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Entries in TRON [1982] (1)

Wednesday
Dec152010

TRON (1982)

The Caveman and the Cell Phone

In the spirit of the holiday season, let me begin this review by saying, “God bless Disney”.

The history of American cinema is full of monolithic, sinister corporations that do nothing but amass power at the expense of all that is independent-minded and, in a way, fundamentally American.  We watch movies like Star Wars or Robocop and scoff at the cartoonish nature of these faceless, unstoppable villains; after all, the bigger and more ridiculous the foe, the sweeter the victory for our diminutive hero, who must overcome personal and environmental adversity to restore peace to the galaxy (or, on a more epic scale, Detroit).

But that’s movies.  Rarely do we get real-life examples of corporate behavior that is, on its face, a bizarre, just-because-we-can power move.  Yeah, there’s the military-industrial complex and Coke Zero, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about a company going out of its way to not make money, to keep fans of its own product scratching confusedly at the door, and offering no explanation—because it doesn’t have to.

Which brings me back to Disney.  On Friday, the Mouse House will release TRON: Legacy, the sequel to the film that heralded the dawn of modern nerd-dom, 1982’s TRON.  Much has been written about the fact that DVD copies of TRON have been pulled from retail circulation; it’s not available on Netflix; you can’t buy it on iTunes; the only way to watch the first movie ahead of next year’s scheduled remastered bluray release is to haggle with bidders on eBay, or pay upwards of $135 to Amazon merchants for the out-of-print 2002 DVD.

Speculation runs rampant.  Some say it’s Disney wanting to create demand for the bluray.  Others suggest that the original film—which was never so much a commercial smash as a pop-cultural one (yes, ironic adoration counts, too)—has been yanked because modern audiences would likely avoid the sequel if they caught wind of how primitive and boring its predecessor was.  The third contingent claims everybody’s crazy and that there is no conspiracy or business decision involved whatsoever (every good conspiracy, after all, needs disbelievers—otherwise, who’s left to pull one over on?).

When I wrote earlier of “real-life examples”, I was thinking not just of Disney in terms of its corporate identity, but specifically how that power and attitude syncs up perfectly with the theme of TRON.  The movie centers on ENCOM, a computer software firm run by the Master Control Program (MCP); through advances in artificial intelligence and the amassing of various other industries, the MCP has outgrown its chess-simulator roots and seeks to amuse itself by hacking the Pentagon.  This makes its custodian, CEO Ed Dillinger (David Warner) very nervous; of course, since the computer controls everything—and because Dillinger is a hack who stole the ideas that propelled him up the company ladder—he’s powerless to do anything but sit in his office and take orders from his talking desk.

Enter Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges).  He’s a hot-shot software engineer/digital medium who was fired from ENCOM after Dillinger appropriated his code for a slew of wildly successful video games.  He now runs an arcade and occasionally helps out his ENCOM-employee friends Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora (Cindy Morgan) with their work problems.  After ENCOM suspends all of its top-level clearance, Alan suspects that the MCP of making a power play, and he and Lora sneak Flynn into company headquarters to hack into the system and plant Alan’s TRON program—which was designed to police all levels of information and security, even the MCP.

The master program doesn’t like this much, and zaps Flynn with an experimental laser that digitizes physical objects (think Brundle pods or Wonka-vision).  Flynn’s body is broken down into pixels and transported into the virtual world of the ENCOM computer, a computer-animated landscape whose inhabitants are circuit-clad avatars of their real-world users.  The ENCOM circuit board is a dark, oppressive maze overseen by Sark (Dillinger), who rounds up rogue programs and feeds them to his master, the MCP.

In order to, I guess, wear the programs out, Sark stages gladiator games like digital-disc-throws and light-cycle races.  The losers are blown to smithereens; the winners—well, it’s not clear what happens to the winners.  In fact, much of the computer world of TRON—which is to say, the rules—aren’t fleshed out.  There’s a lot of pretty, early 3-D scenery and outrageous costume design, but not a whole lot of explanation as to what the hell is going on.

Flynn hooks up with TRON and Yori (who look like Alan and Lora, respectively), and Ram (Dan Shor)—who’s this movie’s equivalent of a Star Trek Red-shirt.  Together, they plan to get to the main tower of the MCP and…corrupt it?  Blow it up?  Again, I’m not sure what the aim is.  It’s easier to think of TRON’s plot in Star Wars terms, as that is clearly the movie it aspires to be.  With that in mind, I’ll leave you to fill in the rest of the adventure—or discover it for yourselves.

“But,” you may be thinking, “How can I discover it for myself if Disney has blocked me from seeing the film?”

Ah-ha!  Here’s where art imitates life, and where we discover the hero, the TRON, of our story: YouTube.  Yes, in a move that makes sense to absolutely no one, the one place you can watch the original TRON is on YouTube.  Sure, it’s chopped up into roughly six fifteen-minute parts, but if you watch the version posted by someone named “80sguy36”, you the transition between segments is as seamless an experience as one could hope for. 

What’s puzzling about this is that not only is the move free, it is also viewable in several resolutions—including 1080p; that’s bluray quality for those of you playing along at home.  So instead of taking advantage of that market-savvy synergy the corporations love to no end, Disney has decided to hold off on making any money from a pre-sequel re-release and allow those notorious pirates at YouTube to host a high-quality bootleg.  I’m not going to speculate as to the motivations, because I honestly don’t know; I don’t really care, either, because I was able to watch TRON in its entirety over a couple of lunch breaks and appreciate it for the quirky little gem that it is.

If you’re to appreciate the movie, you must first get over the primitive 3D graphics.  What is quaint, silly art today was amazingly advanced stuff in 1982, and to write off the weird, glowing togas and vector-plane landscapes is like criticizing a caveman for not owning a cell phone.  Writer/director Steven Lisberger’s vision for the film was solid; he staged the most exciting action he could using the limited materials he had at his disposal.  That’s not to say that the film is just adequate—it’s quite exciting, especially the way the virtual camera moves and sound design enhance the famous light cycle scene.

The next key to digging TRON is to open up to its story.  The “boring” refrain I’ve heard since I was a kid didn’t hold up at all during my recent viewing.  There’s a lot of dialogue in the film, and the action scenes aren’t as splashy and kinetic as I’m sure the souped-up CG spectacle of a sequel will be, but TRON brims with ideas and a solid message about the dangers of letting computers have too much say in how we live our lives (if you didn’t get the hint, just stick around for the final shot; it’s at the same time thematically appropriate and hand-holdingly gross).

I’d heard about how much of a drag the movie allegedly is for so long that I’d expected to have trouble getting through it; having seen it now, I realize that the three-decades-long de-evolution of standards has convinced many people that a movie is only as entertaining as the frequency of its explosions and/or special effects (Hey, aren’t these the same people who fellate Inception at every given opportunity?  There was less going on there than in TRON, but it had double the run-time; I give up).

The only flaw I can see in TRON goes back to the world-building problems of the ENCOM digi-scape.  The setting is stark in the beginning, but as the story progresses, we follow our heroes deeper into the computer equivalent of the big city; we see all sorts of wildly dressed programs and what I can only assume are virtual streetwalkers (DOS-titutes?).  I wanted to know how these freaks fit into the MCP’s grand plan; I wanted to know what life was like before the MCP; do programs procreate?  There’s a lot of territory left un-mined here, and at the end—when ENCOM is “restored” and evil is vanquished—I couldn’t help but think of Disney cleaning up Times Square in the 90s, sweeping all the porn and personality under a velvety Donald Duck rug.

Eventually, Disney will make TRON widely available again—perhaps sooner than later, depending on how this weekend pans out.  I’m looking forward to being able to watch the film in one sitting on a large screen, to fully absorb the beauty and weirdness unencumbered by media constraints or corporate mandates.