Thursday, August 30, 2012

Nitpickery: Tron

Hey y'all.  I saw Tron again for the first time in years.  Last time I saw it was so many years ago that I barely remembered anything about it before.  It's nice to get a good look at it again and see what so many adults saw in it.

First of all, let me say that I like this movie.  The fact that I'm going to nitpick it does not change the fact that I really do like it.  It had a lot of fun elements, and it has that "retrofuture" look that I like so much.  The digital effects are deliciously dated and colorful, the metaphors were interesting, and it had a nice, slow introduction that most modern movies don't let themselves have time for.  The dudes in today's Hollywood seem to have forgotten that it's perfectly fine to set the scene before making the story go forward.

I do have a nitpick about the graphics, due to them being on the DVD rather than original VHS.  I don't like it when old graphics are "upgraded".  When the old graphics are shown as they are, they merely look like a different, strange art style.  When the old stuff is digitally cleaned up, it looks pretty dumb.  Though for the most part, the Tron cleaner-uppers did a much better job than the people who recently cleaned up the Star Trek episodes on Netflix.  If you watch the Netflix Star Trek episodes, it's very, very easy to see that the Enterprise is merely a toy.  On Tron, however, the only thing that really suffered too much was the solar sailor and a few other bits and pieces.

Quick summary: Kevin Flynn is a game designer whose works were stolen by a man named Dillinger, who then used the games to take over a gaming company.  Alan and Lora, two people who work for Dillinger, are disturbed by Dillinger's defense of a computer system called the Master Control Program, an artificial intelligence that has grown intelligent enough to want to hack into the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, inside the computer itself, the society made of sentient programs is being oppressed by Master Control.  They're forced to play games that usually end with one or more programs "de-rezzing" -- dying.  Kevin Flynn hacks into a company computer to get evidence that his game ideas were stolen, but then is zapped by a laser and sent into the digital side of things.  There, he and various computer programs are forced to play video games, and the loser dies.

Note that anything I write here is probably going to be a spoiler.  I mean, it's been twenty years already, so you've more than likely seen it.  And if you haven't, well, it really doesn't have an ending that can be ruined by spoilers.  It's more of an experience than a clever story.

I've seen the sequel before I saw this first one, and quite frankly seeing the first ruins the second even more for me.  This happens for various reasons.  The most important reason is that while CLU is the major villain in the second movie, he's almost nothing in the first.  He's basically a redshirt.

To be clear, originally CLU was a program created by Flynn to hack into Encom's (Dillinger's company) computers.  He shows up the intro in a pretty cool scene and he's driving a tank, trying to get away from MCP's mechanized goons.  The trouble with this scene is that CLU gets no setup whatsoever.  He's just there for a bit.  Does this affect the quality of Tron?  No, not at all.  What it does do is affect Tron: Legacy.

Honestly, Tron itself proves that Legacy was nothing more than a money grab.  Sure, I'm fine with them making a sequel, and I'm sure that some people in the production really did want a legitimate sequel that would be fun to watch.  But when the main villain of the second movie is a bit character from the first with insufficient background, that's just pretty cheap. 

Honestly, we don't learn anything about CLU from Tron.  All we know is that he's a program that works for Kevin Flynn, and he was deleted by Master Control.  If you're going to make him bad in the sequel, then give him a path of darkness to go on so that the audience knows why the heck he's having such a hissy fit.  After all, if Kevin Flynn was trapped in the digital world for several years between the two movies, then Kevin was probably a better "father" to CLU than he was his own son.  Now that's a plot twist.  Crap, now I'm sad the second movie didn't go that way.

One of the things someone told me when we discussed the second Tron movie was that the first Tron didn't have much of a plot either.  That's not quite true.  Sure, the plot of the first Tron was skewed and could have been edited better, but it actually had a plot.  What I mean by skewed was that I found the relationship between Kevin and Lora to be weird.  Lora, at the time of the movie, is dating Alan, but she used to date Kevin.  Apparently Kevin either still likes her or is a creeper, because he won't leave her alone.  Also, when Kevin is in the digital world, the fact that Alan's program Tron is dating Lora's program (yep, all the main characters have a digital equivalent) doesn't stop Kevin from acting like a creeper right in front of Tron.  Worse yet, Lora's program later kisses Kevin.  I think this is supposed to imply that Kevin is getting his love for Lora out of his system, but it just comes across as weird, especially since her program kisses Tron a minute later.

The plot of Tron is a little convoluted for a few other reasons.  Kevin is able to turn red like one of Master Control's programs, but this doesn't really help him accomplish anything, besides implied (but not shown) avoidance of the MCP's programs. 

A major plot problem is Kevin's abilities as a "user".  Users in the digital universe are considered gods, and Master Control tells all the programs that anyone who believes in them is a religious fanatic.  This plot was very interesting, and I liked where they went with it, especially the scene where Tron establishes contact with Alan.  It was a very moving moment where he got to communicate with his creator.  Very cool.

The part of this that gets sort of confusing is Kevin's powers.  Since he's a user, he gets to control things in the digital world that most programs can't.  However, his powers are inconsistent.  At one point, he pulls together bits of programming to build his own vehicle.  However, he is unable to save Ram, one of the programs that escaped with him from the games.  Several scenes later, Kevin doesn't seem to have any trouble reviving Lora's program (I forgot the program's name, sue me).  Also, putting together the vehicle and saving the program don't seem to affect Kevin any, but creating a new path for the solar sailor to go severely weakens him for some reason. 

There's various nitpicks like this.  Like the spider droids that show up in one scene but then disappear, the fact that Kevin's vehicle crashes and no one cares, and the fact that the Master Control program leaves a lot to his head servant Dumont, who has done little besides fail MCP from the beginning of the movie.  You'd think MCP would do something drastic if a user escaped into his world.  And the movie could have been improved by showing Lora and Alan reacting to Kevin being in the digital world.

Thing is, none of these nitpicks matter too much.  For one, the digital abilities of the time make editing this movie a nightmare, and potentially very expensive.  Disney had to be at least a little cautious, and the movie wasn't an instant hit.  Honestly, despite all of the plot weirdness, this movie is a lot of fun.  The unique art style makes it watchable even today.  People are always telling me to shut off my brain during a movie, which I'll never do, but when a movie is this odd and shiny, I can't help but enjoy it despite itself.  Besides, it didn't have any serious plot holes that would hurt the movie, so it's all good.

What differientiates the two movies the most is that when you watch the first, you know the filmmakers cared.  When you watch the second, you know they cared about money.  And now that I've finally seen Tron and been old enough to remember it, this only becomes more clear.

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