Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Old Movie Review of Tron: Not exactly a classic, but a staple long missing from my diet

It’s easy to forget in the digital age, when nearly every film (a nearly obsolete word, come to think of it), if not shot digitally, has some digital elements, that computer computer generated images had its origin somewhere. CGI and digital technology inundate movies nowadays. They’re used to build action sequences from the ground up; create fantastic creatures; eliminate unwanted elements such as safety wires, boom mikes, and even an actor’s skin imperfections, from the frame.

Disney Studios’ Tron was one of the first feature films to employ heavy use of 3D CGI animation. It’s remarkable to consider that only eleven years passed between this film and Jurassic Park, two films that are hardly in the same league as far as CGI animation goes. And yet the latter film owes a great debt of gratitude to the former.

The story is a very strange parable of fascist control over systems of operation. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what was happening historically at the time that might have inspired such a dire warning. Perhaps it was the burgeoning onset of the digital age and the belief by some that that would ultimately spell the end of individuality and freedom. Maybe many would argue today that that is, in fact, the case.

Jeff Bridges (displaying some early Jeff “Dude” Lebowski characteristics) plays Flynn, a genius computer programmer trying to hack into the system of the corporation Encom to prove that its CEO, Dillinger (David Warner) actually stole his successful video game ideas and then forced him out. Warner is kind of a stock go-to actor for nefarious evildoers. This was his third in a row after playing Jack the Ripper in Time After Time and the Evil Genius of Time Bandits. So you know the moment you see him that he’s up to no good. Dillinger is the creator of the Master Control Program (also voiced by Warner), an operating system designed to maintain security within the corporation but which has begun to get drunk on its own power and has designs to hack into not just other corporations, but the Pentagon.

A few cursory scenes and lots and lots of expository dialogue, courtesy of a pedestrian screenplay by writer/director Steven Lisberger, reveal the basics of the plot: Dillinger is using the MCP to root out and stop potential hackers; Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) is a software engineer recently shut out of the system due to security controls; within the confines of the computer system, the humans in the real world have avatars that self-identify as the programs they were originally created to be; Sark, Dillinger’s avatar in the system, competes in a gladiator style against other programs; a division of Encom, in which Alan’s girlfriend Lori (Cindy Morgan) works, is building technology to completely digitize real life objects and make them reappear in other locations. Inevitably, this later happens to Flynn. Being the video game wiz he is, he leads a revolution inside the computer circuitry, aided by Tron (Alan’s computer program avatar designed to protect the system from itself and thus destined to overthrow the MCP) and Lori’s avatar, Yori.

Within the computer world, the MCP is building a new world order in which dissent is crushed and all information flows centrally. Programs are regularly requisitioned for the games, which don’t seem to serve much overall purpose other than providing a platform to showcase the computer animation studio’s bag of tricks.

What Tron severely lacks in story and character development, it more than makes up for in spectacle and visual wizardry. To some extent, the look of Tron is very much dated. Certainly, we all know computer graphics don’t look nearly as primitive 28 years later. But just the same, there are elements of the visual scheme that seem timeless, perhaps because it’s a story that is firmly set in the early 80s. Maybe being a child of the 80s it struck me as more normal because I grew up with the kind of video games and computer graphics on display in the film.

Regardless of that possibility, I still think the overall look of the film is remarkable, not only for its time but even to some extent by modern standards. When you consider that today’s films overuse CGI to replace extras, avoid the expense of physical sets, and render animals and creatures that are otherwise too costly to create with makeup and latex, it’s refreshing to see a film (albeit a dinosaur) that used CGI to create a computer world rather than try to emulate the real one.

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