ought to, rising no higher and sinking no lower--

So that's TRON: Legacy in a nutshell, at least for me.

I went with a group of friends last night; we saw it in IMAX 3D and I recommend seeing it that way. Legacy is the kind of movie that just demands that, and if you're planning on seeing it, or you decide to go, go ahead and fork out the extra bucks for the IMAX digital sound and the pretty 3D visuals, which are as good as I've seen so far. (Bear in mind, I still haven't seen Avatar, evidently the gold standard of the format.) And, like I said, I got exactly what I paid for and was quite happy for it; pleased, even.

I guess to explain what I expected, you have to go back to TRON, one of Disney's ill-fated attempts in the early-'80s to try to reach out to more mature audiences with a series of PG-rated, bigger-budget, live-action features, a break from Disney's usual fare of G-rated mostly-big-budget animated films and low-budget live-action movies like the Herbie Franchise.1

TRON wasn't actually a very good film. If you're reading this, you probably recall the plot, and you may very well remember some of the things that were wrong with the thing as a concept. In short, a computer programmer, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) tries to prove some software he wrote was stolen by the nefarious Ed Dillinger (David Warner), and so breaks into his old company, ENCOM, and tries to hack into one of the terminals there in search of evidence, but instead is shot in the back by a laser operated by the company's evil Master Control Program (MCP), originally a piece of chess(!!) software written by Dillinger that has somehow become a malevolent AI; the laser, anyway, somehow scans Flynn into ENCOM's computer system, where he finds himself in a virtual world in which programs (played by the same actors who play the characters who wrote them) live in fear of the MCP's tyranny and are forced to play video games against each other--to the death, or "derezzing" as it's known on The Grid.

Unfortunately, all of that plays out pretty much the way it sounds, despite some heroic attempts to salvage things by Bridges and his costar Bruce Boxleitner (who plays the titular TRON on The Grid and Flynn's friend, Alan Bradley, back home in Kansas) and yet another wonderfully villainous turn by the ever-game Warner. And yet the film is a cult classic, perhaps even a classic classic. Why?

For starters, TRON was one of the first movies to feature quite a lot of CGI, and as quaint as it looks in retrospect, it remains pretty badass and dream-haunting. For another thing, along with the CGI went a particularly distinctive and unforgettable look. And, for a third, TRON was one of those movies that caught the zeitgeist at the right time, was maybe even a little ahead of it.

See, TRON was there around the dawn of the personal computing age; again, you probably remember this for yourself. PCs were appearing in offices and in homes, everybody was saying the computer age had begun, and if you were school-age (as I was when I saw TRON in the theatre2), you may remember that a lot of schools were teaching the kids computing classes because that was going to be a big life skill along with reading and 'rithmatic. What's more, computer classes back then were all basic programming classes, because--and this is, I think, crucial to TRON's appeal--in the near-future everybody was going to be a programmer.

That last bit, as I say, is important. You could buy commercial software to do big, common tasks like spreadsheets and word processing, and you could buy games, but there was still this strong DIY strand in computing--heck, the idea that you'd buy a completely-functional computer as opposed to buying a lot of parts out of a magazine and building it yourself was still a bit novel in those years. Sometimes "buying a program" meant buying a magazine with the code inside it; I remember one of the first RPG-aide programs for D&D players was like that, you typed in the fecking thing by hand and if you made a mistake somehwere in the hundreds of lines of code, well, gee, good luck with that.

Everybody was going to be a programmer and/or user, and this wasn't just the coming paradigm as everybody (inaccurately, as it turned out3) saw it, this was central to TRON's mythos and premise. If you were the least bit a computer geek, the TRONverse was, as the oxymoronic cliché goes, "familiar yet strange"; no, you weren't in Kansas anymore, but here are programmers (that's you) and their programs (you know those), and this is surely what the whole mysterious action of commands would be like if the one could get on the level of the other.

Even the gladiator games business of TRON was parcel with this. TRON was the first videogame movie, long before videogames came in franchises and had iconic characters and settings. The famous lightcycles were awesome; they were also a version of Snake (a.k.a. Tapeworm), one of the first videogames invented and not merely that: Snake was also a game that was incorporated into beginning lesson plans and that many who were learning programming in those days took a shot at writing, since it involves polling the keyboard for directional keys, rendering the results on the screen, and tracking placement of the rendered objects in relation to previously-rendered pixels (i.e. collision detection). Similarly, those tanks in the maze were a brandless, generic staple of early gaming platforms and programs: TRON was offering up a ground-level POV of the kinds of blocky things we were all playing with--sure, all you might see on the monitor is a lengthening line or a blocky block navigating between blocks shooting blocks at other blocky blocks, but in the machine, surely this was what it would look like. Right?

So TRON captured the imagination.

What, then, does TRON: Legacy have to offer? TRON was there at the birth, offering both a visualization of what we thought we were doing and offering a direction, something aspirational. (TRON was one of the first depictions of virtual reality, too, and is it any surprise that subsequent depictions of VR tended to use TRON as a starting point?4) TRON may have used generic versions of the generic computer culture, but that culture has become, to a great degree, the norm. TRON offered innovative CGI, but CGI is now ubiquitous, etc., etc., etc.

Well, here's what Legacy has to offer, then: nothing new, only more of the same, but modernized and updated. Legacy isn't the first album by your favorite band, clumsy and rough but having something special that points a way forward, but that you can't put your fingers on. No, Legacy is the "Best Of" package released thirty years later, and maybe it's not quite as special but that's not what it's aiming for.

Bridges and Boxleitner are back: both as older men, Kevin Flynn and Alan Bradley, and also as their computer program counterparts, CLU and TRON, thanks to a nifty bit of computer de-aging that works pretty well about 85%-90% of the time (the other ten-to-fifteen percent of the time, there are some uncanny valley effects or the face seems to slip somehow, but it's still a pretty effective trick all the same). The lightcycles are back, this time in three dimensions, and not just in the you're-wearing-the-glasses sense, but the cycles don't stay stuck to the grid, they dip down off-ramps to lower levels or jump each other or pop wheelies. The gladiatorial Frisbee games are back, but now they're hyperkinetic and programs don't "derezz" into puffy pastel clouds, they blow apart into bits of digital neon broken glass, crash! The evil recognizers growl through the air and the solar sailship is back (and just as non-solar and gratuitously-sailed as it's predecessor, but still iconic). All brilliantly executed and set to a buzzing, melodic, pulsing, trés cool Daft Punk soundtrack (which I'm listening to right now, courtesy of Amazon's MP3 store--the ordinary magic of our times, indeed). And, oh yes, another thing someone who loved the original TRON in all it's spectacular, brilliant mediocrity would want: plenty of Easter eggs for the attentive viewer (e.g. note where Sam Flynn, Legacy's protagonist played primarily by Garrett Hedlund, lives5).


Is adequate. Are you going to see TRON: Legacy because you want a tensely-knit, well-plotted intellectual something-or-other or because you want to have a cool, fun visual experience that hearkens back to what was probably a formative moment if you first saw the original TRON at a formative point in your life and have carried it in your heart since? Compelling story? You don't understand, I'm afraid: they have flying lightcycles now. Flying lightcycles. Do you know what that means? It means they fly. It's awesome.

No, wait, I'll say this for the plot: one of the reasons TRON is awful and never lives up to its visual promise is that the movie tried so stubbornly to live up (or down) to its concept of "what if computer programs were people living inside a computer," which, let's be honest doesn't actually work. I mean, why would a spreadsheet need a house, for instance, and why is a security protocol playing a Frisbee-based PONG variant to the "death" against a hapless bookkeeping applet, etc.? I'm actually happy to say that Legacy almost entirely glosses over the premise of the original while keeping the same generalized idea; put another way, while TRON attempts to be a science-fiction film, Legacy is essentially a fantasy. Whereas the grid in TRON is pushed as a visualization of actual technical ideas and concepts6, however clumsily, Legacy treats the grid as just a neat place to go, like Narnia if you got there via disintegrating laser instead of by wardrobe. (Indeed, Legacy doesn't even explain the laser, trusting TRON fans to remember it and hoping newbies will just go along with it, perhaps realizing that trying to explain it would be a mistake.) There are science fiction themes and trappings to be sure--a little bit of a Frankenstein riff going on, for instance among other things, but I don't want to spoil anything there. But ultimately Legacy is a fun and sharp-looking addition to the tradition of brave-heroes-lost-in-new-worlds fantasy tradition that includes, say, the Narnia books, the John Carter stories, et al., with neon piping replacing thatched roofs and flung identity discs in lieu of swords. Oh, and the princess wears PVC instead of some kind of hide bikini, but she looks great in it.

I think I've gone on enough and said most of what I wanted to. Hope it wasn't too rambly and cohered more than I suspect it does. I enjoyed it, it was fun. It wasn't great and it wasn't terrible. I bought the soundtrack and maybe I'll get it on DVD when it comes out. It won't change your world, but it won't waste your money, either. If you go see it, see it in IMAX 3D if you can, and I hope you have a good time.

1Other films in the experimental "series" included: The Black Hole (1979), Dragonslayer (1981), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) and Never Cry Wolf (1983). The films ranged from flops to very modest successes (which in Hollywood terms, in which something needs to be a smash to be a success, amounts to the same as a flop), and the conventional wisdom was that the Walt Disney label was the reason: people associated the brand with family films, and so they failed to find their proper audience, what with the intended audience avoiding a "kiddie" film and parents bringing in unintended audiences--their small children--and being horrified or whatever at what they were shown. Ultimately, in 1984, Disney solved the problem by forming Touchstone as a subsidiary brand, with a good bit of success.

Things have changed, obviously, in the past thirty years. TRON: Legacy appears under the Walt Disney brand and isn't the only PG-rated film the studio has released in recent years; furthermore, even Disney's G-rated animated fare reaches a wider audience now than was once the case.

2I mention this last bit because, depressingly, I realized very quickly last night that I was the only person in my group of twenty-something, thirty-something friends who had seen TRON in the theatre, that everybody else there had first seen the original movie on VHS or perhaps on the Disney Channel in the late '80s or early '90s.

Indeed, one reason the list of movies in the first footnote, supra, sticks out is that I saw all of them in the theatre, once upon a time; there were other PG-rated Disney movies in the same timeframe, but I didn't see them or didn't see them until much later on videotape or cable, but those listed, I was there in the darkness with them, watching reflected light on silvered screen, etc.

Sigh. Getting old is a bitch, but I guess it beats the obvious alternative.

3Because programming, of course, is hard, time-consuming work and a pain-in-the-ass, and computers quickly became both more complicated and more ordinary than anyone expected, faster than anyone expected. It turned out that just about the only people who would be programmers would be professional programmers, while most users would be satisfied to have something that "just works" without worrying about how it worked. Computing has become the ordinary magic of our lives.

4Exhibit A, notice the neon piping in the background:

5I also have to mention a non-TRON-specific Easter egg of sorts: Quorra's (Olivia Wilde) favorite book is a cute little SF reference and I got a nice laugh out of it, charmed by the gag.

6TRON himself, for instance, is named after a debugging command, and that's his function in the original movie, more-or-less: Alan Bradley wrote him to trace bugs in the ENCOM mainframe, which is how he ends up fighting the MCP's irregularities "for the users." He's really just a BASIC command. Sort of.


Steve Buchheit Saturday, December 18, 2010 at 4:37:00 PM EST  

I also saw the original in a theater. The plot wasn't much, the video game (from when you needed a pocket full or quarters, ie even before tokens) was a breeze, built for winning more than for eating quarters. But still holds a special place in this BASIC (and later fortan, pascal, lisp, variants of basic, and finally even hex) programmers heart.

For this of you youngster, yes there was a time when all of us would be programming (and I mean REAL programming, not HTML or scripting the various programs) in the future instead of being "users". Back when the Internet didn't have the web and we put our bytes together wearing bear skins and catching dinner with flint knives.

I'll probably not see this until it's on DVD. Which is a shame as I was looking forward to it. Who cares about the plot holes, it's fargin TRON. Sort of like how the first Star Trek could totally suck, but would still be a flaming success.

Kids, they just don't understand.

jamie Saturday, December 18, 2010 at 7:04:00 PM EST  

Well I didn't see the original, but I ended up enjoying this, it was pretty and that's all, but the music was nice and the action was pretty cool, though I wish the cinema near me would stop only showing the 3D versions, 'cause that ends up desaturating the movie which makes me cry inside. Tron is not a movie to make dull and grey, it's a movie to make as colourful as possible, and possibly blow up in colour.

LucyInDisguise Sunday, December 19, 2010 at 10:44:00 AM EST  

Sigh. Getting old is a bitch, but I guess it beats the obvious alternative.

You mean staying vigorously young and nubile forever and ever like me? How does getting old beat that?


shies: what a ter acquires after a good nap.

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