The glossy, exorbitantly priced Tron movie preview magazine was a frequent flyer in the 1982-3 edition of my school bag. Its scuffed blue and red pages, all neon, polygons and exclamation marks, spent many cycles amongst the wallpaper-wrapped exercise books and text books. I was the living embodiment of the target demographic for the film: an obsessive teen geek.
The original Tron’s CGI wouldn’t trouble the average modern smartphone but it was ground-breaking in those heady post-Falklands days. The visual design embraced and transcended the technical limitations. The neon-effect, the glow of the costumes – made using a hugely tedious and manual rotoscoping process – set the film apart. Its storyline was novel and imaginative, if not exactly plausible, and contained enough geeky references to keep me happy. A character called Bit who could only answer yes or no! A Master Control Program character, or MCP, whose name wasn’t a million nanometres away from that of a prominent OS of the day, CP/M! And Pacman, chomping away as an Easter Egg in the background!
Skip forward 28 years. CGI is ubiquitous, unnoteworthy – and undetectable in most films by most people. We’re all networked – even our mums have email – and words like modem are not the arcane terms of a malodorous minority; they’ve passed through common usage and now begin to seem antiquated and quaint. Geeks have inherited the Earth.
And along comes Tron: Legacy. How could it possibly seem as new and different as its forebear? Of course it couldn’t. But surely there could be an interesting untold story to tell: a subtle or not-so-subtle allusion to social networking, network neutrality or crowdsourcing, or at least a recognition that several billion more people have come online in those 28 years.
No. Let’s just have a bunch of set-piece chases and action scenes, per usual. Oh, and let’s do it in 3D, because it’s teh future, innit.
The film starts, ludicrously, with what I can only describe as release notes. The gist: “Yeah, well, not all of it is 3D. It’s like totes deliberate, stop your moanin or summin or nuffin.” It turns out that scenes set in meatspace are in 2D, so we spend the entire first act doing Buddy Holly impersonations in our specs for no reason whatsoever. But come on! It’s like UI: if you have to explain it, it’s broken. I suppose we should be grateful that the film-makers took care to make it as realistic in that respect as most software.
That first act opens with a whole bunch of exposition for those unfamiliar with the first film. But I’m afraid I wasn’t paying much attention as the dialogue was washed out by a nerd in the row behind fumbling through his bag to find what sounded like a blaring radio. And visually my brain was going: Welcome to Uncanny Valley! Because here’s where we first see the much-hyped de-aged Jeff Bridges, in a flashback scene. But although we can do CGI buildings, CGI vehicles, CGI water, CGI animals, CGI hair and CGI fur, CGI people still look like freaks, animated zombies, utterly unreal.
An unchallenging plot ensues in which grumpy but doable super-rich implausible hacker totty Sam Flynn, son of Jeff Bridges’ character Kevin, plays at being Batman outside and inside the computer with the all-too-predictable assistance of a ladyprogram I shall call Ruby off Rails.
No, actually, Sam is more of a Luke Skywalker character since Kevin is plainly Obi Wan, Ruby is Leia and Clu – Kevin’s program alter ego – Vader.
Or you could look at it as a Spaghetti Code Western, since the white hats all glow blue/white, and the black hats all glow red.
But even this was too complicated for one nearby patron of the cinema, a dozy cow who spent most of the film annoying her nerd boyfriend (and the rest of us) asking him what was going on. Pay attention! Shut up! Pay attention!
The film is almost entirely devoid of humour. I saw no Easter Eggs; no puns, visual or aural, about the net or computing. There are a few nerdsnickery moments when you see (in Real World scenes) glimpses of a Linux command line, but they don’t count: someone typing “ps -ef” is never funny, unless you type it on Windows. The only intentional comedy is in the obligatory appearance by Michael Sheen, playing a gay nightclub host program (don’t ask) as an odd mash-up of David Frost and Graham Norton: Frost/Nortron, I suppose.
I did enjoy some aspects of the film. The soundtrack by Daft Punk is excellent, and the visuals are superbly realised – modulo uncanny valley. But overall the film offers nothing new, nothing ground-breaking. And, you might wonder, why haven’t I mentioned the Tron character himself? Yes, you might wonder that. I’ll say no more.
There is a film to be made melding the concepts and originality of the original Tron with the seismic changes seen since those primitive days – the expansion of online life, the loss of privacy and secrecy, the slow death of long-cherished business models, the scrambling for control – but Tron: Legacy sure ain’t it.
Avaragado’s rating: greenbeans.exe