Saturday, December 25, 2010

Reel To Reel: Tron: Legacy

Time for an upgrade.

Going Rate: Worth full price and 3D.
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, James Frain
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Electronic violence, a few curse words

The original Tron ranks as one of my favorite childhood movies. It hit screens as I was programming a Timex/Sinclair 1000 in my bedroom and a Sanyo MBC-3000 in Dad's study. It's among the great geek movies, embodying the hacker catechism of free information and cooperative operating systems. But if you saw it as a kid, it was just a cool flick where people killed each other with glow-in-the-dark frisbees.

Tron: Legacy is to the original what Windows 7 is to 3.1. It's faster, sleeker, geekier, and optimized for 3D, although some scenes are shot in 2D by design. Tron began as an experiment in backlit animation which required multiple passes through an optical printer to render its cybercitizens. Scenes generated with help from a revved-up PDP-10 cemented its place as a pioneer in computer animation, but much of the film was analog: live action footage and sets. This is the recipe for the new Tron, but CGI has sent the optical printer to the spare parts bin.

When we left Kevin Flynn (Bridges), he had just liberated his company's mainframe from the evil MCP and gained the corporate position he deserved for writing some killer arcade games. But you know, some people just gotta have more. Turns out the cyberworld he freed was just too promising to leave alone, so he created a software utopia led by a code clone of himself named CLU. Flynn, though, continues to dart in and out of the system using a laser beam. I always wondered how that system was smart enough to digitize someone and put them back together without killing them.

So one day, Flynn gets trapped in his own system (again) and doesn't come home to his young son Sam (Hedlund). While Flynn lingers in cyberpurgatory, Sam grows up to be the kind of hacker his father would admire, gleefully ripping off code from Dad's enterprise, which has evolved or devolved -- take your pick -- into a Microsoft clone. Is Dad dead, missing, or just having a really long day at work? Nobody's really sure until his co-worker Alan Bradley (Boxleitner) gets a page on a beeper Flynn told him to keep by his side. To paraphrase a line from Ghostbusters, no human would send a page like that.

Sam decides to follow in his father's laser beam, leading him back to the game grid where, surprise, CLU is doing the same things the old MCP used to do: pitting programs against each other, gladiator style. We learn, however, there's a new twist: somehow inside the grid, an cyberorganic life form came about, something that's supposedly the greatest thing to happen to computers since the mouse. I have a feeling my system does that sometimes, but that's called a memory leak.

Tron fans, your old favorites are here with upgrades: the light cycles, the killer discs, the "Space Paranoid" ships or whatever they're called (a Wikipedia article calls them "Recognizers"), and the Solar Sailor. The new film adds light flyers, more neon, and a soundtrack from Daft Punk. Derezzing is messier; programs shatter like glass instead of dissolving into bits. Even with CGI, the movie embraces analog like a DOS prompt. It also embraces more than a few plot holes, just like the original.

This and Avatar are two movies where 3D is actually worth the extra three bucks. Tron: Legacy's world pops out and surrounds you, even if those glasses make the dark electronic world a shade darker. See it in IMAX if you get the chance. Better, see it with a geek who can explain it to you if you're not up to speed.

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