The Legacy of Tron

Disney is not one for subtlety.  The name Tron: Legacy nudges us to consider the franchise as a technological stepping point, a unique moment in the development of computers, video game, and science fiction in the 1980s. The 1982 original and the oddly timed successor (28 years later?) definitely do stand out. Not considering any of its cultural merits, Tron has an odd story.

It began when animator Steven Lisberger looked at a reel of computer generated imagery from the firm MAGI in 1976. It was also the year Atari released PONG as a video game. Lisberger and his co-producer Donald Kushner saw the potential of animated entertainment drawn in binary. After being turned down by Warner Bros, MGM, and Columbia, they went to Disney (then having difficulties producing financially successful movies) with storyboards and sample graphics. Disney executives were understandably nervous about bankrolling the project. Mixing digital and live action was something that had not been done before, and Lisberger was pitching an original concept with not even a video game franchise to draw upon.  (See John Culhane’s 1982 article)

However, Tron did find its fans. Arcade lovers and a growing video game subculture saw the promise of the project. The future of film, it seemed, was in the digital realm. I suspect the attraction of Tron was not its themes (ambition, authorial control, competition) but what went into its creation. The film was, and still is, celebrated as a groundbreaking technological achievement. It’s no small wonder Disney felt it necessary to print “A milestone in the history of digital animation” on the DVD cover. Tron did indeed pave the way for CGI, and everyone from Steven Spielberg to Pixar has a debt to the maverick designers in 1982.

Pixar is an interesting heir to their legacy. In 1995 John Lasseter directed a visually brilliant and an engaging movie about toys. Toy Story is an achievement in animation, story (the emotional lives of children’s toys? Clever) and character. I can’t help feeling that Tron and its “sequel” (more on that later) had a great premise that was not properly executed. Or maybe I’m searching too deep in a Disney film.

Let’s look at what Tron is really about: the interactions between programs in computers. Programs in human bodies, programs with their own hopes, fears, and feelings. Imagining a computer grid as an electronic metropolis is, I have to say, pretty cool. Jeff Bridges gives a stirring voiceover introduction to Legacy:

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.

The idea, like Toy Story‘s idea, is mesmerizing: the emotional lives of computer programs. In the original film Kevin Flynn (Bridges) is sucked into the world of his former employer ENCOM’s mainframe. Flynn is there to find proof that his projects were stolen by rival programmer Henry Dillinger (David Warner as the Euro-villain), now head of the company.

The journey into binary looks alien but feels pretty familiar. Flynn is soon fighting alongside rebel programs persecuted by MCP (Master Control Program), a manipulative supercomputer. Echoes of MCP can be seen in I, Robot‘s VIKI and Eagle Eye‘s ARIIA. In Tron he wants to cut off access between the real world and the Grid, initiating a conflict between freedom fighters and oppressive minions. Oh, and the Rebel Alliance starships are regrouping to fight the evil Galactic Empire….this is what fantasy is made of: a journey into the underworld of Mordor only to emerge victorious. Katabasis for the computer era.

It doesn’t help that Tron looked both ahead of its time and a decade behind it. The actors are filmed in high contrast black-and-white, clad in neon-laced body-suits. They look antiquated, like characters from B-class 1960s sci-fi. The action sequences, meanwhile, can still excite. The lightcycle scene is a true moment of digital wonder, one that has not aged poorly.

The film secured its place as a science fiction class, though it did not do great business. For a $17 million dollar budget $33 million at the box office is nothing to sniff at, but it’s nowhere near the kind of business Disney is hoping to do with Legacy (the weekend numbers are in: $46.6 million domestic b.o. in three days). Somehow Tron became an identifiable brand. See the montage of Tron pop culture references to get a sense of its impact.

Video games released after the film cemented its ties to the gamer community. Brad King quickly tracks the development of the Tron game franchise at In Media Res. Most of these games do not use characters or storylines from the film, which on its own would not have guaranteed an eventual sequel. Lisberger created a technological event that triggered a series of spinoffs in other mediums, a world of discs, grid bugs, and tanks that transcended the mere 96 minutes of screen time. It is unlikely Disney would pump a rumoured $300 million into the sequel without this multi-platform heritage (and fan base) to draw upon.

So what can the guys behind Legacy offer us? Liam Lacey of the Globe concludes:

Tron: Legacy follows what did and didn’t work the first time – another weak story with sub-B-movie dialogue, partly compensated for by intensely conceived geometric design and special effects. First-time director Joseph Kosinski is a former architect; the designer Darren Gilford comes from auto design. In other words, this is a movie for your eyes only.

it certainly is. Gilford’s sets and backdrops are stylishly minimal, punctuated by strips of bright orange or blue light. Daft Punk’s score is electrifying when its electronic, integrating seamlessly with the dark visuals. The French duo’s orchestral arrangements sound curiously like Hans Zimmer’s string-and-French-horn-obsessed repetitions on the Inception score. The film looks and sounds compelling, but is an entertaining blockbuster and not a thought provoker. One can see the film as a metaphor for open source, as JustPressPlay‘s Arya Ponto does. If so, it comes off as bombastic that Kosinski would compare Clu’s destruction of ISOL’s (isomorphic algorithms) to the Holocaust. And Disney, as we all know, is like Smaug the Dragon when it comes to guarding its copyrighted treasures.

I suppose we should accept Legacy for its undeniable sheen, and disregard the film’s attempts to be epic. This is not a visionary moment in cinematic history. Last year’s Avatar (also released in December) made the most recent giant leap in on-screen technology. Legacy is following in its wake, not blazing a new circuit.

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Filed under Jeff Bridges, New Ones

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