Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tron (Retro Movie Review)

In preparation for watching "Tron: Legacy" this weekend, I sat down and watched the original Tron and tried, as much as possible, to see this classic with new eyes and evaluate how it holds up.

The story takes place in the early 80's, when the arcade video game craze was near its peak. Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a brilliant programmer, has developed a number of wildly popular video games, but the credit was stolen from him three years ago by a co-worker who is now the President of Encom, a large a successful software company. In an effort to find the evidence that will prove his rightful ownership of the games, Flynn and his fellow computer industry friends, Alan and Lora, break into Encom to hack the system.

But the newly self-aware Master Control Program running things at Encom fights back, using cutting edge teleportation technology to pull Flynn into the digital world of computers, where he is forced to fight and survive alongside apparently sentient yet mundane programs who struggle for freedom against the MCP.

For the most part, the script is well-written with interesting and thought provoking dialogue and only a few head-scratching lines now and then. Some of the technology references are obviously dated, and a few others seem out of touch even from the time in which they were written. But an interesting parallel world is created here that is worth exploring and trying to figure out, and the story is modeled after classic adventure quests, where heroes seek a distant land and a powerful enemy, passing through trials and tests along the way.

The standout performances belong to Jeff Bridges as Flynn and David Warner as the software thief, Ed Dillenger and the evil program, Sark. Bridges plays the everyman wonderfully and helps us to both enjoy and fear the strange world he has entered. Warner mainly helps us fear it. Leave it to the British to give us really great movie villains.

The special effects, though dated, are still a lot of fun to look at. And the fact that most of them occur in a completely artificial world helps us set aside the imperfections and suspend disbelief. This is a visually rich and imaginative world being presented, and almost 30 years later it's still creatively inspiring to look at. It's amazing to think that the Academy Awards passed over even nominating Tron for special effects, claiming at the time that they "cheated by using computers".

The shortcomings of this movie come in the pacing first, which places the best action in the first half rather than the second. The solar sailor sequence feels a little slow and uninteresting (apart from Flynn's "User Power" energy diversion trick) and the climax might have been served better by something like the earlier, fast-paced Lightcycle sequence, instead of the strange, lumbering "Giant Sark" that serves as the final obstacle.

Another downside is the musical score, which is hit or miss in effectiveness. Mostly electronic, the score mimics real instruments, as synthetic music of the 80's tended, rather than create sounds completely unique to electronic music. Rather than an energetic electronic sound, the music feels flat and robotic, which fits thematically with the material, but falls short in the moments where it needs to capture and propel emotions.

There is so much worth talking about after this movie regarding relevant theological and philosophical issues. I'm no mind reader, so I have no idea if writer/director Steven Lisberger was presenting his personal theological suggestions and musings in this film. But the themes are there, whether he is advocating them or not. If I were to take this film and construct a worldview based on the ideas it seems to suggest in metaphor, I would come up with something like this:

Being religious is not necessarily bad. In fact, God (or gods) truly exist, and those in positions of power and influence try to deny this for their own gain. God is limited in power and knowledge however, doing his best and stumbling along the way, despite having considerably more power and knowledge than us. We are more than simply made in God's image. We are made of his spirit in some sense and may even be a part of him. When we die, our being is dispersed and becomes a part of the world around us.

Despite these somewhat weighty themes, the movie is pretty lighthearted and does not take itself too seriously. For example, at the end of the movie, Flynn jokingly greets his friends in the real world by saying "Greetings, programs", as though he remembers his time spent in the digital world. Yet he shows no signs of emotional trauma at having gone through a radically alien experience. The sequel, which looks to be darker in tone, may explore these psychological issues, but this movie does not, which may work in its favor. If this material is taken too seriously, there are a ton of questions that need answers. How did the MCP gain self-awareness? How do simple accounting programs become sentient? Why does a single "bit" of information know the answer to dozens of questions posed by Flynn?

The technical inconsistencies linger for only as long as we try to put the story in any kind of realistic framework. So for the most part, we're better off just shrugging our shoulders and enjoying the ride.

Tron is a sci-fi classic that should not be missed by anyone planning to see "Tron: Legacy". It stands the test of time well and provides a number of opportunities to "wax philosophical" with your buddies.

Rated PG for fantasy violence.

Quality: 9.0/10

Relevance: 9.0/10

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