On Tron

With Tron Legacy about to open, I felt I should review the original.  From the first time I saw Tron in theaters, it had a huge impact on me.  As a child I watched it at least three times while it was still showing, and since then I’ve watched it many more.  Today was, I think, the 11th time I’ve watched it.

It holds up very well.  I’m still happy to say it’s one of my all-time favorite movies, and the most visually appealing movie of all time.  And Sark’s carrier is still the coolest vehicle design ever.

The story is actually less corny than I remember it being.  Sure, under the trappings it’s still a pretty straightforward uber-hero versus evil overlord action-adventure, but there’s nothing wrong with that; when done competently it can be entertaining.  More importantly, it served as an early and powerfully positive introduction to the concept of mind uploading; the “living in a video game world” aspect of the story wasn’t the entirety of the appeal to my younger self.  Sure, I was an arcade rat and loved the whole video game aspect, but at some level I think I also understood that living inside the computer was highly desirable because it offered freedom from the disadvantages of biology.

There is, however, one plot point that bothers me: Why was the workstation Flynn used right in the path of the laser beam?  That makes no sense at all.

It has been a number of years since my last viewing, and I’m surprised at some important details I missed before.  It makes me question my long-held belief that adults are less perceptive than children.

  • I never picked up on the MCP’s comments about the Pentagon and Kremlin before.  I got that it was taking control of Encom, but this is the first time I noticed it intended to dominate the real world too.  I don’t know how I missed that before – probably because of the general disregard for politics I had in my youth.
  • Flynn was a former Encom employee and was doubly wronged by Dillinger: Dillinger stole credit for his games and then dismissed him. I think I understood each of these things separately on separate occasions before but never grokked them together until now.  I sort of assumed Flynn was doing what he was doing simply because Dillinger and the MCP were villains and he didn’t like them.
  • Tron picked up on the same vibe between Yori and Flynn that Alan got between Lora and Flynn.
  • Clu looked like Flynn.  I noticed it before and it confused me.  Now I understand it’s because the programs resemble the users that created them.
  • Lora and Yori have more in common that their author/program relationship and their connection with Alan/Tron. They’re also both involved in research and development work and they’re both enablers that make it possible for the “heroes” to do their thing without being flashily heroic themselves.  There’s probably some sociology mileage in that but I don’t have the background to comment on it.  The parallel symmetry between them becomes a mirror symmetry when you note that Lora’s work is used as a weapon by the MCP whereas Yori’s is used to aid in the MCP’s defeat; in a sense Yori redeems Lora.
  • When in the computer world, Flynn was essentially being forced to survive inside the very same games he wrote, and that’s ironic.  So obvious I completely missed it.
  • Sark was afraid of Flynn because of his presumed awesome user powers.  Dillinger was afraid of Flynn because of his presumed awesome hacker powers and Dillinger’s dirty secret (which he should never have kept a record of!).  Sark was one of Dillinger’s programs.  Another elegant parallel.  Again, I noticed these things separately before but didn’t integrate them until now.
  • I always noticed that Dumont and Gibbs had the same face, but I could never figure out what relationship they could have had.  Now I get it: they’re both concerned with the connection between the two worlds.  Dumont was an I/O controller, and Gibbs an engineer working on the digitizing laser.  It’s not a huge stretch to imagine that Gibbs may have written Dumont.
  • As the defeated MCP is disappearing, we see the remnants of an old I/O controller like Dumont.  I don’t recall seeing this scene before, but I noticed he’s typing on something that looks like a typewriter; the mainframe is old technology.

I also have greater appreciation for some of the design aspects of the movie than I did before.  For one thing, the sound design really helps.  With the exception of the comedic sequence where Flynn is flying the recognizer badly, none of the sounds in the computer world are realistic.  They’re all distorted analogues of real-world sounds, and it works very well to reinforce the unreal nature of the environment.

There are also a couple of nice visual connections made between the real world and the computer world.  The obvious one is the transition into the cityscape at the beginning, but there is also the suggestion of the shape of the helicopter by the lines on its sides, and in the computer world just after the MCP’s defeat you can see a glow on the horizon that is echoed by the sunrise behind Dillinger in the next scene.  The computer-world scenes are obviously gorgeous and anything I could say about them would feel inadequate, but use of color in the real-world scenes is well done also – note for example when Lora and Flynn are climbing up to the laser area, they’re both lit with warm, almost orange light whereas their surroundings are cold and blue.

I always loved this movie, but with the new things I picked up on this watching I love it even more.  I may have to consider giving it all-time-favorite status (currently held by Forbidden Planet).

Having seen the trailers for the sequel that is about to be unleashed upon us, I’m cautiously pessimistic.  They’re concentrating on visuals and action sequences, with only a hint at possibly plot.  I can’t complain too much about the visuals being updated – that can easily be written off as a representation of advancing technology – but I can complain that the visuals seem to be more “realistic” and less abstract.  The computer world in this trailer just looks like the real world with glass roads and neon outlines.  Also, the nice sound design is gone; the light cycles sound like motorbikes, which is just wrong.  Granted some real-world sounds could be detected in the original movie, but they were processed with the intent of making them unreal.  (I’m on the fence about the light cycles following curved paths; on the one hand it’s another case of a nice abstraction disappearing but on the other, the light cycles could follow curved paths when not in game mode in the original film too.)

I’ll post a commentary on the new movie after I’ve seen it a couple of times.

(Looked at the Tron Collector’s Edition bonus DVD afterward, and man am I ever glad they didn’t go with the Heavy Metal style concept art! This movie would have been awful with that visual style, and that really drives home to me how much presentation can influence the perception of a story. So I guess that means I like Tron because of the visuals and the story doesn’t transcend them.  How superficial of me. (Oh, and Wendy Carlos’ original score for the closing credits works much better than what they used.))


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