Computers are supposed to have sped up our lives. Yet the 1982 movie Tron, about a hacker sucked into a computer and compelled to fight for his survival, ran 96 minutes. The 2010 sequel, Tron: Legacy, in which the hacker's son is sucked into the same computer system, runs 125 minutes. Maybe we can chalk it up to 28 years of inflation.
Both films are out this week on DVD, Blu-ray and, in Tron: Legacy's case, Blu-ray 3D, which requires special equipment. Both delight in imagining a digital world in which computer programs played by humans, and real humans shrunk to the size of avatars, ride neon cycles or drive neon cars along neon grids to defeat their opponents. They can even drive off the grid, where life is calmer.
When Steven Lisberger wrote and directed Tron, there was no World Wide Web and no laptop computers. As he says in the bonus features, "probably your cellphone has more computing power in it than we had on the whole movie."
Many of the effects only appeared to be computer-generated. The black-and-white faces and costumes were in fact hand-tinted frame by frame to make them look illuminated. "I ran around in a black-and-white leotard with our circuits drawn on us with a black Sharpie," recalls Bruce Boxleitner, who played a security program called Tron (short for electronic) as well as its creator. "And we had a hockey helmet. Motocross pads."
With Tron: Legacy, directed by Joseph Kosinski, it's a new game. Computer animators, many of them inspired by Tron as kids, have created a brilliant CGI world without the seams of 1982. Computer animation these days is king. In 1982, Lisberger says, Tron wasn't nominated for a visual-effects Oscar "because, basically, the academy thought we cheated when we used computers to do special effects."
The first film echoes 2001: A Space Odyssey and Demon Seed in positing an intelligent computer, Master Control Program, that will kill any human who gets in its way. Master Control forces the avatar of a company executive named Dillinger (David Warner) to do likewise in cyberspace. And it uses a laser to reconfigure the molecules of hacker Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and suck him into the machine, where he must fight for his life while seeking a file that will prove Dillinger stole his video-game ideas.
In Tron: Legacy, Flynn has gone missing after creating a corporation called Encom. When his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) visits the derelict video arcade Flynn once operated (the electricity is still connected, for some reason), he gets sucked into the same computer, on a server not connected to the Web.
The villain this time is Clu, who was created by Flynn and, through motion-capture technology, looks like a young Bridges. Flynn himself (Bridges playing his real age) is living in a Zen state with a woman (Olivia Wilde) who, being an isomorphic algorithm (don't ask), may hold out the best hope for humankind.
It all gets a bit Matrix-y, particularly when everyone visits a neon nightclub run by Castor (Michael Sheen, playing a variation on David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase). "The son of Flynn," says Castor. "Of all the innumerable possibilities, he has to walk into mine." Clearly computer programs are well versed in the dialogue of Casablanca.
Both films are appealing for those willing to forgive the shortcomings. In the first, it's occasionally clunky acting and a design that, while groundbreaking in its day, looks quaint now. In the second, it's the constant threat that subordination of story to special effects will turn the movie into a soulless spectacle without resonance like the Wachowski Brothers film Speed Racer.
But Bridges as Flynn pulls Tron: Legacy back from the brink, drawling "Radical, man" and "Bio-digital jazz, man" in his patented laid-back way. Some things are digital-proof.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
Taxi Driver (1976) Yes, this tale of a disturbed loner in New York is a masterly study of loneliness and repressed rage. And yes, it has a powerful lead performance by Robert De Niro as a creepy cabbie. But the real attraction of this week's Blu-ray edition of Martin Scorsese's classic is a holy grail for Scorsese fans: the feature-length commentary he recorded in 1986 for The Criterion Collection with screenwriter Paul Schrader. It hasn't been heard since its appearance on a laserdisc two decades ago.
The Night of the Generals (1967) Leonard Maltin's film guide dismisses this as "a dud." Not so. It's a keeper, now on DVD in a beautiful colour transfer. A German intelligence officer (Omar Sharif) tries to determine which of three Nazi generals (Charles Gray, Donald Pleasence and Peter O'Toole) murdered a prostitute in Warsaw, even as the Second World War rages around them. Anatole Litvak's 144-minute film unfolds like a rich novel, with all the intelligence, digressions and subordinate characters that implies. Also here: Tom Courtenay, Philippe Noiret and, briefly, Christopher Plummer as Rommel.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010) This time out, the children are drenched by a painted seascape and land on a wondrous ship that visits odd and dangerous isles. In reality, the ship never touched the water; it's all computer wizardry. Director Michael Apted says he consulted with friends Peter Weir (Master and Commander) and Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean), "and they said to me, 'If you can avoid going to sea, avoid it.'"