Tron: Legacy review

I have always had a romantic attraction to the "could have been"s, the aesthetics that die early or fail to become popular but feel like in an alternate universe just next door they could have been wildly successful. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has always struck me like this; even as the Classical music period gave way into the Romantic period and harmonies get ever wilder until they run entirely off the rails in the twentieth century, it always felt to me like the Ninth could have been the foundation of a different aesthetic than the one we actually got. (A matter of opinion, of course.) It's a fully-formed masterpiece from the could-have-been.

I like to watch the "How the Movie Was Made" documentaries for movies from the Star Wars era up to the late ninties, because I love to see all the dead special effects techniques; the wonderful models, the animatronics, all the clever tricks they play, all interesting in exactly the same way that watching the documentaries for a 2010 movie are very uninteresting, seeing as how they all boil down to "And then we used a computer". I wonder what movies we'd be seeing if somehow computers were impractical for special effects and these techniques continued to be refined and honed.

And there's a smattering of other such things I enjoy. In the movie domain, many of them end up becoming what we call "cult classics", movies that may be awesome or may be fundamentally terrible but are above all else different. Buckaroo Bonzai, the David Lynch version of Dune, and, as telegraphed by my title, Tron.

I just went to see Tron: Legacy today, and by way of preparation, I popped the original Tron in last night. I don't think I've watched it in about ten years. I always liked Tron, and it turns out I still do, perhaps even more so. Sure it's a product of its time, but its contemporaries have aged worse on average. And where ten years ago I was still trying to jam Tron into the template of a movie about actual computers, today I'm willing to release the movie from that and just let it be itself. To stop wondering how users are controlling this little world, wondering how our actual commands would manifest, instead to harness the fact that we're getting a view of the world of computers and video games through the eyes of people who are only tangentially connected to them instead of being stuck on the problem.

And once I freed myself from that little hangup, what I realized is that the "problem" with Tron is not that it is too much about computers; that's just an incidental detail of how it was born. The "problem" with Tron is that it is the single most alien film I have ever seen. Oh, sure, Hollywood's shot through with "aliens" but they are almost always just humans in a different shape, living in the same basic world except possibly with a bit more tech or light sprinklings of magic. Consider last year's hit Avatar, a movie I should in honesty say I didn't see, but the jungle scenes are elaborations of jungles on Earth and the aliens elaborations on Native Americans and other human societies. I had to carefully prevent myself from saying "just" elaborations of jungles on Earth because there is nothing at all wrong with that. But the aliens are not really, truly alien, the environments are still recognizable, the motivations recognizably human.

Tron is alien.

The stark visual aesthetic is like nothing on Earth. The closest thing is a city at night (as shown in the last five seconds of Tron, a scene I consider almost worth the price of admission on its own) and even that still isn't the Tron aesthetic. The antagonists broad motivation of global control may be mundanely human, but the methodology is alien; the MCP absorbs other programs into itself. At best you could analogize this to a human corporation but even that isn't accurate. The physics are truly, profoundly alien, with structures spontaneously self-forming and the rules of how they operate little resembling our world. The Tron world has no conservation of mass, instead it seems to operate directly on some sort of conservation of information principle that interacts with traditional physics. This is where the computer origin shows the most. The rules for the colors are never quite laid out yet there clearly seems to be something there. The way light itself works in Tron is dodgy and weird, in reality a limitation of the special effects techniquest being pushed to their limits, yet the effect contributes to the alien feeling. Even the soundscape is profoundly alien. The mere footsteps all sound wrong, like boots that don't exist are stomping on ground that can't exist, reverberating in ways they shouldn't. Lights are constantly blipping around with accompanying sound effects and even the simple act of opening a door is like nothing physical. This is not merely an alien planet, this is an alien universe.

So we come to the fundamental problem Tron had with some critics, which is that Tron is not merely weird but truly alien; it would take more than an open minded critic willing to strap in and enjoy Star Wars, it takes one willing to briefly look beyond their humanity in a way very few films had ever before asked. I think this even explains some of the problem the original movie itself had, it was so strange and alien that even those writing it and producing it evidently had a hard time getting it all right. I say this not because no critic could do this, in fact many could, but because I think the criticism of those who could not comes more from this inability than any major problems with the film.

Even those of us who love Tron must admit the movie is very uneven. The pacing is a bit weird, perhaps a bit too much is not merely unexplained and alien but pointlessly random, particularly the sequences on the Solar Sailer where some film clips (such as the grid bugs) were included because they were expensive to produce and nobody could stomach throwing them away even though they now didn't fit anything, a well-known editing trap. The actors were in no danger of winning any awards, though they are at least servicable.

And I have written all of this stuff about Tron in a review ostensibly about its sequel because my summation is that almost every word I wrote about Tron applies to its sequel. It retained the alien feel of the grid. Based on some of the trailers I was concerned that they had gotten too caught up in the trappings of Tron while missing the point, but I think they dodged that.

The soundscape is spectacular, and much like the first movie listen carefully to the sound effects; for instance at one point a room's lights are progressively turning off for the night, and rather than the sound of relays flipping that we associate with that image, we get the sound of an old hard drive spinning down. I do wish a bit more continuity had been maintained with the old movie and being a bit of a music nut I wish the soundtrack had called back to the original at least once or twice, but, well, that's just getting needlessly nitpicky by most people's standards. They got the hard stuff quite surprisingly right.

Which makes it all the more heartbreaking that they flubbed up some easy stuff. Where the original has the excuse of breaking new ground and not always knowing what to do with it, the flaws in this movie are just plain sloppy movie making. There's a core plot here that makes sense but unfortunately there are several plot holes; in this case not in the usual sense we use the term of "Hey, you could have gotten out of your predicament easily if you just did this" or "if only the characters hadn't been blindingly stupid they would have realized that", but it seems the plot has been hamhandedly had some holes cut into it in editing. Dillinger's son is introduced as a Chekhov's Gun violation, and unless I missed it, one of the key bits of the climax was never directly explained, just alluded to a couple times and then suddenly it happens. (Keep an ear out for the word "reintegration".) I also question the difference between the entrance and the exit, though I feel I can handwave that one if I need to. I sincerely hope this movie gets a Director's Cut at some point to clean these matters up, because these seemed to be unforced errors to me.

But as a whole, if you really enjoyed the first one, I'd catch it. If you hated or was ambivalent about the first one I don't think this one will change your mind.