Monday, December 20, 2010

Tron: Legacy - That is a whole lot of somethin'


No, seriously. If you haven't seen the movie, run away now.

I didn't wait 28 years to see a sequel to Tron. I was a kid when the movie was released, and only the word-of-mouth hype machine that existed back then let me know that Star Wars would have sequels. "Franchise" wasn't thrown around a whole lot, but I was kind of aware that Jason and I liked the movie more than our peers. I was the only kid I knew with a Tron lightcycle toy and Flynn action figure and we may have been the ones most interested in chucking frisbees at each other (and you know what's a tough translation?  BMX bikes as light cycles).

Time marches on, and, of course, for most folks Tron had fallen off the cultural radar.  Nerds had been saying for years "oh, what they could do now with CG", but the original process of the movie is so little known and poorly understood, that I sort of just admired the original for what it was. I have fond memories of the summer when The Admiral waved his hand at the dinner table and pronounced "Enough.  We're not talking about Tron anymore at the dinner table."  As an adult, I now have fonder memories of Cindy Morgan in a helmet running around The Grid.

I do own the movie on DVD. It's some sort of super-collector's pack thing, meant for the hardcore Tron fan. I'm not sure I meet that description, but I did find the movie interesting on a lot of levels.

No matter what, I do not love Tron as much as some other people
Like everyone else, when I saw the first test footage for the new movie, I did that whole "hold your breath, is that what I think I'm seeing?" thing.

So did I enjoy the new Tron?   Sort of.  I mean, its an absolutely beautiful movie.  Somebody put a lot of love into that thing.  Its an immaculately realized vision of a fictional world, at least from a set-designer's point of view.

I have to believe that the final cut was either completely butchered by producers into a nonsensical mess or the producers turned in a trilogy, tried to shoot it, and lost sight of the forest for the trees once they needed to trim the running time down to a length that wouldn't test the sitting-powers of the 18-40 age bracket.

A colleague who attended the movie with me commented that he "wasn't looking for a story" when he went to see Tron, and I am hard pressed to argue that going to see Beau Garrett walk away from the camera (in 3D!) is worth the price of admission.  Or, you know, the prettier set pieces with light cycles, etc...

Essentially, the movie just doesn't make sense.  There's just not enough explanation, really, of almost everything, to hold the thing together, let alone maintain an internal logic.

Whereas the first movie was sort of an over-extended allegory for freedom and artistry versus the despotism of corporate management for software, the new movie begins exactly where that thought left off, with Encom now 30 years on and a fight for the soul of the company lost to a Jobs-like (interestingly, not a Gates-like) Chairman who has taken the OS and made it "the world's most secure" rather than the most innovative.  But it sort of totally forgets about this concept and goes for some DC Comics Earth-2 invasion thing that lacks motivation, an explanation of what will happen, or a narrative build.

A powerful argument for running Linux

This throughline of open source versus corporate greed, which is true to the first movie and completely relevant today, and would have made for a fine allegorical little story within "The Grid" as freedom overcomes tyranny, gets inexplicably shelved in the second act and a whole new problem begins for our hero.

Part of me was sort of self-aware that Steve Jobs does, in fact, sit on the board for Disney, the film's producers and distributors, and wondered if that hadn't had a chilling effect on the whole production.

Now...  In watching the original Tron, I never took the adventure in the movie literally, not even as a kid.  I assumed it was sort of a metaphor for what was happening within the computer, and I don't think I'm necessarily wrong about that reading.  I could understand a "program" was being tested "inside the grid" to see if it held muster as it was absorbed into the MCP.  But Tron: Legacy makes it very clear: No, seriously, there's a whole civilization of nano-things living inside your computer, like sexy, glowing sea-monkeys.

That, in some ways, sort of makes the movie a whole lot... dumber. I mean, that might have played in 1982, but when you're walking around with a phone in your pocket with more computing power than the entire system that got the Eagle to the moon...  well...  It's like telling me my TV is really a bunch of different elves putting on plays behind a magical mirror.

this is living in your Apple IIe
As an allegory, I could assume that some thought wento every decision that was made about "well, X actually means Y, so when a lightcycle falls off a wall, its going to de-rez..."

Under this model we could understand if a "program" needed "more power to run" and water was power, or accessing the users was actually Allan taking advantage of a hack in the MCP.  But then to see Flynn sitting around in the new movie eating asparagus?*  It poses so many questions...

What I found curiously irksome was that the world of the movie deals in physics as we know them on Earth (which the first movie suggested didn't really apply in Computer Land).  Part of the magic of the first Tron was seeing "oh, when a lightcycle crashes, here it just sort of... ends."  And, yes, of course a digital light cycle turns at 90 degree angles, and of course the landscape is made of hastily rendered polygons....  So during T:L, I knew the producers had kind of missed the point when they showed the Recognizers (the sort of arch-shaped ships from the first film) using thrust.  I don't want to see gears turning wheels in Tron.  That's missing the point, it would seem.  If you have a cargo loader, why isn't it a representation of a loader, just sleekly moving along a track?  Why the need to build in mechanical efficiencies?  Especially in a world we're told was built to be "perfect"?

The physics of a stall for airplanes can get pretty complicated, but there's a scene were the engines stall during a climb in a dogfight, and it felt so... weird.  Does the thing have an engine?  Does it not compensate for the digital winds?  I...  It just asked so many more questions than it answered, and somehow having these glowing jets behave like common aircraft just didn't work.

But, again, one would also assume computer programs don't eat asparagus (let alone all the parts of agriculture that would have to occur to have fresh aparagus in Tron land), and there the program was... at dinner.  Dinner?  I....

The movie also dodges some complications modern technology would bring into the equation.  Flynn's make-believe world seemingly does not have internet access (and Flynn's disappearance seems to predate Tim Berners-Lee getting other people to get onboard with this whole crazy hypertext idea), let alone massive global networks, all of which would have been interesting concepts.

The villains plot, of course, makes no sense and seems to lack in motivation.  And you kind of wonder why anyone would stop him.  If the program has the ability to learn (and he does, that's demonstrated), let him go nuts and go out to the real world on his own. Help him out!   (A) It would have to be pretty interesting to see what would happen, and (B) he's not going to get too far toward a nefarious plan before the practicalities of living in the real world would slow him down.

He's sort of the Professor Chaos of movie villains, but Kevin Flynn is terrified of the guy.

Our antagonist
There are, of course, all kinds of other practical issues that come up in the movie when you consider that it hangs on the fact that it doesn't pay any attention to computing past 1985.  It also doesn't bother to explain how any of this was programmed/ built into existence, all of which would have been nice, but seem to have been killed during the editing process.**

I have to assume dangling plot threads around the titular Tron, the actual Encom Corporation, and the iffy promises of  the first act will get sorted out in Tron II: 2.  Maybe.  If they spent an hour just dealing with the issues set up in this movie, I think I'd be happy.  As it stands, right now I'm a little baffled.

Oh, the kid who plays Sam Flynn is fine, I guess.  He walks with a weird trundle that's, like, super obvious thanks to the circuit lines, and he sort of had "angry" as his full range, but...  He's also given some clunky lines that Jamie described as "a little Jake Lloyd", so, you know, your mileage is going to vary.

Because, really, this is the Jeff Bridges show much more than a showcase for the kid.

I got a little short changed on my Boxleitner, and I'm a little confused why they didn't try to do more with what they had there (and that is clearly not Boxleitner in the Tron gimp suit for much of the movie).  And no Yuri?  Bad form, Tron movie.

All of this said, its a very pretty movie, and I think if the first Tron didn't weigh so heavily on the mind, it would be fairly easy to see how people could buy into this (they seemed to not even blink at the ridiculous plot holes The Matrix, so....).  I recommend seeing it in 3D on the big screen, because it is that kind of movie.  But also know, its not exactly going to astound you at every turn.

The visuals are relentless and almost always fascinating.  There's some neat little bits in there that manage to show rather than tell, and I think anyone could appreciate what they were at least trying to do with the skyscapes, wide open gamegrid, the crazy outfits and toy-friendly world of the whole thing. And as I think a lot of that takes a front seat, you know, you might get something out of that.  I did.

But expect for it to feel like the first act.

**why Kevin Flynn had to die if Clu died made no sense whatsoever and needed at least a phoney-baloney explanation


Fantomenos said...

Fun facts:

a) Tron was the 1st movie I ever saw 2ce in the theaters.

b) I played the crap out of the arcade game

c) I haven't seen Tron since

d) I had the same reaction to the preview that you did, but will probably never see Legacy.

It's like, something I was enthusiastic about as a kid, but I'm just not going to run at the remake football this time. I got suckered into seeing Clash of the Titans, but this... I'm just not doing.

Many thanks for the review, though, it redoubles my conviction.

The League said...

I will likely see this one twice due to family obligations, and I am hoping I will pick up a few things in seeing the movie again that I missed the first time.

It is visually spectacular, and I expect it will be imitated. But... yeah.

J.S. said...

I knew before I ever walked into this movie that there was no way they could really pull it off in a way that would make a lick of sense (from the standpoint of physics, from the standpoint of the competition between human minds squared off against the modern computing powers of our most advanced hardware and software, etc.). We live in a modern world where computers defeat our most advanced international chess champions or play them to a draw- a world where computer programs are responsible for real world weapons targeting systems because they're faster and more efficient than human reflexes.
Anyway, I just never expected T:L to amount to much from a logic standpoint. I always suspected that it would mostly be about computers as magic.
I saw the first one as a kid and didn't really even understand the level of metaphor that it contained until I got older, but at the time I didn't really care. The primary message, then, as now, was about the struggle to keep computer access free and open as opposed to controlled and monitored. All the rest was mostly spectacle and background noise. I'd be curious to see how kids respond to this new movie.