Sunday, December 19, 2010
Old Grid, New Grid - Tron (1982) and Tron: Legacy (2010)
Until recently, my experience with the original Tron (1982) had been watching it once through on VHS and then showing my students the lightcycle chase and the tanks sequence multiple times as examples of early CGI. Then, in anticipation of the new Tron: Legacy, I dug out the old VHS tape and watched Tron again, having a good chuckle at Jeff Bridges’s hyper, hot dog portrayal of computer programmer Kevin Flynn, but escaping totally into the otherworld the film establishes. Though both films feature merely serviceable performances that generate little emotion, and the writing tends toward comic-bookish camp, they both succeed at creating fascinating worlds that take the viewer on unique adventures even though the vast difference in visual quality spans the entire history of CGI.
Despite the extreme contrast in CGI, I can still enjoy the world created in the original Tron, an effectively established otherworld where “user” Kevin Flynn (Bridges), Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), and Crom (Peter Jurasik) try to avoid de-rezzing as they cross a world of line and angles to the portal that can whisk Kevin back to the real world. Here we follow Kevin’s attempts to survive a disc-throwing battle and a lightcycle contest, and elude tanks and H-shaped shuttles. One of the most memorable moments in Tron comes when Kevin, Tron, and Crom refresh themselves at a pool of crystal-clear energy-water. Bridges’s thirst for the invigorating water evokes a vivid sense of wonder here. You want to reach out and try some of it yourself! As a credit to Tron, this scene is more effective than the episode in Legacy when Kevin, Sam (Kevin’s son, played by Garrett Hedlund), and Quorra (Olivia Wilde) sit down to a meal of … what? Cybernetic roast pig? What they eat is neither interesting nor vividly evoked. (Nevertheless, the dinner scene in Legacy is a beautiful tribute to Kubrick as the dinner table and the white floor crisscrossed with black lines call to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey mise-en-scène.) Also notable in the first Tron is the pursuit of the “Solar Sailer” and its nifty crossover to an alternate path on the Grid. The Grid adventures are the best part of Tron, and it’s a brash disappointment when Jeff returns to a low-budget 1980s real world with shaggy hairstyles and horridly huge glasses.
Twenty-eight years later, Tron: Legacy benefits from incredible advances in CGI, (while it gains little from 3D), and takes you into a world of breadth and plummeting depth, a dark, sunless realm of brooding structures where programs do the bidding of CLU (a pasty-faced, mealy-mouthed CGI version of a younger Jeff Bridges). Here, old Kevin Flynn (Bridges) has gone guru, and his Zen jargon fits right in with the comic book tone. “Radical!” No matter. Your eyes are too busy feasting on the visuals to be able to pay much attention to words. As in the first film, after the thankfully brief scenes in the real world, the Grid gradually absorbs you as Sam Flynn, Kevin’s son, moves through its various landscapes. As Sam Flynn, Garrett Hedlund is just as pasty-faced and toothy as the CGI version of Jeff Bridges. He’s utilitarian in his role, but the characters he meets are more interesting. Sam’s father has turned into an old-fashioned hippie, fighting against CLU’s attempt to form all programs into a vast robotic army, and Michael Sheen plays Castor/ Zuse (I never understood the significance of the revelation that he is Zuse), the sleazy proprietor of the End of the World Club.
Of course, Tron: Legacy takes the machines introduced in the first film and makes them more substantive, imposing, and awesome. We get the lightcycles in a flashy lightcycle battle; we get the H-shaped shuttles, made more threatening by the enhancement of superior sound; and we get much more substantial “Solar Sailers.” We miss out on the tanks, involved in one of my favorite scenes in Tron, but in their place we get Quorra’s off-Grid speedster and X-Wing Fighter-like warships that engage in a thrilling dogfight that plays like a World War II battle between a B-17 and Messerschmitts.
In Legacy Olivia Wilde plays Quorra, a superior program called an ISO, an isomorphic algorithm, whatever that is, and Quorra, in short black hair and tight black suit, is vastly superior to Cindy Morgan, as Dr. Lora Baines/Yori, who has little to do in Tron. Wilde gets to drive the off-Grid vehicle to Kevin’s Hippie Bat Cave and fight bad programs in awesome brawls. Meanwhile, Wilde’s expansive eyes convey her youthful enthusiasm for Jules Verne, as she holds up a copy of The Mysterious Island, as well as her innocent wondering about what the sun looks like in the world beyond the Grid. Wilde also displays convincing fierceness when she engages in disc-combats, and the lingering shot of her stretched out on a divan is certainly memorable.
There’s a lot worth looking at in Tron: Legacy, and as an interesting point of comparison, it’s fascinating to view the first movie and see how far CGI has advanced in twenty-eight years, though a lot of work still has to be done developing the faces on CGI renderings of human characters.