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Av Atari

By Brian Prisco | Film | September 1, 2010 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | September 1, 2010 |

I wonder what future generations with think of films like The Matrix and Avatar. The stories, for the most part, are sublimely ridiculous — the worst kind of faux high-concept philosophy masking-taped to dazzling action sequences that exist solely to show off fancy technological advancements in special effects. But goddamn, those fucking special effects are something else. Almost thirty years ago, a first time director named Steven Lisberger went to the Mouse House and begged them to fund his crazy hybrid of computer animation and live-action. The result was TRON, a stylistically visual ac tion piece about a hacker who gets sucked into his own video games and is forced to play for his life. The religious allegory is like getting smacked in the face with an incense censor, and the dialogue makes you flinch like you were actually playing the video game. It’s no wonder the movie wasn’t nearly as successful as the video game it spawned, because the entire point of the film seemed to be to pitch the glory of the 8-bit gameplay. It’s a sterile geometric dot-matrix version of a science fiction adventure film which by today’s standards looks blocky and oversaturated. And yet, at the time, the animation techniques being used were phenomenal. By today’s standards, it’s an Atari next to an Xbox. But I still have friends who swear by blowing on the old plastic cartridges for their pixellated good times.

Back when the word was still being used to describe the action in the Friday the 13th series, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) seems to be the world’s first computer hacker. Now the owner of an arcade, he’s trying to hack into to the mainframe of his old employer ENCOM to get proof that his old boss Ed Dillinger (David Warner) stole his video game programs and sold them off as his own. Of course, while this is being played out through typical 1980’s computer interfacing — a green and black screen prints out text which is read aloud by a Stephen Hawking sonic, singing telegram style voice.

TRON opts to set up computer programming like a mini-Spartacus. The Caesar is the dastardly Master Control Program (digitally voiced by David Warner), who uses his glow-suited minion Sark (also played by David Warner — now that’s how you save on actors in a Reaganomic economy, bitches) to capture programs and force them to compete in gladiatorial style battles via video games. All programs, good and evil, are represented by little men in what look like olde-timey football uniforms, only they are covered in streams of what appear to be brightly-colored microchip-style computer-what-have-you. All the computer-based scenes were shot in black-and-white and then painstakingly rotoscoped. So all the colors are added by hand, and all the digital effects are animated like the old school Disney 2D cell animated films, mostly because the animation team was scared of computers stealing their jobs. Which they did a few years later. The future!

The programs live in this bizarre Flatland by way of Logan’s Run, where everything is protected by starkly geometric tanks and strange flying archways that fire chunky 8-bit laser chunks. The programs pray faithfully that the USERS will save them. Because every good story needs a religious archetype. Meanwhile, Sark and the MCP are feeding them to the digital lions and facing them off in combat-style arena battles to the flashy, poorly digitized flash-stop-motion deaths. Battles involve a psychedelic frisbee called an info disc that the programs use as both a shield and a projectile weapon. After staging a break-in at ENCOM with the help of the slutty niece from Caddyshack (Cindy Morgan) and his nerdy Robert Redford doppleganger buddy Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), in order to find the evidence, the MCP uses laser technology to digitize Flynn into the games. Flynn, a user, suddenly finds himself the fish out of water, being thrust into competing for his life in the MCP’s twisted video games.

And that’s pretty much where the film finds its magic. Flynn first finds himself playing some weird version of jai alai where a digital pixel ball is fired off the ceiling at the opponent’s concentric circle platforms. When the ball strikes a platform, it disappears, and so like The American Gladiators after them, the two warriors must attempt to knockout their opponent’s platform and send them spiraling to an a-Ha Take On Me death below. Even more glorious are the light cycle sequences, which pits Flynn and his teammates RAM and champion TRON (also Bruce Boxleitner in a money-saving move) against the bad guys in a grid where bicycles leave behind walls that to run into them means instant exploding death. Through clever reflex and gameplay, TRON, Flynn and RAM are able to escape the game area and flee into the rest of the mainframe, where they plot to free Crixus and the rest of Batiatus’s men the computerverse from the chains of Master Control.

What follows is a painful Christ allegory that makes Neo being the One seem all that lest brick-in-the-brain obvious and ham-fisted. On one hand, you’ve got Flynn, the USER, with the mystical powers of basic physics and geometry. And on the other, you’ve got the Peter the Rock character in TRON, who is destined to be the champion in the wake of Flynn’s martyrdom. And Yori, the female, who hugs people a lot and acts mostly as a GPS device. Because in the 1980’s, liking computers meant you had no idea what a vagina looked like. It doesn’t help matters that shit starts unfolding with a randomness that made it look like they were writing the script with a Choose Your Own Adventure book and a 20-sided die. Hurry and ride our skyship down the laserbeam so we can throw a Lite-Brite at a giant computer face before the big stompy giant with the party favor head crushes you like he did poor Wally.

But TRON was made for the technological advancements, which at the time looked fucking astonishing. Even now, there’s a sort of stark 1984 Orwellian beauty to the neon-effected black-and-white geometric wasteland. It’s like watching a very dreary Monty Python cartoon. Set in Las Vegas. And yet, by today’s standards, it’s just kind of sad. Then again, we look at something like The Matrix, with it’s wire-fighting and bullet-timing which was breath-taking at the time, and it now just makes us sigh because everyone’s doing it. This is how technological advancements in special effects works. Effects that made us shit out pants five years ago now have us getting up and going to the bathroom because we’ve seen it before. Which is why I laugh about Avatar. How awful the story was doesn’t matter, because Avatar was a spectacle. And yet, five years from now, who’ll care? The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are still awesome, but now, it’s not as dazzling, it’s just an expected realism. Once we have the tools, we find the talent later.

Advancements in technology aren’t always better. Things are needlessly being slapped with 3D rendering, even when they weren’t shot for that effect, and mostly to their own detriment. The new Clash of the Titans was an embarrassment of clunky digital crap, and made us yearn for the clockwork charm of the Harryhausen claymation. I’ll take funky special effects if you just give me a decent enough story. I’ll forgive you your clunky renderings if I give a damn about the characters and that you give a damn, too.

Watching the trailers for TRON: Legacy, you can see where the inspiration comes from. It nicely builds on the effects of the old, souping them up for the new. Now when people are struck with the light discs, they shatter in fashionably rendered pixellated bits. It just looks fucking snazzy. The old TRON to the new looks similar to playing Pong versus Wii Tennis. One’s a clunky knob twisting amalgam of pixels and bits, whereas the other is a fully-rendered, highly-kinetic real life experience. The new film has captured the gloom and darkness of the old, but added in a flashiness and vitality that it lacked. When I heard they were updating TRON, my first thought was, “Why? and How?” Then I saw the second trailers, and I thought, “Oh.”

My only nervousness comes from the fact they call it a Legacy, because it really doesn’t owe anything to the old version. Other than the framework of the basic video game competitions: the light bike, the jai alai platforms, the battle tanks, the light disc battles, fighting the Master Computer cone in the tower — there isn’t much else to the movie. If anything, it’s like Back to the Future meets Spartacus. Suddenly, this human from an outside world finds himself fighting for his life against a deadly ruling force. The film looks like it’ll be full of plenty of cookies for fans of the first — from Flynn’s Arcade to the casting of Boxleitner and Bridges. TRON’s legacy is that it embraced a universe where people live and breathe video games in an electronically manifested marketplace. And now, we exist in a world full of digitally broadcasting our every thought, on platforms where strangers and family members can read them, where we live out enduring friendships with people we’ve never met in the flesh, and where we can communicate with people on the other side of the globe while we digitally dismember their avatars. We’re already in the TRON Legacy. It’s just that things look a lot sharper these days.

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