Tron: Legacy

Tron: Legacy (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Joseph Kosinski
viewed: 04/15/11

I had definitely wanted to see Tron: Legacy in its element, which would have been last summer in digital 3-D on an IMAX screen.  Given the poor reviews and trade-offs and what-have-you’s, I didn’t make it out for it in its best environment.  I heard that it was at least visually stunning on the massive screen with the 3-D glasses on your nose.   But I waited for DVD and ended up watching it with both Clara and Felix, knowing it would be more of Felix’s cup of tea than Clara’s.  And you know, I have minor regrets.

The film’s strength is in its visual design.  And having seen it in the big and digitally enhanced would definitely have lifted it.  The visuals are indeed still impressive, even on DVD, without the 3-D, on a much smaller scale.  And it’s the cool, neon and black-light sci-fi aesthetics that offer the most pleasure.

The original Tron, released in 1982, was a forward-thinking, though not quite timely science fiction adventure that went on to find a place in the cult hearts of some.  I remember seeing it, in part because I saw it in Bakersfield, CA in an old cinema (the first time I ever set foot in a balcony), I remember even more the video game that promoted it (because it was more popular than the film itself, I think).  But I also remember, even at the time, having mixed feelings of appreciation and disdain for its visual aesthetics and sci-fi world.  In other words, I wasn’t in the cult fan camp, but I was familiar, not judgmental, but willing with this sequel, 28 years in the making.

The new film picks up a few years where the 1982 Tron left off.  It starts in 1989, seven years after the end of the original, with Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn telling his seven year old son about this wild world of “The Grid” (the interior world of computers in which programs are represented by figures of their creators), and then disappears.  The film flashes forward to the present in which the younger Flynn gets sucked into The Grid and winds up realizing that his father hadn’t meant to abandon him at all.

Unfortunately, the elder Flynn’s program doppelganger in The Grid, Clu (who is a special effects de-aged version of Bridges to make him look circa 1989) has gone evil and has trapped the elder Flynn while trying to get hold of his “disk” (the neon disk that attaches to each Grid person’s back but can also be used for disk fighting), which will allow him to escape the Grid into the other realm.  The story includes the discovery of life forms that are came into being in The Grid that Clu tried to destroy via genocide.

It’s a lot of story.  Clara was particularly restless through much of it, though she said she liked it.  She then said that she didn’t understand it either.  Felix was pretty into it.

For me, the visual design was quite impressive.  A mixture of retro future and future future, amped up with Industrial Light and Magic’s top of the line visual effects.  The story doesn’t really connect, nor do the characters, so all the bigness of the adventure tends to fall behind the slickness of the presentation.

The most bizarre thing about the film is the virtual 1989 Jeff Bridges.  Digital effects have been used in so many ways to effect so many illusion from explosions to fantastical creatures to entire worlds, but here, taking a living actor and taking 20 years off of his face, particularly in contrast to his bearded, scraggly present day face playing opposite himself, seems one of the most uncanny of all digital effects.  It’s not seamless.  There is an eerie stiffness to Clu’s visage (as well as the early scenes of Bridges in the earliest scenes where he’s also digitally altered).  But it’s a surreal thing, which truly breaks some weird unwritten law of possibility.

Not to say it hasn’t happened before in lesser ways (from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return in Terminator Salvation (2009) to the re-animating of dead celebrities in television commercials), but the prominence of Bridges younger face and primary role as central villain is much larger and more foregrounded.  It plays into the whole of the Hollywood movie star image, youth and beauty, those always diminishing resources, now are partly recoverable through digitized enhancement.  Part of the way that the film-makers were able to achieve this was because they have lots of images of Bridges to work with from the period in which he is taken back to because he was making movies then as now.  He was already “captured” in his youth, on film.

There is probably enough for a mini dissertation regarding this technique alone.  And much like an avatar via
Avatar (2009), it’s doubtless that this is merely the beginning of an era in which the virtual actor, the virtual presentation of an actor becomes less an anomaly.

The other weird thing for me in this film, in which I do indeed praise the design, is the weird 1980’s-ish retro qualities of the design.  I mean, it is picking up the design elements of the original 1982 film, which was reaching to be futuristic but winds up looking very 1980’s.  The designers have taken the weird black and muted neon of the original and cleaned them up with modern effects and aesthetics and made something very slick while still retro.  But it’s hard not to look at the scene in the club as something as painfully uncool as The Matrix Revolutions (2003).  The Matrix (1999) itself sort of took some of the Tron concepts beyond their ideas, but this vision of hipsters lounging and then fighting to the motorcycle-helmeted deejays playing Daft Punk (who did the soundtrack and may well have been in the motorcycle helmets for all I know) was just hilariously goofy.

I suppose it’s all a geek fantasy (or is supposed to be).  But not much of it makes sense when you start to think about it.  Like why do computer programs play games to the death and watch these games like a black-lit Roman arena?  Are programs just like us?  Bored and needing entertainment?  What would that suggest about artificial intelligence then?

In films like this, it’s usually good not to quibble over such details, but there is a lot here to pore over in a film about the interior world of technology, delivered by the brightest and best of current film-making technologies and the technologists who lovingly created it.  It’s a tech fantasy for techies by techies.  And it’s very slick and sort of cool.  But it’s also a mediocre movie.  And it would have doubtlessly been more satisfying on the big screen.

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