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16 Dec

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Tron:Legacy

December 16, 2010 | By |

Last night I had the chance to watch the press screening of TRON:Legacy. In case you’ve lived under a rock over the last six months, here’s the trailer – pure visual pr0n:

For you to compare, and to appreciate the eye candy it is, here’s the original Tron trailer from 1982:

First thing first: I’m a big fan of the Tron franchise, and I enjoyed Legacy tremendously. So whenever a question arose, I’d give the movie the benefit of the doubt. If you didn’t like the original Tron, you won’t enjoy this one either.

That said, let’s dive into some questions and thoughts, mostly on a meta level. (Warning: There are some plot spoilers in the text below. Read on at your own risk.)

The Open Theme Most notably is the pro Open Source & Sharing stance the movie takes. While awkward in it’s rhetoric at times (the movie is aimed at a mainstream audience after all), the message is clear: The turned-evil Encom Corporation, built on the legacy of Tron inventor Kevin Flynn, claims that “the era of sharing software and giving it away for free is over”. Flynn’s son Sam however, the heir and biggest shareholder, who’s lack of interest in the company allowed the evil board to take over, turns out to be a free software advocate: “You can’t steal what’s designed to be free”, he says while leaking the brand new proprietary operating system by Encom called “OS XII”, one of many nice swings at Apple.

This theme of Openness vs Closed (as software paradigms) is present throughout the movie, and the sides are clearly attributed: open = good, closed = bad. (Quite funny, given that the movie is produced by Disney, who aren’t exactly known for their openness.) It surfaces many times: “Users”, humans who move inside “the grid” (the internet), have no rights. Hacking is not encouraged, and the few who are able to access the system on a deeper level have to leave the slick & glossy user-interface and find themselves in rugged terrain, visualized as a rugged, black mountains not unlike Mordor in Lord of the Rings. The off-grid areas, i.e. the intestines of the net, are of course where the real action happens, whereas the user interface, on-grid areas are what makes the movie look so fantastic.

A set designer’s wet dream The look & feel of Tron:Legacy is fantastic; nothing short of it. It looks breathtaking, stunning, gorgeous. The whole setting is constructed and designed with a level of detail, and with a mix of both physical and plenty of CGI elements, that makes me want to watch it again and again.

What I found particularly interesting is the many elements it quotes from the physical world – in the way “vehicles” (which are of course just software metaphors) move, how the competitive games are held in what resembles a giant football stadium, how a character is using digital qigong balls: all these might be deeper metaphors, or maybe a hat tip that helps us associate certain characters or scenes with certain stereotypes. Sometimes it’s a bit painful to watch, often it works wonderfully. It’s definitely interesting to watch.

A handful of actors and a slab of wood Tron:Legacy features possibly the worst & weakest lead character of all times (or at least the most recent decade). Which is such a wasted opportunity, as the rest of the crew are doing a great job. But let me quote Wired UK, who phrased it better than I could:

Garrett Hedlund is the worst offender — coming across not as a gifted hacker, but as a bewildered meathead. At the start of the movie he’s portrayed as a young man who’s never really grown out of being a petulant child — an image that he utterly fails to shed when he’s called upon to be heroic. Hedlund’s supporting actors, Jeff Bridges and Olivia Wilde, do their best to prop him up, but they’re fighting a losing battle. Bridges, who starred in the original, reprises his role, but doesn’t bring the gravity to any scene that he ought to with that pedigree. At several points, a little bit too much of The Dude slips through instead. Wilde is the only cast member who really stands out. Her character initially appear to be a stereotypical “badass chick”, but you swiftly discover that she’s actually a mega-geek. A spark of delight comes when you realise that, in Tron’s universe, being a mega-geek involves a fascination with paper and books, rather than computers. Although she spends a little too much screen time in awe of Hedlund’s character, she brightens any scene with an infectious enthusiasm for the world around her.

The same sadly goes for the dialogs, too: they’re so wooden, so stiff, that at one point I had to double check in which language I was watching the movie: I had the creepy feeling I was watching it in a badly dubbed German version – but I wasn’t, it was the English original alright, the dialogs are just the way they are.

There are a number of quotes, mostly by Bridges, that help break the tension – no doubt that’s what Wired mean when they say The Dude shows through Bridges’ performance – like when he ends a lengthy dialog about a philosophical conundrum with the line “Human form in a digital space. Heavy stuff.”

The Uncanney Valley is deep Speaking of actors: Jeff Bridges features in a double roll: As Kevin Flynn, the aged hacker who has resided inside the Grid for the last 20 years; and CLU, the program he developed “in his own image” to run the Grid, which looks like Flynn 20 years younger. This was done doing some massive CGi magic, and looks remarkably life like. Not quite enough though: this is total Uncanny Valley territory. This is particularly creepy (and interesting to watch) when the two differently aged versions of Jeff Bridges have a show down, engaging one another directly. Like so many times, it’s hard to tell if the crew just couldn’t get the CGI version of young Mr Bridges any better or if they allowed it to preserve a slightly creepy look because it makes sense in the context of the story. I tend to going with the latter.

Timeless or multi-dated? The Kevin Flynn that resides in the Grid is a pretty fascinating, or rather it’s fascinating how the character was designed. He’s portrayed as an aging electro hippie, living in his digital Bond villain’s penthouse lair, overlooking the Mordor-like sections of the Grid. His lodgings are glossy, slick and white, very minimalistic besides a few decor elements: some 19th century chairs, some 1960s chairs, a book shelf full of old books – tomes almost – and a large dinner table decorated with silver (silicone?) apples and the like. It’s both timeless and multi-dated, so to speak: minimalist style that could last ages, or a whole series of cultural references that make it look dated beyond its age. It creates a weird effect, I could never stop wondering if the designers were serious or pulling the viewers’ leg, challenging them to call that bluff.

A nice detail: the CLU, the almost fascist software ruler of the Grid, plans to leave the Grid and conquer the physical world (following word by word its programming that ordered it to “create the perfect world”), he assembles a massive army of (very Stormtrooper-looking) software soldiers – placing CLU clearly in a Cold War military mindset, totally consistent with when it was programmed in 1989. No asymmetrical warfare for CLU, no sir!

Clichés Galore It’s these references – often clichés, really – that also put this movie in our days: it’s a movie for the remix generation. It quotes, in wild order, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, the Fifth Element, all kinds of the more recent vampire movies, the Matrix and plenty of the original Tron. Like I mentioned before, I had a nagging feeling I might be tested here, quizzed almost, and at some point someone would pull up the curtain and say: “Gotcha! Now on to the real stuff!” But it’s actually quite consistent that way, and it works if you let it work for you. (Which is why I meant earlier that you need to like the Tron franchise, or you won’t enjoy it.)

Full integration If there is one lesson to learn from Tron:Legacy, then it’s about integration. The way the movie integrates all these references; but also how integrated the soundtrack is into the movie. The very atmospheric, dark OST by French electro duo Daft Punk (video for the track “Derezzed” below) holds the film together, but very much stays in the background. Then, in one longer, very prominent club scene, you see Daft Punk DJ-ing in the club, and the main character in the scene actually talks to them, asking for music to support the next scene. It works brilliantly; and that’s despite it being so totally blatant, in your face.

In short: It’s hard to imagine that the movie would sustain itself in the cinematic history. But if you like TRON, it’s a must see, and pure visual pr0n.