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Tron: Legacy

December 18, 2010

Tron: Legacy

To really appreciate Tron: Legacy, you have to appreciate the original Tron. And it’s really difficult now to communicate just how revolutionary Tron was. I wasn’t even aware of it until the late 80s, years after I saw the film for the first time.

Nowadays we talk about the “information superhighway” casually, and the “cyber-” prefix has become clichéed, or even hokey. But Disney released Tron in 1982, the year William Gibson had just coined the term “cyberspace”. It would be two more years — years in which he must have seen the film himself — before he wrote the famous words from Neuromancer:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.

Gibson was speaking of something like our internet, albeit with a fantastically different user interface than our crude keyboards and trackpads. We may not have fully-immersive virtual reality as in the usual cyberpunk idiom, but we inch ever closer — just look at Microsoft’s Kinect and Quest Visual’s Word Lens to see the little scraps coming together. Even without that sort of technology, though, “hallucination” isn’t exactly far off the mark for the sort of reality some people invest in the real internet’s “nonspace of the mind”.

In Tron, we look at a system built inside a single computer, rather than a network. And yet the movie reifies the metaphors of computer programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges). As he once explained it to his son, Sam, inside the computer was

The Grid. A digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer. What did they look like? Ships? Motorcycles? Were the circuits like freeways? I kept dreaming of a world I thought I’d never see. And then, one day, I got in.

What Tron showed us was this reified metaphor — Flynn’s own “consensual hallucination” — as he worked within the computer to stop a megalomaniacal program and retake his rightful place within his company, ENCOM.

The story was relatively straightforward, but it was recast in a world so radically different from anything people had any experience with in either life or art. Remember: this was a time when people working at the still-secret NSA could say “I work with computers”, and trust that most people would let the matter drop out of sheer unfamiliarity. It landed with a soft thud, just redeeming itself at the box office, but not really standing out like E.T. did a month earlier.

It also changed absolutely everything forever.

Every single cyberpunk movie owes its existence to Tron. It defined an entire new genre, and an entirely new visual and textual language, especially when coupled with Blade Runner to define the standard dystopian outer-world. Without The Grid, there would never be a Matrix.

And while the visuals in Tron look amateurish and corny now, they were absolutely revolutionary as well. They were so far beyond anything that had been seen before that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences actually disqualified the film for the Best Visual Effects category, judging that the filmmakers had “cheated” by using computers. And now, of course, you can’t make any movie of any kind without using computers for some aspect of the visuals. Tron not only invented an entirely new kind of movie to make, it invented an entirely new way of making them.

So, stacked up against this kind of history was it even possible for Tron: Legacy to change the entire world again? Well, no, not really. But great material can still make a great movie, and it can definitely make one that leaps out of the pack.

Having put things right, Flynn and his programmatic counterpart Clu (also Jeff Bridges) set out to create a digital utopia within his computer system. He made spectacular advances, and even spun off some revolutionary software products in the real world, hoping to bring a utopian vision to life there as well. ENCOM was rising meteorically. And then, one day, Flynn disappeared.

Twenty years later, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is handed the keys to his father’s old arcade by Flynn’s friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), and asks him to investigate a mysterious page coming from a long-dormant phone in Flynn’s old office. Sam pokes around and finds his father’s hidden computer system, thick with dust, and still running after all this time. And he manages to accidentally zap himself inside; like father, like son.

Inside, Sam finds Clu running the Grid as a fascist dictatorship, dedicated to his pursuit of the “perfect system”, as Flynn had directed him so many years ago. He has reinstituted the gladiatorial combat that terrorized the programs back in the original film, under the domination of the fearsome combatant Rinzler. Flynn, for his part, has fled the Grid and lives in the digital wilderness, along with his protegé, a young program called Quorra (Olivia Wilde), and strives for a Zen-like removal and contentment. But Clu needs Flynn’s identity disk in order to access the reopened portal back to the world outside the computer, so he can continue his mission there.

So much has come and gone since 1982, and so much of it grew directly from what Tron started. At long last we get another view inside the grid, and it’s stunningly gorgeous in a way that the original producers could only have dreamed. The imagery has a very precise, computerized feel to it, of course, but now it also has an elegant, organic feel. The score — provided by Daft Punk — is sleek and shiny like everything else, and still calls back to that of the original. And the action scenes have a captivating grace all their own, particularly what has to be the slowest-paced dogfight I’ve ever seen.

The quality of the visuals is, of course, impeccable. This may not be the revolution that Tron was, but it does live up to the legacy and sets a new high-water mark in computer-generated imagery. The digital mapping of Jeff Bridges’ face from 1982 onto his head from 2010 — Clu, of course, doesn’t age — looks almost seamless. There are a few scenes where it dips into Uncanny Valley territory, but to some extent those can be brushed aside by noting that Clu’s isn’t a real human face anyway.

And the 3-D work is easily the best I’ve seen since Avatar. It signals the transition from one world to the other, and almost always adds depth behind the screen. Yes, there are some things thrown at the audience, but they’re few and far between. This is a movie produced in 3-D to be shown in 3-D by people who understand the technology and its limitations, and which doesn’t rely on the technology to pull the rest of the production. It would be a gorgeous film in 2-D, but the 3-D work actually improves the overall effect rather than detracting from it.

Worth it: definitely. Big screen, big sound, big as life.
Bechdel test: fail, but given that only two of the characters are even supposed to be human, with human drives and perspectives anyway…

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