Monday, July 25, 2011

The Legacy of Tron

Greetings, Programs...

It doesn't always take great writing to make a great film. Of course, I'm sure there are many out there that would argue that Tron is not a great film. I don't feel like debating the definition of greatness, at the moment, though, so I'm just going to say that based upon it's cultural impact and cult status, it's a great film. After all, how many movies get an actual sequel after almost 30 years. Not a re-boot. Not a re-make. An honest to goodness sequel. It's almost a singular achievement (it may be a singular achievement, for all I know).

Tron is the movie that opened the door to computer generated special effects. In fact, John Lasseter has said that without Tron there would have been no Toy Story as it was Tron that opened his eyes to the potential of computer animation. Despite that, Tron contains far less computer generated material than most people might suspect, but what was there was completely new, much of which was never used again due to the costs involved. Interestingly enough, Tron was not even nominated for a special effects Oscar possibly because of the use of computers, which was considered "cheating" by many in the Academy, at the time.

The story of Tron is fairly straightforward and ironically appropriate for Disney. The conflict revolves around a corporation (Encom) taking advantage of the little guy (Kevin Flynn) by stealing his work and the little guy trying to prove the work is actually his. Even at 12, when the movie came out, I knew that the story was just the vehicle to get Flynn into the "digital" world of the computer so they could show off their stuff. Still, it's a solid plot even if it's not original. We still seem to be having issues with that aspect of corporate greed in America, so I can't say it's not a story that needs to be told anymore. They may have done better to have centered Tron: Legacy on that same type of story since it opens with those same overtones, but Disney isn't brave enough to do that story again, or, perhaps, realizes it's a message that strikes at the heart of their business model, so they abandon it as soon as the younger Flynn enters The Grid.

There is, however, one bit of story genius that I was struck with at the time, and it has always stayed with me. This one thing made the movie for me, made it great in my mind, as it completely fascinated me at 12. I thought it was SO cool, and, yet, most people miss it entirely (along with the significance of it within the confines of the story), and some have even argued that it didn't happen that way at all. The key to the weight of the story of Tron is getting Flynn into the digital world himself. Flynn is our connection, the eyes that allow us to see this digital world as real. But they have to get him inside the computer. Utilizing another emerging technology (lasers), they have him zapped by a laser that is being developed as a quantum teleportation device. Early in the movie, we get to witness this laser being tested on an orange. The process only takes a few seconds. Zap target with laser. Digitize target. Reintegrate target. The implication, then, is that Flynn's sojourn in the digital world happens within this span of a few seconds.  [They support this idea in the sequel by quantifying the time discrepancy, although I'm not remembering the ratio, right off the top of my head.] It was a fabulous notion.

Still, it took time for Tron to really grow on me. And repeated exposure to the video games. There was, of course, the Tron arcade game, which made more money than the movie. We owned it for our Atari. Although I liked the game, it was never one of my favorites. However, Discs of Tron... that one, I loved. It was more than just a joystick game. None of my friends liked it because it was "too hard," and, indeed, it was one of the most complex games around. For years. But I loved it. Except for one thing, it wasn't just a quarter to play it. I don't remember what the actual cost was, but I remember being constantly put off by the fact that it cost so much. However, when I was in college, they put a Discs of Tron in the student center (at the one quarter/play cost) during my freshman year, and I ruled that game. Literally. Not only did I have the high score, but no one could beat me at head-to-head play, either. I was extremely sad when they removed the game at the beginning of my sophomore year. For that game alone, Tron holds a special place of nostalgia in my heart.

And, then, there's Jeff Bridges. Between Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill, Bridges had a lot of competition back when I was 12, but I noticed him, which is saying a lot. I noticed him more with Starman in 1984, but it was Tucker: The Man and His Dream that really convinced me of how great an actor he is. I spent my 20s telling people that he was the most underrated actor in Hollywood, and I wasn't wrong. It's great that he's now getting the recognition that he's deserved for so long. The fact that he has been so instrumental in the return of Tron says a lot both for whom he is and the film. The legacy of Tron.

My boys were immediately excited when they heard there was going to be a sequel (to the original), and the initial trailers for it sent them both into a frenzy of excitement over it. It's hard to fault them for that. The trailers were nearly as visually stunning as the movie. And it was. Visually stunning. The film is worth seeing just as a visual masterpiece, and it was... well, it was spectacular in 3D. It's true that the plot is a bit more contrived and, therefore, weaker than the plot for the original, but, again, the story is really only there as a vehicle to display the digital landscape they've created. I will say, though, that it's only upon reflection that the holes in the story become apparent. Bridges' talent is enough to make everything believable, and Garrett Hedlund, who plays Flynn's son, is more than adequate in supporting him. Truthfully, the film is dazzling enough just on its own that it's hard to contemplate any weaknesses while watching it. At least on  the big screen.

A new Tron trilogy is supposedly in the works. At any rate, there should be a Disney television series next year and, at least, one movie sequel. Assuming that Bridges is now out of the equation (although I don't know that I believe that he's gone for good), I hope they actually write a really compelling story. It would be a shame for this to become another fiasco like The Matrix. It could. There is some promise, though, in that Disney is planning ahead on this instead of just having the "oh, this made buckets of money,  let's make another" reaction. I have to say that I'm very curious to see where Tron takes us next. I only wish it could take us there on our very own light cycles.

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  1. I never really fell in love with Tron when I was a kid, although Starman is one of my favorite movies of the 80's. Tron though, I don't know, whatever buttons it pushed in so many kids my age just didn't do anything for me. After my kids raved about how the recent sequel was the greatest movie ever made, I went out and bought the blue ray. I watched it once, shook my head, and don't think I'll ever want to see it again.

    I thought the CG Jeff Bridges was bizarrely rendered - to the point that I couldn't do anything but point it out anytime he was on screen. We aren't there yet with the FX, it wasn't as bad as Neo turning into a cartoon in the second Matrix movie, but I thought it was too cartoonish to belong in a movie.

    As for the story, I think deeply philosophical or speculative elements are pretty hard to effectively portray in movies. Movies, I think, are easier to display the visceral, not the nuance.

    Which is why I think last year's Inception wowed so many. It wasn't that it had the best special fx in the world, or that it had the most compelling characters, it's that it told a story that requires the viewer to understand an abstract concept to enjoy - and Chris Nolan did that exceptionally well.

    Anyhow, I almost forgot I was commenting on your post and started a rant here. One thing I will agree with you about though, if it's a dazzling visual experience, it's worth enjoying. I recall thinking that despite the poor execution, What Dreams May Come was worthy of watching just because some of the imagery was so beautiful.

    Anyway, I wish I liked both of the Tron's more. I don't like not liking stuff so many others do. But I guess if we were all the same, well, we'd all be the same.

  2. I loved Starman and Tron as a kid (maybe that's weird for a chick?) and, of course, Jeff Bridges. But we've already discussed him!

    It's true that I just enjoyed the experience of Tron and didn't bother trying to figure out if the plot was worthy. It dazzles enough to where that isn't necessary, and I'll be the first to admit that a visually stunning film can distract me from plot holes, and that some movies I go to see simply for the visual aspect. I then refuse to analyze them, because it would ruin the experience.

    I hadn't heard about the future of Tron, so I'm interested in seeing what they do. I do have to admit, though, that Jeff Bridges being in it was a great deal of the pull for me. I think they did well enough that I could possibly see past his absence, however. I'd have to see what they put out there, I guess.

  3. Admittedly, I haven't seen the new Tron. But the original was a childhood favorite for me (along with The Dark Crystal & Shenandoah--weird combination, I know, but there it is). I was SO pleased to see you mention Starman. This is a FANTASTIC film--beautiful characters, plot, world. One of Jeff's best of all time, in my opinion. Heck, I even liked him as Jack Prescott in the 1976 version of King Kong.

  4. Rusty: I probably really didn't stress this enough in the post, but my enjoyment of Tron has definitely been something that has grown over the years. Other than the bit about all of the action within the movie happening within a few seconds, the movie was a shrugger for me. I enjoyed it, but it wasn't anything to get excited about. Tron is definitely something that has grown on me over time.

    As for Inception... well, I was underwhelmed by it. I didn't deserve the nomination, and I was glad it didn't win, and I feel guilty for saying all of that with no good reason to. It just could have been so much more, but it ended up being completely predictable. Visually stunning, no substance.

    Shannon: Yeah, I'm kind of holding my breath on them. They will definitely have to have an actual story if they are going to go forward. I just hope it doesn't end up being another take on Terminator. Like they made The Matrix.

    Alyssia: I haven't seen (or even heard of) Shenandoah (at least not that I remember).

    I used to do a great skeksis voice.

    I should re-watch that version of King Kong. I haven't seen it since I was a kid, and I don't really remember it.

    I need to rent Starman for my kids. "Yellow light. Go very fast."