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Computer World: 'Tron'/ 'Tron: Legacy' (Blu-ray)

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Monday, Apr 4, 2011
The original Tron is a fascinating film relic. The sequel stinks.
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Tron/Tron: Legacy (Blu-ray)

Director: Steven Lisberger, Joseph Kosinski
Cast: Jeff Bridges, David Warner, Cindy Morgan, Barnard Hughes, Garrett Hedlund, Bruce Boxleitner, Olivia Wilde, Michael Sheen

(Disney; US DVD: 5 Apr 2011 (General release); UK DVD: 5 Apr 2011 (General release))

Gather round you lovers of all things motherboard and flash drive and prepare yourself for a story of source material gone very, very sour. It’s the tale of two Trons, one innocently inventive and full of the promise of a new technological dawn, the other a derivative mess in which the message of the original idea is lost in a digital sea of staid CG and misapplied allegories. Twenty eight years and about as many hundred aesthetic degrees separate them, and yet fanatics would have you believe that they are equal extensions of the same man vs. machine ideal. If that’s the case, then to paraphrase Woody Allen, Kraftwerk will never stop throwing up.


In the early ‘80s, the Walt Disney company took a massive risk on a movie that treaded the fine line between live action and animation, using a whole new science that would one day rewrite the cinematic rulebook. Nearly three decades later, the company concocted a cash cow that did little except threaten to destroy the first Tron’s lingering ‘legacy’. Now available in a ritzy five disc 3D/Blu-ray/DVD package, Tron and Tron: Legacy are both present and accounted for. One is improved greatly by the format update, all the rough edges and bad matte and process shots replaced by a solid, smooth polish. The other never needed the upgrade, unless of course you are talking about in the storyline, directing, and acting departments.
  
The now mythic techno-fable begins as the story of wronged programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and his battles with ENCOM over the ownership of the video game Space Paranoids. Current CEO Ed Dillinger (David Warner) allegedly stole the software, misappropriating it for his own career gain. With the help of fellow employees Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan), Flynn breaks into the labs, accesses a terminal, and begins his investigation. Hoping to thwart the discovery of damning evidence, the Master Control Program ‘digitizes’ the intruder and sends him into the computer. There, it hopes to “play games” with the “user” until he, Flynn dies.


Thus begins a quest which sees newly developed digital graphics used to metaphorically represent the various programs being accessed by the MCP, the dictatorial tact of Dillinger, and the rebellious nature of ‘Tron’, Alan’s special computer coding which hopes to return the system to the human geeks once and for all. Eventually, Flynn’s special status within the grid allows him to help thwart the MCP, and upon returning to the real world, he becomes the new head of the company. Fast forward a few years in movie time and he is now a single father with some incredibly radical ideas about the merging of synthetic and biological “information” to create a kind of human/CPU hybrid. One night, the older Flynn disappears, leaving his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) to wonder what happened. When old enough to investigate, he discovers a secret lab above his dad’s old video game arcade.


A couple of keystrokes and sonny boy is himself stuck in “The Grid”, a highly polished version of his father’s dream, run by another despotic ruler, a rogue program named Clu (Bridges). Again, a Flynn must subvert the glorified games used to sort things out while rescuing his trapped parent. He also meets an intriguing young lady named Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who apparently holds the key to the next level in man/machine evolution. Or perhaps she’s added to the storyline because she looks so good in black spandex. Eventually, everything is worked out. The Flynns find a way to trick Clu, he goes bonkers, there is a battle, someone named Castor promises to lead our young hero to head program Zuse, except he may actually be that entity, and a radically retooled Tron now fights for the villains. At the end, a collective “huh?” from the original film’s faithful can definitely be heard.


Thus we have the beauty of the home video format, a chance for both reevaluation and side by side comparison. On the one hand, there is Tron, a trinket from a bygone era that most have written off as antiquated and silly. Standing nearby is Tron: Legacy, a radical update that somehow managed to snag Bridges for a return visit even with a script that finds a way to desecrate everything Steven Lisberger and his original team came up with. Even with the aforementioned’s blessing and input, the update feels forced and unremarkable. It’s a fan’s foray into trying to mimic what came before, except without a similar frame of reference, there’s no longer an era appropriate reaction. Instead, Legacy limps along on animation so complex it makes the old school vector work of the original Tron seem downright inventive. Indeed, when you hear Lisberger and his crew discuss the film on the Blu-ray’s commentary track, you realize how radical it really was.


The original Tron is a true Disney film, perhaps larger in scope by not greater in execution. The computer was used for several action scenes and many long shots. But there were aspects of standard hand drawn animation brought into the process, a way to make things work that a programmer or software designer had yet to figure out. That’s why Tron feels more organic and fresh than its offspring, even some 20-plus years later. There is a tactile approach, a hands-on dynamic if you will, that both dates and defines the film. Like physical effects in horror, there is a patina of falseness that actually works on behalf of the movie magic. Instead of having everything executed in photorealistic ways, depriving your imagination of the necessary suspension of disbelief it needs to transform a moment in your mind, the original Tron teases and promises. You can still see the wide-eyed wonder of what was going on some three decades later.



Legacy, on the other hand, is a borrowed bit of Matrix muck that never quite understands why it’s around. Sure, it’s supposed to be a celebration of a past mythology, creating new elements and expansions along the way. But instead, the new film simply trots out old faces (Bridges, Boxleitner) and familiar names (a relative of Dillinger is namechecked in a board meeting) to make the connection, and then it all careens off into the same motherboard maelstrom that we get in contemporary moviemaking. The “games”, instead of being goals for a character like Kevin Flynn to conquer and learn from, are now just flashy updates. Both the flying disc and lightcycle moments are mere throwaways, not actual pieces of a larger puzzle. Similarly, the entire Clu/digital army/ISO theme is flawed, failing to link successfully to the way we use technology today. It’s screenwriting 101, not a true progression of the overall narrative. Besides, spoiled rich kid Sam makes a lousy lead. He has none of his father’s goofy geek optimism. Again, he’s a page out of a screenplay handbook.


The sequel had a chance to go Brave New World on the material, to show how the everpresent use of technology, barely imagined in 1982, has created a kind of despotic utopia - 1984 where Foursquare is the new Big Brother. Instead, Legacy goes for the cheap challenge, defeating the Frankenstein one created, so to speak. That’s why the original Tron plays as more prescient. It continuously argued for man’s control of the science, not the other way around. In fact, the most amazing part of the original film (aside from the stellar remastering treatment Disney gives it on Blu-ray - it looks absolutely amazing!) is the way in which it envisions a world where young guns disarm the wicked old boy network, strive for truth and experimentation, and come away with a world which is better for everyone. Legacy reduces this all to The Lion King with light sabers - and not in a good way.


It all comes together, however, in one of the most impressive Blu-ray sets in recent memory. Sure, the bonus features are mostly borrowed from previous DVD/laserdisc additions of the original film, and the new movie gets the pointless home 3D feature which is just not that impressive in the confines of your living room. Still, the overall look here is clean and crisp. Gone are all processing defects from the first time around. In their place is a smoothly rendered reality where Tron, Flynn, and the MCP battle for supremacy. We expect this from the update. The technology in 2011 is there. But to see the older film come alive like this is stunning. Similarly, listening to the original commentary track shows the dichotomy between the two approaches perfectly. Legacy is all misplaced honorarium. Tron is the title meant to change things - and in many ways, it did.


So what, exactly, is the moral of this story? Especially when you consider that, all shortcomings aside, Tron: Legacy was a fairly substantial hit? Is it that no one should deny Disney’s ability to cash in comfortably on any previous project, no matter how surreal the suggestion may be? Could it be that the first film was more prophetic that anyone ever imagined? Leaving well enough alone would be a novel idea, except that audiences responded to the rote redux of The Grid with a lot of their hard earned coins? Whatever the final conclusion, there is no question that Tron: Legacy just can’t live up to the core concept the title infers. The original Tron is a fascinating film relic. The sequel stinks.


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In its giddy battle scenes, Tron: Legacy does exactly what it's supposed to do: the visuals are just legible enough to seem exciting, resembling videogames and not pretending to accommodate any rules of physics.
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