WE ARE TRON (2010)
Tron: Legacy is the movie of the year. Tron: Legacy makes Avatar look like Walt Disney’s Cinderella from 1950. Many critics have complained that Tron: Legacy is a film for “fan boys” only. They are wrong. Roger Ebert pondered the probability of the physics of being sucked into a computer. He is old. For people of all genders and ages who love art and computers and video games—and that’s a lot of us—Tron: Legacy is simply an amazing and enthralling experience. I am a girl and I went with a girlfriend and we went to IMAX 3D—we went all out—spent all our girl dollars—and I would go again. If you are looking for a story, look elsewhere: this film is an allegory of the Internet. If you are looking for plausibility, move on: this movie is a purely optical event. Just open your eyes and allow yourself to be drawn into the world of “Tron” and “Clu.”
Steven Lisberger commented that it was as if the original fans of the first Tron had to grow up and become executives at Disney for the sequel to be made. But, more importantly, as Lisberger pointed out, we understand the basic concepts about computers much better. We entered into the arcade game via an “avatar,” a vague term then, but now we all have avatars on the Internet, either through our logos or by playing Second Life. Although inspired by the game “Pong,” the games in Tron were played by two humanoid figures rather than by bouncing white dots and the action took place over a flat grid that, like a Flat Earth, had ends and edges and one could fall off or out.
Today, we think of the Grid as the Internet, which is a verbalization of the Grid, which looks like, of course, a net. This net, imagined by “Kevin Flynn,” is endless and self-evolving, propelled by the will of “Clu” the avatar and doppelganger of the CEO of Encon. Clu was programmed to find perfection, but in his quest towards purity and logic—sought after by all programmers—he has committed genocide against the innocent ISOs. Quorra (Olivia Wilde) is the only survivor of the spontaneously generated creatures and is sheltered by “Kevin Flynn.” “Clu2” summons the son of “Flynn,” young “Sam,” (Garrett Hedlund) now in his late twenties and lures him back into the game. Father and son are reunited, father sacrifices himself to save the son and the ISO so that the two can head towards the light and escape back to the real world. The story is a mere armature for the art. But this is postmodern art, a hybrid of quotations from twentieth century art, a true bricoulage.
This Tron is dark, shades of blacks and grays, slivered with streaks of light. The key colors (like my website) are black and Tiffany blue. Unlike the original, which was an arcade game come to life, the technology of today allows the film to become a work of art. The director, Joseph Kosinski, was very frank about the fact that the new Tron with its new grid, its new server, was built from the ground up. He storyboarded each shot, thinking in terms of choreography—the placement of the characters within the Grid like three-dimensional chess. The built environment was an art project. “If you’re not interested in design,” Kosinski said, “you wouldn’t be interested in working with this film.” The fabled Grid has grown over the past twenty-eight years and the rather sparse landscape of the original quadrille has developed beyond the old office-like cubicles into a city with a mountainous landscape beyond. Indeed, the entire world had to be designed by Ben Procter, the art director, and stretched out in a map. A moat or an Infinite Void, lurks for those who fall off the connecting bridges, and surrounds the Downtown City. The Safe House where the older and wiser “Kevin Flynn” hides is in the mountains and the Outlands stretch out to the Sea of Simulation (Baudrillard would love this film).
The Safe House is one of the few places in the film where actual sets could exist. Designed by Darren Gilford who described the futuristic home as a “hideout,” the House has the ethos of the love child of Charles Eames and Philippe Starck crossed with the refuge of Dr. Dave Bowman from 2001. The original Rococo furniture was a reimagining by Lin McDonald who lit the chairs from the inside with rope lights. Indeed the entire glass floor, which had to hold the weight of the actors and the equipment, was uplit. All the furniture, the Eames armchair and ottoman, the Mies chaise longue (the 670) and Barcelona chair, the Arco lamp by Achille Castiglioni, were white and silver. The pale fire in the white fireplace was a silver waterfall. Olivia Wilde pointed out that these sets, which created an alternative world, were a welcome surprise in a film that could have been mostly green screen. But nothing in the architecture of the Safe House, designed by Kevin Ishioka (who was the supervising art director) and Jan Kobylka, was precisely otherworldly—it was the blacks, grays and whites that gave the set its spectral look, reminding the viewer that this world had no natural light.
If we take this concept of being literally within the computer, the logic of the set design and the costumes become clear. The computer has its own internal light system. The screen is lit from within; the keyboard will light up when you are typing in the dark. This is the light that substitutes for the sun in the land of The Grid. People, or humanoid computer programs, are dressed all in black or white in skin-tight suits of neoprene. These suits are “electro-luminous,” meaning that flexible lamps are inserted into channels on the sides of the rubber like costumes. The light literally outlines the body’s shape, making the wearer visible. According to Wilde, it took months of training to look good in the suit and hours every day to get into the outfit. She was “proud” to wear the suit, which made her feel like a “warrior.” Christine Clark, who designed the costumes with Michael Wilkinson, explained that the tight-fitting suits were based on the actors’ actual bodies and were kitted out with flexible lighting that had never been used on such a large scale before. The light in the suits acts like the characters—the typed numbers and letters—on a monitor, one of those old fashioned Eighties screens that were backlit in green. The skeletal outlines also link the humans to the machines, because the people and the machines they make are psychically connected—they have become us. And we have become them.
For those of us who saw the original Tron—-the few of us—-in 1982, the old familiar leads are back, Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner, but other characters are missing. Sark (David Warner) and Yori (Cindy Morgan) are gone. Gone as well are all the array of Eighties pastels as are the complex designs on the body suits.
However, the 1950s grids on glass by Irene Pereira of the original Tron survived and can be seen in the film’s theme song video, “Derezzed” by Daft Punk.
The current Tron is cleaned up and the colors are carefully and judiciously deployed and separated to indicate the worlds of good (the forces of “Kevin Flynn”)—blue—and evil (the forces of his evil twin, “Clu2”)—orange. They fight each other by slinging the deadly identity discs that are magnetized to the back of the black suit and with the Light Cycles. To mount a Light Cycle, one has merely to assume the position and the Light Cycle will manifest itself under you and off you go. In the original Tron, the contests were rather staid versions of throwing the disc or catching it with a jai alai stick and the motorcycle races were strictly on a grid of straight lines. Like the Grid, in Tron: Legacy, the Light Cycles have evolved into longer leaner and meaner machines, less blunt-nosed and utilitarian than their grandfathers. The Light Cycles swoop and soar and leave trails of light like exhaust. Unlike the straight-edged and geometric predecessor, this Tron is feminine and curvilinear, taking its cues, like the earlier version, from Star Wars: The New Hope. There are the aerodynamic dog-fights and the panoramic shots of marching soldiers, gathered together for war by “Clu2” and even the bar scene, one of the most awful and copied scenes in the history of film.
The bar cum disco and nightclub is where we meet the last and strangest character of the film, Michael Sheen’s white clad “Castor/Zuse. Although it is a relief to see Michael Sheen play someone other than Tony Blair, his character is such a flaming hodge-podge of previous characters, from Ziggy Stardust to Gary Oldman’s “Dracula” to Joel Grey’s master of ceremonies in Cabaret, that I will lie awake many nights trying to figure out all the references. The real fun of the End of the Line club scene is the brief appearance of the Daft Punk as helmeted DJs, head bobbing to their own music. The heroes of French electronica, Daft Punk, aka Guy-Manuel de Homen-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, never really “appear” and they always wear disguises. Best known for “One More Time,” Daft Punk are more like Street Artists in that they prefer to keep their real appearance on the down low. We see them in Tron: The Legacy but only in passing, performing “Derezzed,” which is what happens to you when you lose the game in Tron Land: you are shattered into millions of tiny splinters and, like your computer, you crash.
Daft Punk had to be persuaded to take on the project of doing the sound track for Tron: Legacy. For the highly successful musicians, working on the film meant taking two years off from touring. However, as the video of “One More Time” suggests, Daft Punk is interested in filmmaking. The team worked with a full orchestra, fusing electronic music with classical instruments, from flutes to French horns to Bassoons. The result is a sound track that is somewhat reminiscent of the work of the German group, Tangerine Dream, on the soundtrack of Risky Business, but unlike Tangerine Dream, Daft Punk can go harder and grittier and there are tracks on the sound track album (number eight) that have the hard grinding sound that sometimes comes out of Digweed. The soundtrack makes the movie take off like the Light Cycles.
Notice I have paid little attention to the story, for I consider the plot incidental to the special effects, the artistry and the new form of making art. Although it is nice to see Bruce Boxleitner holding up better than Jeff Bridges after twenty eight years, the real miracle is the remarkable way in which the old Jeff Bridges is transformed into the young Jeff Bridges through digital effects. I am aware that other reviewers have made snide commends about Botox and plastic surgery, but, in my opinion, the transformation of the actor works in the film. “Clu2” is a perfectly acceptable digital character because the entire movie takes place inside a computer; therefore, everyone has to look like the computer version of oneself. “Clu” is an avatar, as are all the other programs in the film. Their bodily perfection, their agelessness is not about computer programs which age quickly and are outdated and discarded without remorse but more about us and what we would like our lives to be, how we would like to always look, what we “really” are in our own minds.
What is nice is that “Clu” does not look like the young Jeff Bridges but like the old one without the aging—the bags under the eyes, the wrinkles, the shaggy gray beard, the thinning hair, etc. The women, by comparison, all look frozen in the prime time of models, which is about seventeen. Their makeup is flawless and will, I predict, set some new styles along with the costumes. Already there are Tron platform heels coming to a store near you any day now. The point is that these avatars are who we could become if only…we could find the time to exercise, the time to diet, the time to ride around on cool looking motor cycles or wear those terribly uncomfortable platform heels. The avatars are allegories of our fantasy selves. Computer games are places we enter into to escape the real world of pending unemployment, of disappointment in real life human relations, of financial peril, and all the other Shakespearean “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” We want to be like “Clu2” in looks but like “Kevin Flynn” in wisdom. We want to be like “Quorra” in her innocence and her untroubled perfection. We want to be like “Sam Flynn” who is a young hero on a quest who must pass mythic tests and perform great deeds before he can become a man.
So disregard the lame reviews. Also ignore the Disney merchandising. But buy the soundtrack. Awesome. Tron: Legacy is a prime example of a phenomenon I have been observing for some time now—the flow of cultural capital and creative energy away from “high” art and into popular culture. The leap from Avatar to Tron: Legacy is enormous but it measures the speed of the drive to create art inside the matrix of the computer, the new art world. The computer is the site of the new avant-garde.
We are the users.
Oh, and the avatar, “Tron,” barely appears in Tron: Legacy. Who fights for the users now?
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger