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.

18 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.

Angeltread said...

who is Crom... wasnt his name RAM?

Hokahey said...

Angeltead, Thanks, you're right. The third one is RAM. Crom, however, is another program that gets de-rezzed in the games, I believe.

PixelOz1 said...

To me the original TRON is still better even tough I do like the artwork on the second one too. Now, I'm not implying that the work of the new movie wasn't big or that there wasn't a lot of effort in it. I have respect for the artistic capability of the new artists but I still like the style of the older movie better for several reasons.

I think that the biggest failure in the new movie was that they did the graphics way too photorealistic and the original had more of a very unique and very beautiful artistic style. I feel that the new movie fell pray to the obsession with the hyper photorealistic craze of today. I mean look at the graphics of the new movie, it even has scuff marks in many areas to make it more "photorealistic", but scuff marks in computer generated objects that are shape changing? It feels out of place.

So if the objects can change shape and appear out of nowhere and regenerate at a whim with a computer command, why do they have scuff marks? Yeah, Yeah to make them more photorealistic and to convey a more “realistic” feeling, I know, but this is kinda oxymoronic. You can say: "But many modern games are photorealistic" Yes but those modern games are trying to depict real life objects and inside the TRON world the objects depicted are supposed to be computer generated and symbolic so they don't have to be so much like real life objects.

The original movie had this very iconic and artistic style that was very special and unique. You were transported to this very beautiful and “magical” world that was a very symbolic representation of what was supposed to be happening inside a computer. Despite the older graphics (and remember that that was so long ago and back there those graphics were very much cutting edge and to be more accurate way ahead of their time) it felt much more fantastic, more like being inside a world made completely like Disney's own electrical parade, more like being in the glowing forest of Avatar or inside the paintings like world of Robin William's What Dreams May Come. In the new movie too many times in many scenes you feel like you are instead in some sort of future city like Coruscant or Bespin or the bridge of the Enterprise E, very beautiful yes but often it doesn't make you feel like you are inside the computer world at all. This is not always the case but it is too many times.

That's why I like the original movie much more. I respect and praise the artwork of the artists of the new movie a lot but the excess of photorealism pulls you away from "being inside the electronic world of a computer" too much, too many times. If it was perhaps a little more artistically abstract, if it was more symbolic and it didn't try so much to mimic "the real world" (albeit futuristic which is somewhat OK and beautiful) it would have been much better. Remember the extremely beautiful and yet very "angular" and/or very "geometric" cave scene of the 1st movie or the interior of the original recognizer and the interior of the original tanks, it was just amazing.

Another important change was the transitions. In the original movie the transitions from/to the real world were considered extremely important because that transportation “through an electronic beam” really told you much more convincingly that you were going somewhere else. I remember seeing the extra material on the TRON DVD that I have in which they commented so much on why the original transition scenes were so important and they eliminated them completely in the new movie! Compare that to the new movie in which Sam's transition are totally eliminated and the first one look instantaneous. You do get to see the beam at the end of the movie but you are never taken through it, again no transition at all.

PixelOz1 said...

Yes I understand that the producers were trying to sort of confuse the viewer to leave him/her doubting whether or not something has happened cause the place where Sam is looks very much the same except that it looks somewhat different in the colors, it looks cleaner but when Sam gets outside is sort of “Oh what the heck has just happened? Where am I?” and is not really until the recognizer arrives and the floor starts to collapse that he and the viewers really, really “know” that they are not in Kansas anymore.

The problem with this is that despite this intention it really doesn't work that well cause for the new viewers it might be a bit cool but it is also detrimental because they do not get the same strong feeling that Sam was taken somewhere else as it happened to Flynn in the first movie. And as for the viewers of the original movie that doesn't confuse them that much cause they know very fast after the beam hits him that he has been transported, and how many fans of the original movie are part of the public of the new one? A helluva lot, including me. And yes despite they knowing fast that he has been transported cause they remember the first movie the transportation effect being completely eliminated feels like something is missing anyway.

Also the trick that he sort of “stays” in the same place is also kind of detrimental cause in the original movie Flynn is transported to some sort of “station” already transformed into the “electronic version” of him with his “electronic uniform” and all that together conveys a much larger feeling of being somewhere else and that there has also been a transformation of him into something else but now Sam appears wearing the same clothes he had in the real world and it is not until later that he is changed into his “electronic video game uniform” which also breaks a lot the transportation and transformation illusion to a large degree. It is not that the dressing of him by the girls scene is that bad, it is kinda cool and sexy and everything but that sexiness that they tried so hard to put all over the movie is also secondary in my opinion to what really matters in the movie which should be the same as in the first movie: A symbolic fight of good against evil which is what TRON really is about just as Star Wars was. And I'm not the only one that has voiced this cause I've seen it on the Internet in several places too.

One thing that I do think was OK to change was to change the light cycles from doing only 90 degrees turns cause that felt kinda passe. I think that it was OK in the era of the Atari 2600 but not anymore. I do like the lightcycles and disc fight game scenes of the new movie overall. Now, the smoke in the tires again feels detracting from the illusion of being inside a computer program just like the scuff marks and other things and I'm not the only one to express this about the smoke cause I've seen many people mention this on the web. Again it felt like: “Oh we have this terrific photorealistic particles effects of today that is so advanced so let's use it to make the tires smoke so they will see how sophisticated our movie is” but the end result is a feeling of being outside in the real world instead of inside the computer world. I think that that is why many people didn't like it even though I've noticed that some couldn’t quite express what was the reason, I believe that this was the reason for that.

What I like a lot about the original movie is that its artwork felt much more original like the style of modern semi-abstract vector artwork in many wallpapers, you know, those cool and chick modern and somewhat angular vector artwork wallpapers and web page designs that you see around so much of course but glowing and full of light and color like in electronica music dance discotheques which makes it even more beautiful and way cool.

PixelOz1 said...

Even those “glitches” that suddenly or spontaneously zipped past the characters in the first movie look very cool. Yes I know that they were really done to cover flaws of the inconsistencies of the negatives used to film the original movie scenes but ironically they served a lot to convey a more “electronic” feel to the scenes instead of a merely “futuristic” one like in the second so back there they turned that flaw in the original into an advantage.

The style of the original movie has far more originality because of all these things. Even today the graphic style of the first movie has no equal in my opinion in any other movie that I have ever seen. You see it and the experience still feels very unique. Today's graphics may be much more advanced and I respect and like that too but the original movie artistic style overall still stands in a league of its own that still to this date defies categorization.

Hokahey said...

PixelOz - Thanks for your extensive comments. I still really enjoy the original movie. Indeed, it is very otherworldly and surrealistic. I still find that world quite absorbing.

But I also find the world of the new movie to be quite absorbing as well as very cool. Even though Sam enters the grid in his own clothing, I still get a sense that he has been transported to another world.

Thanks again for all your thoughts.