More noise than signal


Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. In this instance, 1982 is a foreign country, and the U.S.A. is also a foreign country. I’ve not thought this introduction through, this is getting confusing. What I’m trying to get at is that Disney’s Tron came out in 1982, which, in terms of computer technology development, might as well be categorised alongside the abacus. It feels as though Tron needs little introduction, but I should bear in mind that new, non-Tron aware humans are created by the day, and that on its release Tron rather underwhelmed, so some introduction at least seems warranted.

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) runs that most missed haven of our youth, an arcade, by day while trying to hack into the systems of ex-employer ENCOM by night, hoping to find the proof he needs that he’d been defrauded. Fellow employee Ed Dillinger (David Warner) stole the games he’d been working on and released them to great success and acclaim, quickly rising to become the face that runs the place. Flynn has sympathetic friends still at ENCOM, chiefly Bruce Boxleitner’s Alan Bradley and Cindy Morgan’s Dr. Lora Barnes, but he’s unable to penetrate the firewalls of the Master Control Program, an artificial intelligence Dillinger was using to consolidate control of various computer systems both inside and outside the company, but it rather seems as though the MCP may now be running Dillinger, rather than the other way about.

Convinced that the only way through the security will be to physically access ENCOM’s networks, Flynn convinces Bradley and Baines to sneak him into the facility: at this point fans of computer science and physics accuracy in movies had better stop listening. While Flynn’s poking around, the MCP fires off an experimental laser that digitises Flynn and drops him into the computer system, represented here as a bunch of dudes and dudettes wandering around in neon outfits, doing… something, I suppose, while jackbooted thugs of the fascist MCP police state keep most of them in a state of terror. Singled out for particular attention are those computobods who still profess to believe in the “Users” responsible for their creation, with their hokey religions and ancient weapons.

What follows is, well, not exactly as my motherboard’s trouble shooting guide goes. Flynn is captured and thrown into a series of gladiatorial games where he fights for his life, before being busted out by Tron (Boxleitner), Bradley’s security program, kicking off a chase that sees them try to shut down the MCP while avoiding the forces arrayed against them through a variety of means that make for interesting enough set pieces, but don’t stand up to a lot of academic rigour. A “solar-sail simulation”? Whit?

Tron, it turns out, is one of those films I’m convinced I’ve seen a dozen times, but turns out to be a dozen different ten minute stretches when it was on telly before changing the channel to find something a bit more interesting, and so it turns out this might well be the first time I’ve watched it from start to finish. I don’t think I appreciate it much more for seeing it all in context, to be honest. It’s not that I dislike Tron, and indeed there are a few things to like. The actors are all charming enough in their roles, but primarily the film’s selling point is, of course, the visual effects.

These are so abstracted and stylised that they hold up pretty well today. I think primarily because it’s worked out a pretty cohesive visual language for the computer world and stuck to it that it’s convincing, if not realistic, if that makes any kind of sense. It’s legitimately impressive to this day. Certainly, it doesn’t seem all that less visually interesting than 2010’s Tron: Legacy, which, given the strides effects work has made since then, is pretty remarkable.

Unfortunately most of the other aspects of Tron, I am somewhere between not bothered with or actively dislike, which very much brings the average down. Actually, perhaps the only thing I really dislike is Wendy Carlos’ soundtrack, which I do not get on with at all – it sounds like a synthesiser being tortured with a cello. I could get over that if there was a compelling narrative to back it up, but Tron‘s is, well, not nonsensical, exactly, but a close relative of nonsensical. It’s just a bunch of fetch quests leading to a boss battle, which I suppose fits the “inspired by video game” theme quite well. However, given that for all their supposed narrative sophistication you can’t cull a decent film from modern video games, what hope do you have of pulling one out of light cycles?

The standard discourse on Tron these days appears to be to give it plaudits for its ground-breaking effects work and ignore everything else, and if you can somehow attune your expectations accordingly then there’s some merit in watching the film. However, it’s a narrative wasteland, and it very rarely displays any sort of human emotions so there aren’t a great many levels on which to enjoy it other than the visual. Honestly, you’ll get the best of the film by watching a trailer for it on YouTube.

End of line.