“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….”
“You got in!”
“That’s right, man! I got in.”
The first time I realized, as a kid, that there were limits to how far my interests intersected with most of the other kids was when a movie came out in 1982 called TRON.
I was, probably, the ‘nerd’ in school, although I wasn’t walking around with my button-downed shirt tucked into my too-high pants and my writing instruments tucked into a pocket protector. I didn’t wear a tie to school. (I actually loathe neckties, I didn’t learn to tie one until I was 24, and I only own exactly one necktie right now whose location in the bedroom I don’t even know and have not worn since a job interview in 2003. But that’s another topic.) I didn’t know a blessed thing about sports, so when it came time to play football or softball in gym class, I’d have to have the games explained to me.
But even so, to be in fifth and sixth grade in the early 1980s meant that we were all, nerds and jocks, part of “Star Wars nation”. By this I mean that, for the most part, we all saw the same movies, so even if I had no input on conversations of the weekend’s football games, I could still join in with speculations on whether or not Han Solo would return from his carbonite prison, or talk about how bad-ass Indiana Jones was, and so on. I had a friend who was as big a fan of the James Bond movies as I was, so we had those. And so on.
But along came TRON, which I wanted to see because it looked freakishly cool. And I did see it that summer, planning to discuss it with all my friends that fall when I saw them again (TRON was a summer movie). To me, TRON was the obvious next thing in the line from Jaws to Star Wars to Close Encounters to The Empire Strikes Back to Raiders of the Lost Ark to ET. However, to my dismay, not one of my friends saw TRON. I remember a couple of abortive “Hey, did you see TRON?” conversations, all of which ended with something like, “Is that the weird movie inside the computer” or something? Yes. Yes, it was. At the time I was known for various reasons as the resident ‘computer nerd’, so it stood to reason that I’d like the computer movie. But computers weren’t ubiquitous just yet.
(Now, in truth, I wasn’t that big of a computer geek. I loved them, and I dabbled, but I never really had the determination to dig as deeply into computers as I could have, and anyway, a few years later my nascent fascination for computers took a big developmental hit when I got bitten by a beast called music. There’s an alternate me, though, in some other universe, in which I became one hell of a hacker who eventually wrote programs for NASA. And there’s still another alternate me, I would wager, that also became a hacker but for shadowy governments and groups based in Eastern Europe. That guy sports a goatee and likes to sit in quite contemplation, steepling his fingers together as be mulls over what manner of mayhem he wishes to unleash upon cyberspace this week.)
Now, this wasn’t exactly a traumatic experience. OK, the other kids didn’t see TRON. No biggie. I didn’t watch football, they didn’t see TRON or appreciate Star Trek. It was OK. But not until college would I find other fellow travelers who’d seen and liked TRON. The movie was my first intimation of a thing that might later be called “geek culture”, but at the time, it was an underground thing. The geeks hadn’t taken over the world just yet, and in truth, back then it didn’t much feel like they would. So into my memory banks went TRON, filed under “Things I Like That Not A Lot Of Other People Did”. I certainly never figured that TRON would get a sequel, even though the innards of the ENCOM system seemed like such fertile ground for exploration.
Thus, imagine my surprise when a sequel, to be called TRON Legacy, was announced.
I suppose it was inevitable, given Hollywood’s current fetish for remakes and reboots and other ways of working with old properties instead of developing new ones. Lots of times, these kinds of projects make me roll my eyes, but others make me think, “Hmmmm, why not?” (And I’d be outright lying if I didn’t admit that a part of me is just waiting for Firefly to get old enough for someone in a suit in Hollywood to say, “Hey, howzabout we reboot that?” Of course, with my luck, Joss Whedon will have no involvement and Roland Emmerich will direct a script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.)
I liked what I saw of the trailers to TRON Legacy, which seemed to be implying a grittier “World Inside the Computer” than the original, with a look that was unmistakably TRON but also slightly Matrix-influenced. And, even though the movie itself got generally mixed reviews, I found myself really enjoying it. Really enjoying it. TRON Legacy was, for me, like scratching a spot that I didn’t realize was itchy until I touched it.
In terms of story, TRON Legacy really doesn’t break a whole lot of new ground. It gives us the kid (Sam Flynn) with the absentee father (Kevin Flynn) who has a lot of issues with responsibility and a willingness to flaunt danger, but who is called upon to embark on a Quest of sorts when he receives an odd piece of information that may bear on his father’s fate. In Sam’s case, Kevin Flynn’s old friend Alan Bradley tells him that he’s just received a message from Kevin Flynn’s old video game arcade, a place that has been shut down for years. Sam goes there, finds a hidden door that leads to a secret computer lab set-up, and when he starts tinkering around, a laser-imager-thing fires up, pulling Sam into “the Grid”, as the System is known.
The Grid, in the movie, is clearly the World Inside the Computer from the first film, fast-forwarded twenty-eight years or so. The script used terms like “Grid” instead of other terms that we might expect, such as “The Net”, which seems to cover over a conceptual point that the film never really addresses: how the World Inside the Computer of TRON would be given the surging of Moore’s Law and of the development of the Internet. Maybe a future sequel (one is said to already be in development) would look into this sort of thing: what would viruses be like in the World Inside the Computer? And how would Programs – depicted as people in the System – be affected by things like DRM? But maybe this sort of thing would be too esoteric.
TRON, though, didn’t really deal with computer issues either, even for the computers of the 1980s. There was never really a sense of how bad things would be for humans – ‘Users’ – if the Master Control Program succeeded in taking over the entire system. Ultimately, the World Inside the Computer was a setting for a not-terribly-original story of plucky heroes defying the odds against a tyrannical villain; what was unique was the film’s look and the paraphernalia of the story. A lack of originality in the original story can be overlooked, if at the same time we’re watching things like Recognizers, Sailships, and, of course, light-cycles. All this is, of course, mainly because TRON purported to be inspired by the just-starting-to-snowball computer revolution, but what really inspired TRON was the then-in-full-swing video arcade game craze.
TRON Legacy shows us a World Inside the Computer where things have gone wrong since the original events that, at the time, were thought to be setting the stage for a Golden Age in that world. What happened? Why? And how does it involve Kevin Flynn, and by extension, his son Sam? This is the story of the film, which involves some of the programs from the original film, mainly Flynn’s alter-ego program CLU. (Now, CLU had been executed – ‘derezzed’, short for ‘deresolution’, in TRON lingo – in the original film, so either Flynn had a backup CLU or this is CLU 2.0. The film doesn’t say, but there’s an interesting question to be explored in the TRONiverse regarding the ontological status of backups, which would literally be identical copies of programs! In a way, they’d be more perfect than clones, wouldn’t they? Bring on TRON Episode III: Attack of the Backup Copies!)
TRON Legacy makes no real effort, as I note above, to ‘update’ the TRONiverse in a way that reflects what we now know about computers. Instead, it goes on its way, creating its own terminologies for the System. Thus we have a subplot involving Flynn’s inadvertent creation of a sentient ‘race’ of programs, which are then summarily destroyed by CLU; what kinds of programs would those be, anyway? TRON Legacy studiously avoids drawing parallels between what happens in the Grid and what happens in our own computers, so again, we have a story that’s unfolding in an amazing-looking world that’s more organic and less stylized than the blocky, 8-bit-looking world of TRON. TRON Legacy is visually stunning, there’s no doubt about that. One stylistic tic of the film that I noticed in a big way is the symmetrical construction of a good many of the big, establishing shots. If you like symmetry in your movie visuals, TRON Legacy is your movie. Another is that the film is firmly entrenched in the much-derided “teal and orange” tradition which is currently at sway in movies. I’m of mixed mind on this. On the one hand, I’m tired of the limited color scheme in movies today. But on the other, it works very well in TRON Legacy, seeming like an extension of the original film’s blue-and-red.
So what about that story, then? In terms of the dressings of the Grid, there’s not a lot new – it all simply looks a lot better now. The light-cycle sequence in the new film is amazing, and there are more battle scenes involving the discs that Programs wear on their backs. There is a love story and there is a redemption story and there is the whole father-and-son story, which has double parallels because Kevin Flynn is not just Sam’s father, but in a very real way, he is CLU’s father as well. Jeff Bridges plays Flynn this time out as equal parts Obi Wan Kenobi and The Dude, to good effect, saying things like “It’s amazing how productive doing nothing can be.” We’re not entirely sure how he’s managed to survive twenty-plus years in the Grid, but it doesn’t really matter. Bridges does double-duty, actually, also playing CLU with scenery-chewing malevolence. (He’s also been digitally ‘enyouthened’, to make up a word on the spot, thus solving the problem of having CLU look like the Jeff Bridges of 1982 – or at least more like that than the Bridges of 2010.)
Sam Flynn is a pretty interesting character, too. On the one hand, he’s your standard ‘young man with daddy issues and trouble with responsibility’, but he’s not sullen or bitter, which is nice. It would have been too easy to have Sam brooding his way through the film, but he doesn’t; he engages with the world, partly accepting it and partly disbelieving it.
The performance of the film, though, belongs to Olivia Wilde as Quorra, Kevin Flynn’s main ally in the Grid. She is a blend of strength and intelligence and raw naivete, a program who serves a User incarnated before her, and who learns more about the world of the Users than anyone in the film should probably know. She shows up almost out of the blue, to help Sam, and we soon learn that she is Kevin Flynn’s closest ally in the Grid – his only ally in the Grid, actually. She is also deeply interested in the world of the Users, having read the books that Kevin Flynn has surrounded himself with in his Grid apartment, but not quite understanding certain details:
QUORRA: Between you and me, Jules Verne is my favorite. Do you know Jules Verne?
QUORRA: What’s he like?
At the end of the film, Sam Flynn is able to bring Quorra with him into the ‘real world’, the world of the Users, and as the film closes, he is driving along on his motorcycle with Quorra clinging to his back as she looks with wonder on the sunset for the first time. Wilde does something here that amazes me: she doesn’t so the slack-jawed stare that you might expect. Instead, she takes in the sunset, and then she turns back forward to lower her face and bury it in Sam’s back, in a gesture of intimacy that’s probably best saved for the back of a motorcycle. But even as she lowers her face, her eyes again flick upward and around, to see what she might see. She can’t decide what to look at, but she doesn’t want to stop looking, even as she acts on feelings for the son of her hero. Wilde’s performance in TRON Legacy is pitch-perfect, and it is her character that is key to the whole film. Quorra’s journey is the longest one in the film, and Wilde’s portrayal of her quiet joy upon reaching her journey’s goal is absolutely wonderful.
The music for the original TRON was provided by pioneering synthesizer composer Wendy Carlos. Given that film’s video game subtext, the music was crafted to sound like video game music (and then was used in the actual TRON video game, which was, incidentally, a pretty awesome damned arcade game in itself!). TRON Legacy‘s deepening of the textures of its world calls for more intricate music, and it is provided by techno group Daft Punk, in what is frankly one of the finer electronic scores I’ve heard for a movie. It is otherworldly, sometimes rhythmically pounding and at other times dreamy, but almost always melodic and haunting. This is the kind of film music that makes me laugh when I hear other film music fans talk about how that particular art’s better days are farther and farther in our past.
I would not contend that TRON Legacy is a great film. But it is a slick and extremely well-constructed entertainment.