Sunday, 19 December 2010


Stephen Lisberger - 1982 - USA

Although I never actually saw “Tron” when it first came out, I was still mesmerised by its look. I was in possession of one of those novelisations, the movie tie-in, inevitably adapted by Alan Dean Foster, which was bisected by a few glossy pages of stills from the movie. It was from those stills that I discovered “Tron’s” distinct look; the luminous blues and reds mostly. Of course, when I finally saw “Tron” for the first time as an adult, I was instantaneously disappointed in the somewhat lukewarm script, and a story that had seemed so much more threatening in the captions beneath those book stills which implied dark corporate intrigue and gaming adventure. The actual film is a far frothier affair. “Tron” suffers from that weakness that undermines many a special effects extravaganzas: fascinating and original big sci-fi concepts and contexts given to a recourse to the flimsiest of storylines that draw from tired tropes and stock characters (from “Logan’s Run” to “Avatar”, etc.) . Yet the look remains sumptuous, timeless and fascinating. And not forgetting that, apart from the visual aesthetic, “Tron’s” greatest achievement is the possession of an all-time great action and sci-fi sequence with the legendary bike race.

Atari had barely made the promise of things to come when Tron created a world where the players become their virtual counterparts. Avatars and virtual identities allow us all that, perhaps without the cool glow-in-the-dark costumes and Frisbee hats, but also without the risk of being wiped out by a megalomaniac, demon-faced computer system. Critic John Brosnan probably misses the point in his taking the Tron to task for being illogical and unscientific:

True, video games are controlled by computer chips, but that is no reason to suggest that the internal workings of a computer would be visually analogous to those of a video game. [1]

Theres worth to this criticism, should you be looking for plausibility, but it bypasses the fact that, narratively, “Tron” draws far more from fantasy and fairy-tale conventions than from science-fiction: the lone warrior drawn into an alternative reality to defeat a seemingly omnipotent overlord; ‘magical’ weapons and steeds; an odyssey across an incredible otherworld - all these are the fantasy tropes that pulp science-fiction long ago adopted. They are the devices and props for the adventure and one would search in vain for “Tron” to be considered as hard science-fiction and the exploration of what science might give to us (as, say, “2001: a space odyssey” might). “Tron” barely skates the trite Good versus Evil dilemmas of the “Star Wars” franchise, and it is not overburden with ridiculous and vacuous philosophical affectations of the “Matrix” series, but the similarities of appearance between the real and virtual world does give “Tron” faint allegorical pretensions. Everything from inside the computer to the genuine cityscapes, and even the gliding point-of-view searching camera in the arcade, all share the same computer-game aesthetic. The world, Tron says with its overall look, is one big computer chip or grid, and were are but players and programmes, etc. It does at least give the sense that we are dwarfed not only by technology but also be the products of our imaginations, and entertainments. The danger of technology is also prevalent in the Master Computer MCP’s ambitions to take over the world and run it better than the humans, joining the ranks of megalomaniac computers such as those from “The Forbin Project” and “Demon Seed” and many, many others. The idea that computers (and robots, etc.) will achieve total sentience is another science-fiction fetish that in truth speaks more of human beings tendency to anthropomorphising the truly inhuman.

Brosnan goes on to berate the method that transforms players into their cyber-counterparts: a laser that allows the computer to store molecules and reassemble them into their original form. I doubt that any sci-fi kid worth his salt would truly buy this as probable in a second. Any kid knows this is pseudo-science, that it is a just techno-babbling means of allowing the real kick that Tron promises: the promise that, tomorrow!, we will be able to BE those characters in those fantastically virtual beautiful worlds of heroism and adventure, not to mentioned the unleashed Id (but we are a long way from the failing realities of “Videodrome”, “eXistenZ” and Philip K. Dick here). Were the creators of Tron really ignorant of the science or simply patronising the young audience, Brosnan asks? Well that audience knew exactly how Tron logic worked: it is the same Olympian magic that allows the Gods to animate giant steel statues, to transfer Chosen Ones from one world to the next, and, say, for E.T. to breathe Earth oxygen without trouble. For the thrill of hard, plausible science, you would have to look elsewhere.
The far more interesting question is what the hell Jeff Bridges is doing in there? He has one awesomely dated and unintentionally funny moment when he rolls into the arcade, fastest player in town, and then proceeds to kick ass on a game that runs at the speed of a tractor. If the internal world of Tron graphics still manages to seem somewhat ageless, this opening arcade sequence reminds us of how far the gaming and virtual world actual have come.
Nevertheless, we do live in a world where Tron, the character, and all his associates and enemies, have had their own MySpaces. So do the characters of Back to the Future”, Childs Play and a whole bundle of other cult and classic films I havent even ventured to look up yet (I myself am friends with Mr. Barlow, for example.) The adoption and merging of real and pop culture identities, character transference, projection, the world of surrogates and avatars, must be enough to power a hundred university modules. Be friends with Tron and enjoy the groovy neon colours of his MySpace! ( and of course, MySpace itself seems increasingly retro and by the time you read this, it probably is, if not dead and gone.)
What Disney thought it was investing in is baffling wait, no, what about all those tie-in Tron games? “Tron” was undoubtedly considered a children’s film. It was a new dawn, when films still inspired computer/arcade games as a rule and not vice versa and the crossover potential was still barely realised. The look and reality-jumping promises offered in Tron has far exceeded its malnourished concept and screenplay. Tron is like a great band with a weak front man. Even as the visuals try for subtext in presenting everything as a gamescape, the terrible pacing and exposition does its best to kill off elements such as suspense and brilliant reveals: e.g., we get to see the bikes before any kind of plot has even occurred so that the sequence mostly exits autonomously rather than driving narrative.
What remains is that even after the meteoric development of special effects, not to mention CGI, the Tron design still remains pretty much unique. It looks like a silent black and white sci-fi, coloured in with fluorescent pen, which is again a clue to its agelessness: it looks as if it spans centuries of cinema, then and now, and in that way transcends the limitations and passé design of its proposed future look for game systems. Just look at the poster that heads this article: see the silent-screen clasp of the romantic interest; how old-fashioned it is and how it is projected into a vision of the future. And it is very pretty. An example of look overcoming content.

[1] (John Brosnan, The Primal Screen: a History of Science-Fiction Film, Orbit, Macdonald & Co, 1991, pg. 350)

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