Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Before The Sequel, I Revisit Tron, A Trippy Disney Film That Foreshadowed The Matrix!

The Good: Clever concept, Generally good effects, Metaphoric level works great.
The Bad: Some clunky effects, Some awkward acting, Lack of bonus features, Dreadfully short!
The Basics: Somewhat problematic, Tron is a 77 minute journey into 1982's cutting edge special effects with a Man Vs. Machine story that is a stronger metaphor than character journey.

As I prepare to re-emerge into the theaters for Oscar Pandering Season and the bevy of films that come out this time of year, I am catching up with the homework for some of the most anticipated films. While my wife and I were out recently doing Christmas shopping, we ran across a whole load of toys for Tron: Legacy. While I have no real interest in the sequel film, I recognize that there are a number of people very excited about the impending film. So, I decided to bone up on the subject by getting Tron out from my local library. In the years since Tron made its premiere, popular culture has embraced films like The Matrix. And outside popular culture (at least until next year), geeks have embraced cyberpunk works like Neuromancer by William Gibson (click here for my review of that!) and television shows like VR.5 (click here for that review!). The basic premise follows between all three works: humans and machines are becoming much more symbiotic.

Tron is a Disney film that kicked off the idea of humans entering a virtual world. In the world of Tron, computers have sentience and they are hunting programs within virtual world. In Tron, science is making leaps both in the virtual world and the physical world and where they meet, the action of Tron begins. While there are certainly more impressive reality-twisting films today, Tron began it as a story of big business and the philosophy of scientific exploration. A strange subject for a sequel, Tron is fun, if nothing else.

The software company Encom is run by Master Control, a system marginally controlled by the Senior Vice President Dillinger. While a disgruntled software programmer, Flynn, searches for information within the virtual world ruled by Master Control, a current Encom employee, Alan, finds himself locked out of the system. Flynn, alerted by Alan and his ex-girlfriend, Lora, that Dillinger is onto Flynn's attempts to find his signature intellectual property within Master Control, gains access to Encom to try from the source. But while making the attempt to crack into Master Control, a new laser scanner targets Flynn and digitizes him, absorbing him into the virtual world. There Flynn must fight for survival in gladiatorial games arranged by Master Control and executed by Sark.

Flynn, a human among personifications of programs captured by the Master Control, is forced to compete with games, light cycles and other devices. Inside the program, Flynn meets Tron, a personification of the program written by Alan that is working to bring down Master Control from within. During one of the challenges, Tron and Flynn escape the confines of Master Control's grid and they go on the run!

Tron is a thematically ambitious work and writers Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird deserve a lot of credit for making what is essentially a metaphoric film work on an entertainment level as well. The personification of programs and the digital world as an actual world is an intriguing one, but it is also one that occasionally has a lot of weight to bare. After all, the only character the viewer has a real connection with is not the title one, but rather the miniaturized Flynn. Tron is an embodiment of Alan's codes, despite how he appears. So, the relationship story in the virtual world between Tron and the program that resembles Lora only works on the metaphoric level. So, while ideologically the viewer might want to root for Tron, the only real emotional connection has to be Flynn.

Flynn is an initially cocky character, but when Master Control flexes its muscle and manipulates the digitized Flynn, there is a sense of real consequences for the characters and that makes an emotional tether. But the film diverges for quite some time with exploring Tron's attempt to liberate the system and the viewer is given a lot of spectacle with little real connection to the characters. I seldom write this sort of thing, but Tron might be a better movie for people when they are high. After Tron is charged with delivering his disc to the central processor and fundamentally changing Master Control, Tron degenerates into a very basic, if exceedingly trippy, chase story.

Furthermore, the metaphoric levels Tron works on are pretty much exhausted through the early dialogue. While an earlier programmer argues with Dillinger about how Encom was built by his programming, out in the real world, he reveals that his signature and those of other founders will always be within the matrix. So, while Tron encounters the embodiment of that maligned programmer within the communication's grid, the scene does not advance the metaphor, only reiterate it. Similarly, it is hard to care about the digitized Flynn's relationship with the program that resembles Lora. Sure, the viewer gets that Tron isn't Alan and the program is not Lora, so when Flynn pops back into her existence, it's not really Lora cheating on him. But by the same extension, the viewer doesn't care because the woman is just a program.

As for the effects, Tron actually works fairly well because of how clunky the computer effects are. Inside the primitive computer, the landscape and elements look appropriately primitive. The skintones on the characters within the mainframe are washed out, easily distinguishing characters in the real world from the virtual ones (more than just their glowing costumes). But the virtual world is in no way a viable reality for viewers now the way subsequent VR films have been.

What is more problematic than the effects is the acting. The acting is erratic, though not generally bad. Ironically, the acting issues tend to be presented less with actors performing opposite virtual sets or props, but rather in their deliveries. Cindy Morgan has several awkward deliveries wherein she fails to emote realistically and her speech starts and stops abruptly. Bruce Boxleitner and Jeff Bridges do generally well with their deliveries, though they are not given an awful lot to do on the character level. Tron's characters lack subtlety and and sense of shading to their character. Sark is monolithically evil within the Master Control and David Warner portrays him without any real flair or depth. To Warner's credit, his scenes as Dillinger at least allow him moments to play somewhat conflicted about his role in enslaving the virtual world.

Ultimately, Tron is a movie worth seeing once, especially as humans and machines become more interdependent, but it is largely a film with a story as metaphor more than a story wherein vital characters affect the world around them. That makes it somewhat less satisfying and hopefully with Tron: Legacy there will be something more than an hour and a half of metaphor and effects to look forward to.

On DVD, Tron comes with no bonus features (at least its initial release).

For other works featuring David Warner, please check out my reviews of:
The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier


For other film reviews, please click here for my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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