Archive for May, 2020

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© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Practice makes perfect. When deciding to come back to the world of Tron, the filmmakers chose to hit all the required homages while figuring out an actually interesting script to go with the eye candy of a movie that has defined the term for more than thirty years.

Just a few years after Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) returned from the old Encom system with proof that corporate executives pirated his video game ideas and thus he deserved to be elected CEO, he disappears one night after telling his son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) about being on the verge of a miracle on the Grid created after the dust settled on the Master Control Program.

Twenty years later, Sam is a shiftless youth with a majority interest in Encom and no interest in running his father’s company. He loves his pranks played on the company at the yearly board meeting. This time he breaks in to release the 12.0 version of the company’s operating system online for free. And must flee the scene base jumping off the roof.

Old family friend and surrogate father, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) bails Sam out of jail and tells him of an impossible pager text from the long since disconnected landline number from Flynn’s old videogame arcade. Sam investigates, soon finding a hidden lab behind a copy of the videogame Tron where a digitizing laser waits to send Sam into the Grid.

And history largely repeats itself, what with Flynn’s old program, Clu (also Jeff Bridges) going wild in his programmed search for perfection taking over the Grid driving his creator, Flynn into hiding to protect his disk with the master codes to the Grid. Clu would very much like to use the codes to launch various programs into the real world…something that just can’t happen because Clu and the disorder of the real world just won’t mix.

The Bread and Circuses nature of the first movie is even more highly developed this time around as Sam is thrust immediately into the updated versions of Lightcycle Race and the Deadly Frisbee game played with each program’s control disk. The games are modestly improved with little tweaks and touches.

Lightcycle Maze Race, where the player rides motorcycles that stream solid walls of colored energy behind with the intent of boxing the other rider in for a vicious smush against a solid wall, gets the addition of three-dimensions with ramps and jumps to go up or down. Deadly Frisbee, where gladiators throw their control disks at each other destroying the glass walls and floors of the combat space, sees upgrades in the form of game physics, where each carom of the disks shatters glass instead of the neat derezzing from the first movie.

Sam survives these games given that his whole life in the real world is training. He rolls around on his father’s old Ducatti and had been playing the videogame versions of these sports since forever. And with the usual events, like trusting the wrong people, that naturally transpire he meets both Clu (age regressed Jeff Bridges) and his father (regular Jeff Bridges) seeing both sides of the coin of a man that tried to seek perfection. Oh, yeah, mustn’t forget Quorra (Olivia Wilde) a woman of mystery.

There are three intersecting relationships in this movie. The father/son relationship of Sam and Kevin. The twisted relationship between Clu and his creator, Kevin. And the whatever you want it to be thing between Sam and Quorra. And buried deep in these connections is a greater use of metaphor that nobody with a functional library card will miss.

For instance, we might liken Clu and Kevin to, perhaps how Yahweh might’ve felt seeing his creation, or child turn away from Grace becoming a violent, needy and scared species. Both Yahweh and Kevin Flynn initially spend a lot of time officially disengaged from the mess of his creation, until the prospect of a son forces changes in the system.

The Biblical metaphor breaks down a bit when you consider that Yahweh sent the son as an intentional shock to the system and Sam is more of an afterthought in the Flynn system aka the Grid. Still the themes of disengaging to avoid doing more harm should the creation acquire the Creator’s tools come through loud and clear, as witnessed by Clu kicking the door to Flynn’s lair and finding a table decoration of a bowl of metallic apples. Like I said the use of metaphor is both obvious as it is profound.

The other important relationship lies between Sam and Quorra. She represents the miracle alluded to by Flynn just before he was trapped in the Grid because it’s easier to get in from the real world then it is to get out. Quorra is the last surviving member of a new hybrid lifeform called an isomorphic algorithm, one that developed spontaneously in the Grid that Clu promptly wiped out to the last woman.

Was Clu jealous of the new species that Flynn promptly gave more attention to because of the possibilities to change the outside world? Does this make Clu Lucifer? Again with the Biblical metaphors.

Anyway, in her sojourn in hiding with Flynn she has learned much about the real world reading the books he brought with him and preferring Jules Verne. She also impatiently plays Go against Flynn’s calm measured Zen style to go with his disengagement with the Grid. She wants to see her first real sunrise in the real world.

I tend to think of Jeff Bridges as having two phases of his career demarcated by The Big Lebowski. After playing the great slacker that unintentionally founded a religion of slacker-ness, Mr. Bridges other roles since all seem measured against the Dude where – ‘that’s just your opinion, Man!” Maybe, he was always the Dude since becoming an adult, but in terms of what showed up on screen, the demarcation seems clear.

The later edition of Kevin Flynn who must act like the disengaged deity gazing his navel and forcing calm and peace around him is vintage post-Lebowski Jeff Bridges (he usually has to play a villain for this trope to be wrong). Nonetheless, he’s a great actor and as always, a joy to watch.

Ironically, despite being titled Tron: Legacy this movie really skimps on Tron the character. Yes, Flynn brought the security program over from the original system when he, Clu and Tron tried to build the Grid into a nice virtual place. But, in keeping with the Biblical metaphors of this movie, when Clu turns Tron leaps to defend Flynn’s much like the Archangel Michael did for Yahweh.

Tron took a beating giving the appearance of being dead only to come back as a servant of Clu. A faceless servant in a black mask recognizable by his two-disk fighting style. I guarantee you someone in the production breathed a sigh of relief at having to use CGI age-regression technology of only one actor, Jeff Bridges instead of two. It also takes Tron out of the movie, except as a plot device.

Anyway, I found myself enjoying the movie even more than the original. I’ve mentioned the thick and heavy-handed metaphor that helps give the illusion of depth. I also loved the fluid motion of the action elements where Mr. Hedlund gets into all kinds of funky positions almost flying as he did his own stunts. Olivia Wilde played her part with the profound innocence even dropping in – “have you met him?” – in reference to her favorite author Jules Verne. Who really wants to explain to a child about Death along with the concepts of Past, Present and Future?

Anyway, the effects and production design proved far more interesting than the original movie. Yes, telling a Tron story requires similar touchstones. Control disks you can throw as weapons. The lightcycles. And the beam riding skyships. The idea was to take what the original movie gave us and bringing it into some semblance of what Flynn and Sam might’ve actually seen with their eyes versus the painted on feel of the original.

I do have one quibble that the filmmakers couldn’t take the opportunity to invent at least one new game for the arena. Going back to the Lightcycle Maze Race and Deadly Frisbee, might have been a necessary nod/homage to the fans, but the Grid, like any society, evolves. Logic suggests that there could have been a third game for the brutal viewing pleasure of Clu as he intends the disposal of his enemies. An opportunity missed.

All in all, I really enjoyed this movie thinking it one of the few times where a sequel improves on the original. Check it out.

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© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

“Greetings programs!”

With that we follow Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) into a world where programs take the faces of their creators, the Users, as they do their thing under the all-seeing oppressive eye of the Master Control Program. The new element of Flynn, a User deified as a god inside the system, brings great change.

Looking back on this classic movie that with The Last Starfighter lays claim to the first large scale movie to rely so heavily on the nascent field of CGI special effects, I see that for myself the movie holds up better as that primary signpost in film technology than as a narrative. Did I hate the story? No. It was kind of there and even average storytelling can engage the willing audience.

When Flynn goes hacking for proof that executives at Emcon plagiarized his video games in the Master Control Program said evil power-hungry AI uses an experimental laser to digitize Flynn into the system. He makes the right kind of friends in programs, like Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) and Yori (Cindy Morgan). They cross great digital expanses…

The main conceit here is that people in the real world are mirrored by their programs that they create to perform functions inside the system. Jeff Bridges was also the hacking program, Clu (died early on). Cindy Morgan also played Yori’s programmer, Lori Baines. And Bruce Boxleitner gave his face to Tron, as well as Tron’s creator, Alan Bradley. David Warner plays Ed Dillinger, the plagiarizing CEO and two programs the Master Control Program and Sark, the MCP’s spear-carrier henchman and master of the digital games.

So, while making the metaphorical point that creator and creation are one and the same, later famously echoed in the Star Trek: DS9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars,” it naturally follows that relationships in the real world are mirrored among the programs. If Lori Baines used to date Flynn but now has landed on Alan Bradley, then Tron and Yori will share echoes of that relationship in the system. And Flynn will just have to get over his regrets for Lori when he sees Tron and Yori kiss.

Throughout the movie, the filmmakers consistently went for the simple story of one User thrown into the new world of the system as catalyst to bring freedom. However, complicating elements like the subdued romantic triangle mentioned above isn’t particularly well realized as we fly around set pieces that even allowing for advances in CGI in approximately forty years are still impressive.

Other elements that are kind of waved at include the obligatory gladiators bonding in the locker room scene. We don’t see very much of programs waiting for the call to the next round of combat disks getting short with the new guy who needs to be told – “we don’t make friends.” They’re there but skimmed over quickly to advance the story of the next station of the effort to make it to the input/output tower with Tron’s disk (a Frisbee) that will splinter the Master Control Program into millions of unformed bits.

Related to the skimmed over romantic triangle in general, I feel there needed to be more scenes between Flynn and Yori to better build up to the kiss between them at the end. Flynn had a hangup about Yori’s creator, Lori, not the software herself. Pretty much one way to expand this movie from its approximately ninety minutes running time is more scenes between Flynn and Yori, where she shares traits with her real-world creator that causes…confusion at the very least. The kiss, as we see it, is unmotivated…unless the filmmakers are just telling us that smooching with the other member of the team when you’ve set up a triangle like with Luke and Han in Empire Strikes Back is just a union mandated thing and kindly please just sit down and shut up.

On retrospect, I would’ve liked to see more cuts back and forth between the computer world and the real world. The Master Control Program doesn’t just boss hapless programs sending the annoying ones to the games much like a Roman emperor consigning his enemies to the arena; he (it?) hacks major companies and government agencies straining for more power (Skynet anyone?). These actions have real world consequences and this is a good way to have Allan and Lori pitch in to save the world from the runaway sentient computer. Just a thought.

What went well. Getting a pre-Lebowski Jeff Bridges to play Flynn proved excellent. He drives the film to the appearance of more story than is really there with his ability to act even when wearing a costume with what must be highly distracting neon lights attached at the rim of his face. This plays out best when Flynn reacts to Tron and Yori’s kiss and embrace in the middle of the movie.

Of course, you can’t talk about Tron without discussing the effects. People now might laugh at the starkly drawn first generation visual effects that look like somebody painting them on with a Day-Glo pen, but for the time they were groundbreaking. The result came out more like a classic mixed animation scene where a live dancer needs to hoof it with a cartoon mouse than the more integrated effects today.

What holds up about the visual feel of the movie are the underlying designs. There are skyships that sail beams of energy like a solar sail spaceship. Light cycles trailing walls of colored energy. Vast structures eerily reminiscent of human cities at night. And even allowing for the primitive and slightly blocky rendering, something about all those designs stay with you.

To wrap up. Tron is a nice average Dark Tower movie that without being an early entry into the then undiscovered country of computer effects might’ve fallen a little flat. The effects and design work combined with good performances from the cast has a way of making the movie rise above the modestly too short script that didn’t make full use of the dramatic elements raised, waved at and then sent back. A good, comfort food type movie.