Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Legacy of Tron

One month from today, Tron Legacy will open in theaters.

It's only recently that I've fully realized what a huge impact the original Tron had on me as a kid. I saw the film when it first came out and don't recall being that impressed, but I got to know the film well on home video, and became quite obsessed with it.

Whereas Star Wars inspired me to be a filmmaker, Tron almost singlehandedly triggered my interest in anything digital, from computer animation to game design to programming.

The depth of this hit home when I attended a screening of the film at the George Eastman House earlier this year. When Bruce Boxleitner is first shown sitting at his cubicle working on a software program, I realized with a shock that I now had the same day job as this character. I was looking at myself, even though I had no ambitions in that direction when I first saw the film 28 years ago.

I wonder if anyone else was similarly influenced, since Tron came out quite early in the history of personal computing. One of the ironies of Tron is that, back when it was made, even imagery that was supposed to be perceived as digital had to be largely created through old-fashioned analog means. (In the 21st century, of course, it's completely the opposite; digital technology is regularly used to create images that are supposed to be accepted as real.)

I remember being a bit confused by the movie when I first saw it. I was obsessed with video games as a kid, and was under the impression that Tron would be a video game movie. It more or less delivered this for the first half, then seemed to get more abstract and confusing. But after repeated viewings on video, my young brain came to appreciate that the film was less about video games than about computers: it helped introduced me to users and programs, input and output, bits and bugs.

Set in a self-consciously artificial world, Tron is (perhaps inevitably) simplistic in its story and characters, and gets a bit slow and meandering once the two lead characters, Flynn and Tron, are separated from each other by the plot. But it creates a unique and imaginative world with its own strange rules. It's a purely conceptual universe where programs are living, thinking humanoids that have the same likeness as their creators – “our spirit remains in every program we design,” says one elderly programmer early in the film.

The audience doesn't need to be told that these characters glow brighter when they're emotional and fainter when they're weakened, or that when they die their particles disperse and are reabsorbed into the environment. (I also like the subtle touch that the older, more obsolete programs have hand-drawn, hieroglyphic-style patterns on their costumes, as opposed to the circuit-like patterns worn by the younger characters.) This is visual storytelling, and the fact that these exotic and esoteric concepts are so easily communicated in the guise of a straightforward summer action movie may actually qualify as a kind of genius.

Other themes that may have been intended by the filmmakers were less obvious to me as a kid. On one of the DVD extras, writer/director Steve Lisberger claims that the film depicted the conflict between the personal computer and the mainframe – the idea being, presumably, that characters such as Flynn, Tron and Clu represent individual will and freedom, while the Master Control Program represents authoritarian control. Like its precursor Star Wars, Tron champions freedom, creativity and innovation while itself being an example of these values.

I haven't paid too much attention to the viral marketing for Tron Legacy (well, apart from a six-hour round trip to Toronto with my friend Scott just to see the two-minute trailer when it was first unveiled). I'm trying not to watch the increasing amounts of footage that Disney has been putting online, because I want to be surprised by the finished film. From what I have seen, the visuals appear to be more impressive than the writing, but then that was true of the original Tron as well. It's been a while since I went to a midnight movie opening (I'm still kicking myself for not attending the earliest screenings of Grindhouse or Snakes on a Plane), but I ain't gonna miss this one.

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