Saturday, August 07, 2010


It's no surprise that, with Tron: Legacy coming out this December (and I am so excited by the trailers!), the original movie's being cleaned up and trotted back out. It's aired in HD and there's a Blu-Ray edition coming out. So it seems a great time to watch it again.

One certainly walks into it expecting the 1980s-era movie to feel corny and dated. There's no question a lot of it does, even more than other films of the same era, because it was trying harder to look ahead, and because it focused on things that have advanced very greatly since -- computers, and the computer graphics that were used to depict them. Those are the two main areas where the film seems awkward. The subject matter talking about computers in concepts that seem entirely ancient, with a depiction of the computer's interface that seemed passé even then, and doubly so now. A lot of the effects were really straining even by the day's standards and look positively antiquated and corny now.

And yet it's not nearly as corny or as dated as I expected. First of all, even today's cutting edge depictions of computers on TV shows and in movies tend to be wrong in much the same way as Tron was; people are still typing natural language commands into bare prompts today. The prompts are surrounded by Google (or Google-knockoff) logos and animated icons in windows, but they're still doing the same things. Computers in movies are simultaneously far smarter (in that they're always turning out sapient, treat natural language like it's easy, and excel at pattern-matching without parameters) and far stupider (in that they need everything spelled out for them, and their protections are always trivially easy bypassed) than in real life.

While the depictions of computers from the outside world are dated (and seem more suited to the computers of the time, huge timesharing systems, than today's), the depctions inside are actually surprisingly compelling. The idea of showing cyberspace as a physical, visual location in which "real world" concepts like I/O and file deletion have physical analogues is a very challenging thing to do well, and while many authors and filmmakers have attempted it, and some have done far better than others, Tron really does very nearly as well as anything that's been done since. There are certainly things that make no sense ("user power", a bit that can actually give off at least five different signals, how easy it was to break out of the game grid, and many others), but I've yet to see a depiction about which that wasn't true.

What's more, Tron attacks that from a far more ambitious angle than most: while many depictions of cyberspace describe something intentionally created by programmers, Tron attempts to depict one that the programmers don't even understand, which means it has even more to answer when making the cyberspace analogues to real-world concepts all line up and make sense. When you think about the movie in terms of "what could I have come up with" it actually is strikingly foresightful and quite impressive in how many of the concepts still work after 20 years of rapid change in the world of computers.

That doesn't mean it's fun to watch. I think it is, but I have to admit a lot of that is nostalgia, and an insider's amusement at the creative concept and the depiction of the computer world. I can well imagine that an average teenager or young adult of today would find it not just corny but also no fun to watch, or only fun to laugh at.

And that's not even talking about the special effects. There's only so far you can go with excusing it based on "this was a long time ago" particularly when some movies that are older (like Star Wars) still look so much better. But so much of what Tron depicts can't be really done with the kind of approaches that Star Wars used and which still look good today. A lot of the stuff in Tron makes you feel sympathetic only because they were trying so hard to reach past what their time was able to achieve, and given that, impressed with how much they did accomplish. But some of it is still howlingly bad. (There's a throwaway scene in a totally different style of animation depicting "grid bugs" which is particularly awful, and which doesn't actually relate to anything else in the movie. One feels they must have owed someone a promise that they could put something into the movie, or something.)

So much of what makes Tron feel dated and corny is precisely the stuff that they can improve so much in this year's movie. While so much of what was done very well in the original, better than we even realized at the time, might hold over quite well to the current movie. So my hopes are very high that this can be a really great movie on all accounts. They've certainly got a lot of fantastic things to work with. Doesn't mean they can't screw it up, but there's plenty of room to hope it'll rock.

I just hope that having seen the original won't turn out to be too necessary to appreciate it -- and that the kids of today don't all go watch the original, judge it harshly without accounting for the time period adequately, and get turned off from the new one without giving it a fair try.

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