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.

12 comments:

J.D. said...

Good look at both of these films! I certainly agree with your assessment, here. What saved TRON from being just mere eye candy was the playful charisma of Jeff Bridges as the audience surrogate into this dazzling computer world. TRON LEGACY doesn't have that with Garrett Hedlund's largely bland performance. And I still really love the look of the first film, even over the CGI improvements in the sequel but the real masterstroke of LEGACY was having Daft Punk compose the score. It really enhanced the visuals and established just the right mood.

Hokahey said...

J.D. - Thanks for the comment. I'm glad you still like the look of the first film. When I watched it recently, I was surprised how absorbed I became. The imagination only needs a little encouragement to blossom - that's why 3D is unnecessary for me. Should have mentioned the Daft Punk score. Even though the orchestral segments were a little reminiscent of Zimmer's Inception score, that was okay with me; it really took you into this very different world.

Daniel Getahun said...

Lots of great points here, Hokahey. Let me start with the music - you are SO right about the Inception-ish score! That came to my mind right away. I don't know if Zimmer/Nolan started a trend with their trombone-heavy scores, or if it's all a coincidence, but nonetheless it was not very inspired here. Daft Punk, meanwhile, was great. I actually wish there had been more of that music throughout as opposed to the traditional score (which was actually almost omnipresent).

Nice catch about the cyberpig, too! That whole scene was a little strange, and made you consider all kinds of other things about "life" on the grid, such as where he got all of those books...

A few times I had a Quorra/Trinity from The Matrix vibe, but that was only during the fighting scenes.

And lastly, what the heck WAS the point of Castor/Zuse? In hindsight that was kind of a terrible plot point, even if it did provide for some entertaining acting.

Hokahey said...

Daniel, thanks for your thoughts. Funny thing about the Inception music. I'm kind of a fan of overwrought dramatic musical scores, so I've been listening to the Inception on the way to work. I like the swelling, emotional piece that goes along with Dom going through customs and returning to his kids. Also, that movie had different music for the preview - also dramatic - that I loved. So I liked the music for Legacy even though sometimes I thought, "Enough already."

I need to go and see the movie again to figure out why there's a mystery about Castor being Zuse.

I can just imagine two teenage sci-fi nerds debating, "So who's more awesome - Trinity or Quorra?" So, uh, Daniel, who's more awesome, Trinity or Quorra? I guess Trinity is more AWESOME, but Quorra gets to stretch her legs on that couch.

Daniel Getahun said...

I like Trinity, I think. She seemed more...mature. But maybe too serious, too. Quorra seemed like a lot more fun to hang out with.

Hokahey said...

Can't believe we're doing this ... yeah, I like Quorra better. Love those big eyes!

Daniel Getahun said...

Oh, we did it! Always fun to be a teenage sci-fi nerd for a bit.

Hokahey said...

Thanks, Daniel. Science fiction became one of my favorite genres - starting when I was little and my mother wouldn't let me and my younger brother watch Creature Features because of the gruesome "radiation." So, for me, partly it's forbidden fruit and I try to see every sci-fi movie that comes out.

Kate Hanley said...

Great blog. I'm a new visitor, my sister suggested I check you out since I'm a movie lover and while I do blog, it's not always about the movies. I still have to see Tron so I can see Tron: Legacy (enjoyed that you watched the 1st on VHS). Then I had to read about Jaws because both these movies are films that my husband introduced me to. Since we've been married we've been able to show each other "our favorites" which has expanded my movie experience. Sorry to go on so long, but if you are interested, I follow a blog called Caffeinated Joe and he writes about horror films all the time. It's great. Be well.

Hokahey said...

Kate, thanks for your comment. It's great that you and your husband introduce each other to favorite movies. When I met my wife, she had not seen many of my favorite movies. She had A LOT of viewing to do, and many of those movies became her favorites.

Fletch said...

Like the others, I really enjoyed your piece, Hokahey - you handled the alternating of talking points between the first and the second wonderfully. Even better for you - it sounds as though you came away from the second with an even greater appreciation for the first, while seeing the strengths in the second for what they are. If anything, it seems like you came away with roughly the same feelings towards the both of them.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to re-visit the original prior to catching the latest one, but that's something I'd like to remedy soon.

And I gotta go with Trinity. She does get a bit...heavy, especially in the latter two films, but Quorra just seems a bit too blank and naive (teenagery?) to want to hang out with. More fun to look at, perhaps, but there's not enough substance there. The same could probably be said of the character of Sam, too...

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comment, Fletch. I do appreciate the original more now that I have seen Legacy.

Yes, Sam is definitely vapid and he left me cold as a protagonist. As for Trinity, yes, more substance. Quorra - I guess she is somewhat blank and naive. I find that refreshing once in a while.