Monday, 27 December 2010

Tron Voyage

Tron 1982 US
Directed by Steven Lisberger
Disney Region 2

Tron was a well hyped movie when I was a teen. I remember all the furore over the “ground-breaking” computer animation effects which, way before the movie even opened, had ushered in expectations from people all over the world that any movies which were dealing with “cutting edge” themes like computer games would, from now on, look “exactly like Tron.” No! Really! In the early 80s computer games really were thought of as cutting edge! This was only four years after the birth of Space Invaders don’t forget... and people’s jaws were dropping and their eyes were popping out of their heads at just seeing little pixilated blobs invading your lone defender of the earth at the bottom of the screen. Tron was like the ultimate that special effects movies could achieve or ever could achieve as far as pretty much everyone on the planet was concerned. This was way beyond what most people had even dreamt of.

And it was a movie that seemed to be on everyone’s lips in the media. I even remember much loved Radio and Video DJ/comedian Kenny Everett giving it a good review and admitting he’d liked it so much on pirate video the year before, that he was even going to go and see it again at the cinema when it was released - can you imagine the kind of stony silence that would follow a comment like that on British TV today? But these were the days when all the local kids in the UK had seen E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial on video almost a year before it was released in the cinemas over here. So it was a comment very much of its time... just like Tron was and is, very much a movie of its time.

And of course, in all this hype you can bet that not too much mention was made of the plot or, more obviously, the narrow skeleton of one on which to hang state-of-the-art special effects. Nor was the premise of a man being sucked into a computer and interacting with the “little men inside who are programs and run the computer” considered as any way näive. Back then, computers were still very much of a mystery and, even though most kids had started getting ZX Spectrums, BBC Micros or Commodore 64s in their homes, the adults who were not at school attending the quaintly named Computer Studies lessons had no idea what was in these little black and white boxes... as their kids used the latest technology to make a little animated miner jump around bizarre little platforms grabbing keys while trying hard not to get captured by a penguin or some other, less obvious animated nemesis of the main character.

So nobody thought much about the plot when we all finally went to see Tron at the cinema. I watched it again the other week in preparation for the new one and I have to say that... um... certain parts of it haven’t aged all that well. The acting is very uneven with most of the cast such as David Warner and Bruce Boxleitner (in the title role) acting very wooden and, supposedly, what high tech programmers would presumably act like in the eyes of the post-Asteroids public. Contrasted against this is Jeff Bridges acting style which is, in this one and to be fair and polite to the man who has turned out to be one of the great actors of his generation, a little over exuberant to say the least. But this is what "hackers" were supposed to be like, right? All Han Solo with a modem instead of a blaster.

All in all, there’s not much plot to spoil here, hence the lack of my usual warning. Bridges’ character Flynn goes into the computer and with the aid of Tron, they ride light cycles and battle to save the computer world from an evil programme who wants to control all computers in the “real” world and subvert humanity to its binary-encoded will. Sparkly special effects showcasing the latest Disney animated effects are what the story is all about and, even in the publicity leading up to its first screenings, this was in no way played down or even thought of to be an inherently bad thing for a movie like this to aspire to... and nobody really minded at all to be honest.

So how does it hold up today? Well lets just say that it’s not worn too badly... but it has aged and parts of it are very clunky. Some of those “new computer age of mankind” effects still look great... and some of them actually look surprisingly ropy and very much in the style of standard Disney animation - but that’s not something which would have been noticed at the time because even that animation was pretty good for contemporary expectations of the other stuff and the subtle differences are just not something we were, as a collective audience, sophisticated enough to notice at the time. Films do change over the years because of the way we, as a society, bring ourselves to the experience of viewing a movie (hence the phenomenon of nostalgia) and when you look at Tron today you have to remember it in the context of the film’s original audience if you are going to find anything worthwhile in it. I watched it again the other week with the memories of being a part of that original audience who experienced it in cinemas and even I was disappointed by a few sequences in the movie which just don’t hold up to closer scrutiny these days.

Also, the film has a kick ass score by composer Wendy Carlos (who pioneered the use of electronic music as a classical instrument in the days when s/he was Walter Carlos and churning out ground breaking albums like Switched on Bach... readers here might best remember her for her contributions to Stanley Kubrik’s films A Clockwork Orange and the powerful and terrifying music from the opening sequence of The Shining). It’s a shame that the studio hasn’t tapped her to provide the score for the sequel... I’ve got nothing against Daft Punk (don’t know their music) but it would have been nice if some of the leitmotifs from the first movie were retained for the new one.

All in all though, Tron is a big, dumb effects movie from a time when Star Wars had inadvertently created a celluloid environment where special effects were reason enough to go and see a movie, regardless or plotting, pacing, acting or editing. It does pretty much what it’s supposed to and if you're retro enough to appreciate it in spite of its more obvious flaws then you’ll probably have a blast with it.

As for the new sequel... well I’m looking forward to it. I’m pretty sure it’s still going to be a big, dumb effects movie with a silly plot and some irrational leaps of faith required of the audience but... so what! This kind of movie has it’s place. I’ll be going to see it soonest I can.

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