Friday, October 29, 2010

Tron Night

Last night, I participated in Tron Night, a promotional gimmick to build buzz and anticipation for Disney’s big tent pole Christmas season film, Tron Legacy. Like a similar stunt two summers ago for Cameron’s now record-breaking Avatar (both the preview and movie I wasn’t impressed by), Tron Night consisted of approximately 20 minutes of footage—a collection of about 5 or 6 disconnected scenes from the first half of the movie. Unlike Avatar, I came away very impressed by what I saw.

Last year’s preview was such a huge letdown, so maybe my standards were lower this time. The effects of Avatar looked nice, but I left with that Ferngully-vibe that later marred the film for a lot of people who dared to question Lord Cameron (as a fan of Aliens, Terminator, and even The Abyss and Titanic, I was especially disappointed after the long wait for his latest project). For all the marketing and promotion of how Avatar would revolutionize the ontological nature of cinema itself, I found the 3D surprisingly underwhelming and the whole look of the film was just plain, well, fake. I don’t know another word for it—I just didn’t feel a part of its world (in both senses of the phrase) for a second. It wasn’t just the blue skin and other design features of the Navi and their fellow inhabitants of Pandora that looked fake—it was how, even beyond that, they didn’t look photorealistic or three-dimensional at all. Instead, they had the bland 2D flatness of a fancy cartoon drawing instead of the convincing depth and life of, say, Golem in Lord of the Rings. The Navi looked so unrealistic that it made the indexical reality of the rest of the movie feel off for me.

And when I saw the final version months later with an open mind, it was just more of the same fakeness, structured around a clichéd, predictable plot that was about an hour longer than it needed to be. I know there were a lot of people, mostly teenagers, who genuinely loved Avatar (but let’s see how they feel about it in ten years), but its success was really due to a huge financial investment in technology upfront, an elaborate marketing campaign that repeatedly sold the film’s questionably “groundbreaking” technology, and all different kinds of ridiculous ticket inflation (3D prices, IMAX prices, even the average general admission cost is double what it was when Titanic was released 13 yrs ago). The movie itself was a whole lotta blah, and the extended preview telegraphed it.

But there were no such reservations about Tron Legacy, which may or may not turn out to be a good movie. But, of course, a big caveat: I am a huge fan of the original Tron, which was more technologically groundbreaking in how it redefined “cinema” than anything Avatar ever did. Cameron’s film did nothing especially innovative in 3D cinema, digital effects, or the IMAX format—what it did was combine them so completely at a level of spectacle and narrative unlike anything before it (but, hey, when you are “King of the World,” it’s a lot easier to afford that kind of “innovation” [$$$] in the first place). The original Tron took film apart—literally—and put it back together again. Much was made of how Tron contained the first ever completely computer-generated scenes in feature-length film history; but it was remarkable in other ways too. The film was shot on 70mm stock so that artists could go in and modified the look of the movie frame-by-frame with backlighting, hand drawings and so forth. Tiny details that would take a digital effects artist a few seconds to do today took months, even years, back then.

Its achievement was quite literally the whole history of movie effects, side-by-side with the future of movie effects simultaneously. Tron the movie itself was the technological innovation for its time; Avatar was just the most effective exploiter of other technological innovations (there was a reason Cameron spent a decade off making IMAX and 3D documentaries before returning to feature-length narrative films). Tron was not a big hit when it first appeared—partly because of intense marketplace competition in science fiction in 1982 (ET, Star Trek II, Blade Runner, etc.)—but also because it was too far ahead of its time. Neither audiences, nor perhaps the computer effects themselves, were yet ready for what Tron was trying to do.

My own relationship to Tron of course is not only a form of technological admiration (one that only grows as I come to better understand the process of filmmaking more with each passing year), but also a deeply affective and nostalgic one. But it’s weird—I don’t remember watching the film in theatres as a kid (I would have been four), and in fact the first time I ever remember watching it in its entirety was when I was in my 20s and I picked it up on DVD. But it spoke to something in me. For one thing, I remember watching the “Light Cycle” and other scenes countless times on the Disney Channel as a kid (this was back when the premium cable channel just recycled older content rather than offered any new programming, and I first saw a lot of Disney’s extensive catalog that way).

So I do remember watching a great deal of it when I was young—just not the complete movie. Moreover, watching Tron a couple decades later, I was thrown back not only to an era of early CGI that was oddly reassuring in its primitive state, but also to a video game culture structured around the old-fashioned “Game Arcade” that was ubiquitous when I was a child, but which was already quickly passing in the 21st Century home gaming era of Playstations and Xboxes. I remembered playing the Tron arcade game as a kid, as well as numerous others from the period. Tron spoke retrospectively to that huge part of my youth—where I would go off to the Mall arcade for an hour with a few bucks in hand while my parents were shopping.

I don’t know that the story of Tron ever really particularly sucked me in—the standard “technology is overtaking the world” kind of sci-fi narrative. Even Bridges’ Flynn was a strangely uninvolving character, an aloof jerk (and unevenly acted by Bridges in a rare uncharacteristic performance), while Bruce Boxleitner was too predictably bland to make for an interesting lead. Rather, it was the atmosphere of both 1980s arcades and the seductively beautiful spectacle of the ENCOM Mainframe world itself that appealed to me.

I don’t think that I ever felt “immersed” into that diegetic world, but I always found its sterile beauty transcendent and even soothing in its own nascent way. It became one of those “late night” movies for me—the ones (usually horror or science fiction) that I watched at night when I couldn’t sleep. They helped me sleep not because they were boring, but because they were, and are, so effectively atmospheric that I was taken out of my own world and into another just enough to calm me down and drift away. In a sense, I got lost in the spectacle of Tron.

And, based on what I saw last night, Tron Legacy takes that feeling to a whole new level—is it as groundbreaking as the original? Of course not. I’m not sure it does anything really technologically advanced. But what it does well is maintain the clean, barren, symmetrical look of the original, with the attendant iconography, while also giving the Mainframe world just enough grit, fog and shadows to feel like a more three-dimensional, and even more quietly sinister, world. Whereas the original Tron was simply alien in its mise-en-scene, the new one is more ambiguous, ominous and absorbing.

You feel like you’re in a world that is straddling the line between science-fiction and horror, while still retaining the original’s techno-beauty (it must be said here that Daft Punk’s score sounds simply amazing—particularly in a sequence where several Recognizers float across the digital landscape after picking Sam up—and will be worth the price of admission alone. It matches the look, sound and feel of Tron’s world while also being unlike anything we heard in the original).

Of course, this new sense of immersion, unlike the first Tron, is also due to the wise addition of 3D. But I didn’t find the 3D effect all that engaging on its own—in fact, it had the same two-plane effect that I perceived when I saw Avatar. There are objects in the foreground, while the background often felt like a flat wall, particularly involving scenes of dialogue. But overall it was effective in selling Sam’s new experience in his dad’s world.

The early “real life” scenes shown—Sam being visited at his apartment (inside a cargo shipping container) by Alan (a welcome sight in Boxleitner again), and then him exploring his Dad’s abandoned arcade (lovingly recreated from the original) were presented in the usual 2D, leading me to assume that only scenes inside the ENCOM mainframe are done in 3D. This would be a clever creative (and well as cost-conscious) move, if true.

So, what scenes did I see? The first two, as I noted above, involved Sam in the real world. I hope Boxleitner has a bigger role in the full version (the first scene of Alan’s visit was listed as Scene 20, so hopefully there’s more backstory involved in how we get from Tron to Tron Legacy). Sam’s coffee table is littered with motorcycle magazines, clearly a daredevil and a bike junkie that foreshadows the Light Cycle scenes. The next scene involves Sam discovering his dad’s basement office beneath the arcade, appropriately decorated with the relevant technology from the 1980s (a nice compliment to the old school arcade games above), where—after an abrupt cut—we are left to presume he is zapped like his Dad in the original into the computer world.

We then jump ahead to the 3D stuff and a lengthy scene in the Grid where Sam is captured by a Recognizer, carried off to a processing center, fitted with the appropriate outfits and memory discs by four female programs, and then sent off to fight in a Disc game (much like Flynn’s experience in the original, minus the obvious sex appeal). After that, we jump ahead to the very end of a Light Cycle sequence, where another program—played by Olivia Wilde—helps him escape the games and the city, into a space that is presumably “off-line.” Then, she takes Sam to the “safehouse” where he (and the audience) are re-introduced to Flynn, played with a suitably zen-like gruffiness by Jeff Bridges (this time channeling a mellower, more soft-spoken Lebowski).

This last scene was my favorite—I don’t know if I’m sold on the actor overall, but in this scene Garrett Holmund really sells Sam’s emotional state at seeing his father for the first time in 20 years, it is genuinely moving, while Bridges’ nails Flynn’s strange ambivalence as both a father genuinely happy to be reunited with his son, but also as a man who has been trapped in a networked, digitized world for so long that he no longer clearly has the interpersonal, human capacity to relate to other people in a compassionate way (thus making Sam’s heartbreak all the more devastating). It could be a great performance.

The extended preview ends with Flynn looking out over the world from the vantage point of his safe house (in a vision of the city directly evoking a similar shot in the original), and then transitions over the standard theatrical teaser trailer that many people have already seen. In fact, all the scenes in Tron Night felt like extended versions of the moments we’ve already seen in previews. There is one quick reference to “Tron” himself (which was Alan’s program in the original), but there’s no clear sense of what, if any, role the title character plays in this sequel. There is also no real sense of the film’s larger plot—we don’t know what’s at stake—online or in the real world—for Sam, Flynn, Alan or anyone else this time around.

The preview worked for me because it successfully appealed to, and intensified, the two things I love about the original: nostalgia for various media technologies and cultures from the 1980s, and the techno-beauty of Encom’s mainframe. And the role of Flynn, plus the reappearance of Bridges and Boxleitner, grounds the film in such a way that it feels like a true continuation of the original, rather than just another half-brained “reboot,” “reimagining,” or some other hollow, quick money-grab on the backs of another maxed-out transmedia franchise. So, I’m on board.

End of line.

1 comment:

emarsh said...

Great post. Like you, I've been looking forward to this movie for a long time. I feel the same way about the original - it was way ahead of its time in many ways conceptually and technologically, even if narratively it left a little to be desired. For me, what was weird about seeing the original for the first time, in my 20s, was the resonance with the arcade game and some of the later console games. I knew the games and the characters, but I didn't know the plot. Thanks for this post -- it give me a little less trepidation about the new film.