‘Tron: Legacy’ Has No Gridbugs

Spoiler right there in the title! Relax: any further spoilers will come after the jump, so consider this your official Alert. I attended a media screening of Tron: Legacy last night, and it was a massive cattle call — a huge IMAX theater packed to the gills with people who, I’m guessing, count blogging as their main and likely sole media credential. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially for a movie ostensibly targeted at computer-friendly folks. However, as someone old enough to have seen the original Tron movie in theaters and to have been obsessed with the subsequent arcade game, I have absolutely no idea if Tron: Legacy is going to have any appeal for contemporary feckless youth.

The first Tron movie was considered a box-office failure. It was super-weird and had all these computerized graphics going on, papered over what amounted to a really simple adventure mythology messiah plot. But even though the parallel is not exact, and the repercussions would take years to manifest, Tron was probably responsible for introducing the concept of virtual reality into pop culture in a way that made a little bit of sense to non-nerds.

I’m not going to dwell much on the plot of either the new sequel or the original. (Gridbugs, by the way, were barely-seen little critters from the first movie that figured heavily in the arcade game, pictured above.) Rather, I’m compelled to wonder just what you’ll think of Tron: Legacy if you weren’t steeped in the lore of its predecessor. The distinctive visual style of Tron came from a charmingly half-baked iteration of what it would be like to run around in a very primitively rendered 3D world of simple forms. Everything was blocky, composed of blocks, or moved at block-like right angles. The world was called the Grid, after all. This was 1982. Software that made this kind of imagery in a real-world production environment at the time was limited to engineering and architectural purposes, so it wasn’t about properly illustrating a sumptuously curved seashell or anime princess.

Tron: Legacy definitely takes that visual aesthetic and runs with it as far as current technology will go; modern interface design intercuts with loving nostalgia for the look and feel of the old-school Tron GUI, so to speak. But this is the Troniverse as re-imagined under the Apple design philosophy. Corners are rounded off, interfaces work by touch, menus pop up and rotate pleasingly. Even the legendary light cycles swoop and swoosh in elegant ellipses, rather than the traditionally abrupt 90-degree turns.

It’s very pretty, and as someone who grew up with the original movie, it’s fun to see the updated look. But again, a viewer lacking that historical perspective will wonder why the smashing special effects are often mixed with a weird retro vibe. I can load up any first-person shooter and blow someone away with a shotgun, and their exploding, organic viscera will be lovingly detailed and disgusting. In Tron: Legacy, destroyed people still shatter into little blocks, generally mimicking the first movie. The people-blocks are really cool, don’t get me wrong! But this Disney violence definitely comes with universe-wide parental controls.

And that general nostalgia for the original Tron visual style becomes a charming joke of its own, eventually. For example, the Tron: Legacy cityscape renders every space — from office to lab to throne room to street — in the same vocabulary of flat metal, glass, and neon. This is most apparent when the main characters visit a super-exclusive penthouse nightclub that looks indistinguishable from the allegedly seedy back alleys below. Daft Punk is DJing in the club, though, so that’s a little different.

Speaking of Daft Punk, I’m not sure I need listen to their soundtrack on its own, but they do stellar work on this movie’s music. Ironically perhaps, the tunes at times feel like a more seamless update of Tronology than the movie itself. The only forced moment occurs when they DJ at the club in “person.” Electronic house music appears to have followed the same evolutionary track in this bottle universe as it did in real-world Europe, apparently.

When watching Tron: Legacy, it’s somewhat painfully obvious what sequences are custom-engineered for porting to video games, though that doesn’t mean they’re not thrilling to watch onscreen. And all that aside, the most revolutionary special effect is the youngification of Jeff Bridges’ face for the evil, ageless CLU character. There’s still something demonstrably weird about this effect, but it’s by far the best example to date. It doesn’t matter so much when you know the pseudo-face you’re looking at belongs to a piece of software, since you would expect some Uncanny Valley mileage. But the differences are striking, and not really in a bad way. I don’t want to see this become a way to insert dead or ancient actors back into new movies, but in this case it feels right on a villainous doppelganger.

“What’s Tron?” asked someone who was told I was going to this screening. That’s really the question, as I just don’t know how broad the mainstream appeal can be for an update of what amounts to a techie cult favorite. Other than continuity fascists, I think most Tron fans will like the new movie. I actually would have preferred a little more divergence from the canon, just to shake things up, but it’s still a pleasant trip down memory lane. I guess the net effect is similar to what my dad will experience when he sees the Coen brothers’ update of True Grit, where Jeff Bridges plays an ornery old coot in the proverbial non-virtual flesh.

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