Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Well, the Gfriend and I went to see TRON LEGACY on its opening weekend. But first we watched an HDNet showing of the original I'd been saving for about six months on my TIVO to set the mood. Here are my reflections on both movies in two parts.

The original TRON was groundbreaking for its time. The first movie to make use of what has now become ubiquitous computer generated special effects. Other than that, it was groundbreaking for Disney. It may be hard to remember, but in the early 1980s Disney was a company flirting with bankruptcy. It was considered passe and outdated. It's animation department was in shambles. (Don Bluth had left the company in 1979 out of disgust for their death spiral, and taken most of the good animators with him. The same year TRON came out, Bluth would release THE SECRET OF HIMH, a movie closer to the animated Disney classics like SNOW WHITE and DUMBO than anything the company had been able to manage in decades.) The company's stock was in the cellar. And the smart money was that Disney wasn't long for solvency. Their big post-STAR WARS SF attempt, THE BLACK HOLE, was just that- a black hole- at the box office and TRON was an act of desperation to cash in on the burgeoning video game market.

Disney's desperation led them to Steve Lisberger, someone outside their corporate plantation, who had the skills and "nerd cred" to undertake such a radical departure. Unfortunately, TRON wasn't the blockbuster Disney was hoping for and a couple of years later a hostile takeover attempt by financier Saul Steinberg would cause Roy Disney to enlist Jeffery Katsenberg to run the company. The rest is, shall we say, history. Katsenberg led the company back from the edge of corporate ruin to its current megacorp status.

But as a movie, TRON wasn't that bad. It didn't catch the popular imagination, probably because it was a little too esoteric for early 80s audiences to grasp. The whole idea of being sucked into a computer was a little too cutting edge for a population thats closest interaction with a computer had been a trip to the local arcade and whos most sophisticated computing device was an Atari 2600 or a PONG game. Added to this were all the "in" jokes in the script. TRON is, in fact, a command in Basic, the predominant programming language for home computers at the time. (Please realize, this is two full years before the first Macintosh- the first computer with a mouse!- was released by Apple. The same year that the original IBM PC was widely distributed, and when over 80% of the tiny market for home computers was pretty evenly divided between Radio Shack's TRS-80 and the Apple IIC. Owning a computer in 1982 was like owning a HAM radio rig, except there were more HAM radio rigs.) It meant TRace ON and was a command to debug a program you had written. Invaluable in a time when most of the programs you ran you had to write yourself.

The movie is full of such "in" jokes that audiences didn't get. "Bring in the logic probe" (it looked like the very logic probe I sold in my Radio Shack store at the time), "grid bugs" (bugs in a program were unknown to most people), I-O towers (input-output busses), laser digitization (scanners were unheard of, let alone 3-D scanners), users (Lisberger says that one of the Disney execs thought this was vaguely dirty), and even bits (Flynn's, and Clu's, sidekick was a visualization of the basic nomenclature of binary systems- it's either positive (YES) or negative (NO), 1's and 0's, get it?). And my all-time favorite, "Cummon you skuzzy data, be in there." (SCSI, pronounced 'skuzzy', was an early hard disk interface.) Too much of the movie was simply way too geeky for the audience.

But the movie itself is a great deal of fun. Jeff Bridges shows the kind of natural likeability in front of the camera that would serve him well for the next 30 years. His lines really aren't much: "That's a big door." "It's all in the wrist." "Hey, it's the big Master Control Program everybody's been talking about!" "You don't look anything like your pictures." "Does she still leave her clothes all over the floor?" "How you gonna run the universe if you can't solve a few insolvable problems?" But Bridges delivery makes them shine and is the reason some of them became standards in GeekSpeek.

The rest of the cast isn't really given much to do. David Warner somehow stands out as Dillenger/Sark, and has a few ironically funny moments (such as when he suddenly turns his smile on for Alan during their confrontation in the office). Bruce Boxleitner displays his typical cardboard hero character (which he pulled out of mothballs as John Sheridan on four seasons of Babylon 5) but here it's OK because he's playing an uninspired programmer and a soulless program. He does get one unintentional laugh however with his 'ol west delivery of the line, "The name... of my user." And Barnard Hughes is here because it was some sort of rule at the Disney Studios back then that Barnard Hughes had to be in EVERY FRIGGING MOVIE DISNEY MADE.

Walt Disney's Common Law Same Sex Marriage Partner

But the real reason to see TRON was the visual spectacle. It was the era of the Special Effects Movie and people went to the theater to be dazzled. Unfortunately, it was five years after George Lucas started this trend and two years after THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. So bedazzlement was beginning to get a little old. And while TRON had a new way of putting impossible pictures on the screen, CGI wasn't really ready for prime time and the result looked like animation in a time when animation was almost a dirty word. Lucas and Spielberg had been delivering never-before-seen movie magic for years, using decades old techniques. And although 1982 was the debut year for the technology, with TRON, THE LAST STARFIGHTER, and the Genesis effect in STAR TREK II, CGI wouldn't begin to challenge conventional special effects technology until TERMINATOR II, and wouldn't draw crowds into theaters for the sheer spectacle until JURRASIC PARK. In fact, the technology was still so primitive that it couldn't even be used to paint in the glowing lines on the costumes- they had to be rotoscoped by hand! (The computers they used were about as powerful as the one in your watch and nowhere near as sophisticated as the one in your phone.) In contrast to the visual alacrity of TRON, Ridley Scott's BLADERUNNER came out the same year. And Douglas Trumbull's special effects on that film set new standards for veracity.

But one thing that TRON and BLADERUNNER shared was visual designer Syd Mead. At that time Mead was perhaps one of the busiest artists in Hollywood. It seems that almost no big budget SF movie made back then didn't employ Mead to design vehicles. And while Lucas didn't hire Mead to design for EMPIRE, he wasn't above stealing the design for the Imperial Snow Walkers from a painting Mead had done years before.

The other designer TRON used was the incredible artist Jean Giraud, who went by the pseudonym Mobius. Giraud was known predominantly to American audiences through his work in Heavy Metal magazine. But at the same time he was one of the most respected international comic artists, famous in Europe and Asia for his Blueberry westerns as much as his groundbreaking SF work. Mobius' more organic and complex style would be reflected in, of all things, the costuming of the programs inhabiting the computer world. Sark's helmet is a particularly iconic Mobius design.

Alas, TRON didn't do too well at the box office. Steve Lisberger would say afterward that it was because they didn't make the MCP evil enough, but I disagree. There was never any ambiguity in the good vs. evil story of TRON. After all, didn't they show Flynn's doppelganger Clu being derezzed in the first few minutes, and Bernard Hughes crucified and tortured near the end? No, I think the failure of TRON was due to the reasons stated above: special effects that were only special if you understood how unique they were, a story that didn't connect with an audience that didn't understand the implications of the new technology they were just beginning to sample, and Disney's faltering reputation for making childish entertainments with nothing to offer adults. Add that to a religious allegory in a time when religious allegories were out of fashion, and you have a movie simply too far ahead of it's time.

But what of TRON LEGACY?


Kristin said...

Thanks for the backstory on Tron. I was trying to explain to a friend how Black Hole and Tron nearly tanked the company and couldn't find a good explanation to share until I found your blog. :)

Perry said...

Stealing? LMAO... maybe inspired... and they certainly asked permision of Syd before evolving this into the AT AT. I'm sure ALL of Mead's creation are synthesized from ideas that are COMPLETELY his own. 100%.