Monday, August 11, 2008

"You're very persistent, Tron!"

Not too long ago, there was an explosion of excitement coming out of the San Diego ComicCon like a recognizer being nailed by a tank blast, when Disney surprise released a teaser for the new “Tron 2” – or “Tr2n” – in development.

Luckily, someone in the audience was quick enough on the draw to capture the thing on a cellphone cam and upload it to the net. I was able to catch it over at SF Signal and all I could say at first was “Wow.” It looked great. The clip focused on a lightcycle race across a typically surreal tron-world landscape. This time though, the look of the programs and their bikes was upgraded – sleeker, and the lightcycles themselves were able to make curving turns, rather than the traditional, wrenching 90 degree cuts we’re used to. Then there’s the appearance of Jeff Bridges, staring down on the scene from a white room like some tired old god of electronica. All in all, for three minutes, “Tron 2” (I’m not going to use the formal presentation of the name, because I think the embedded “2” looks dumb) looks very promising.

What annoys me though (aside from the placement of that “2”), is the startling lack of presence of this trailer, now that it’s been released. Initially, it was everywhere. But now, a quick search for it comes up rather lacking. It’s not even on the Disney site! What are the people at the cult-of-the-mouse thinking? They’ve whet the appetites of geeks everywhere, and now they’re keeping the teaser to themselves? Within a day of its release at the ‘Con, Disney should have posted a nice, clean, quality official version on its site and blasted it out across the net, as well as every multiplex movie screen with the rest of the pre-feature trailers and commercials. I’m a communications guy by trade, and while I’m not pretending to be the level of expert that resides in the halls of marketing masters at Disney, I do know enough to be able to say pretty confidently that they’re not doing themselves any favours by keeping this little piece of “Tron 2” close to their chests. Most of the buzz about the clip seems to have been positive, and while some would argue that they won’t lose ticket buyers by holding back on an early teaser, I would say they have a better potential to build a BIGGER audience and create MORE buzz by unleashing the thing, fostering its going viral, and getting it up on every SF site out there. Get people talking! Give them what they want – sneak peaks and inside scoops! Remember when Peter Jackson was developing LOTR? Weta had a site up right from the start that was dispensing photos and casting updates, news from the set and, best of all, trailers. By comparison, Disney’s approach now has been as if Kevin Flynn had sidled up to the hole in the game grid wall, hawked a loogie and spat through the breach, then walked away, rather than tearing through in his lightcycle and bringing Tron and Ram with him. In the modern age of information sharing, the smart media mogul starts building hype as early as possible (which Disney has done here) but feeds it by dropping tidbits on a regular basis. The “Tron 2” trailer from the ‘Con should have been released on a much, much larger scale.

At any rate, seeing the sequel’s teaser online put me in the mood to watch the original again – not that it takes much to do that; “Tron” is one of my favourites. Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen it, I can always pop in the DVD and enjoy this movie.

Part of that comes from nostalgia. I have to admit, “Tron” is one of the greats of cinematic sci-fi that I didn’t get to see in the theatre. In the summer of 1982, I was a kid, and even though my friends and I were all gung-ho to see this flick ‘cause it looked really cool, my parents (and the other parents in the neighbourhood) couldn’t have cared less about it – to them, it looked weird and it was science fiction and it wasn’t about anything they understood or had any involvement with, so they weren’t going to waste any time or money taking us to see it. Sigh.

And yet, we were inundated with “Tron” marketing by-products none-the-less: from trailers on TV and the previews before other movies we saw, to posters and illustrated books, and let’s not forget the “surprises” in cereal boxes. Yes, Disney waged quite a campaign through the breakfast industry to get some hype for this flick. I can remember digging crunchily around in boxes of Shreddies and Rice Krispies, finally wrapping my hand around the tantalizing plasticy goodness of the prize hidden amidst the cardboard-tasting cereal, pulling out the crumply package to rip it open and connect spars and wheels of plastic to make my very own lightcycle! No jetwall of course, but with a pull of the plastic ripcord that little sucker would go dashing off across the kitchen floor to smash into the wall (not through it, like on the game grid)! At least, that was the plan, until our collie pup would come bouncing in to play too, scooping up the toy into his jaws and running off with that quick “come on, chase me!” trot. And then there was the video game – and I’m not talkin’ about that cheesy pixilated waste of time that was available for purchase for Atari home game sets (no, I’m not jealous because I didn’t have an Atari – my Colecovision consol was a much better system, even if it didn’t have as many games) – no, I’m talkin’ about the full-sized arcade game (back when there were such things as arcades) with the screen and the joystick set up just like the game in the arcade in the movie. That was the best! There was a Holiday Inn out on the edge of town that was kind of like a weekend getaway resort for the locals, and it had a small arcade with the “Tron” game. I remember it started off with a character in a maze, and you had to find your way to one of the exits on one of the four sides of the screen before some bad guys would come and de-rez you. Once you were through one of the exits, you’d be plunged into a game – each exit led to a unique game. One put you into a lightcycle match, another exit led to a tank battle in a maze (the joystick controlled the tank’s movement, but there was a spinning knob control as well to let you turn the tank’s turret independently), and the other two exits – well, I can’t remember what kind of games they led to ‘cause I was never very good at those. I was okay in the tank battle (although it was really more of my brother’s forte), but in lightcycles, I kicked ass. Three years ago, my wife and I had our honeymoon at Disneyland in California. When we went to Tomorrowland and hit upon the Starcade, I went in hoping to find an old “Tron” arcade game - I mean, this was Disneyland, the heart of the place that gave life to “Tron” – it was a reasonable expectation. What could be more appropriate than a little corner for this movie in an on-site arcade? No love though. “Just a lot of cold circuits”, like the program said. No sign of “Tron” at all. Not even a blue or red Frisbee in the gift shop. I shouldn’t have been surprised – it was 2005 and “Tron” was 23 years gone, and from all appearances, Disney’s all about keepin’ up with the times and the marketing hooks that’ll draw in new generations of little ones, and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for the classics. Oh sure, there are the rides and attractions that Disneyland just wouldn’t be Disneyland without, like the castle or Space Mountain or It’s a Small World, but forget about the other stuff that helped build its cache, cut new ground, or created memories for those of us who were kids a few decades ago. Anyone remember Disney’s take on Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”? Remember the submarine ride they built around it at the park? When we were there, it was behind a fence getting a facelift into the “Finding Nemo” ride. The only trace of 20,000 leagues was a mural high-up on the second storey of a snack shack – something I suspect they’d forgotten about for the time being but would eventually be wiped-out as part of the rebranding. So much for history. What chance would “Tron” have?

“Tron” also has links in memory to my old school back east – C. Cornwell School was waaaaaay out in the middle of the country, a grade 4-8 school where all the kids got bussed in after they’d been through their local village K-3 elementaries and before they were set loose in the local 9-13 (yes, I said 13, this was Ontario in the 80’s) highschool, and consequently, because it was so far out by the highway in the middle of farmers’ fields and forests, the school dances for the older kids around the holidays had to take place in the afternoons. The grade 4 & 5’s were considered too young for the dances, so they had a choice – go to the “activities room”, where the activities invariably sucked, or go to the “movies room”. “Movies” was a misnomer. There was only one movie: “Tron” – which shows a heck of a lot of cool for a middle school in the middle of farm country. Occasionally they’d also run some short Disney series about a cowboy running a stagecoach service in Australia, but usually it was “Tron”. And that was okay by me and most of the other kids, ‘cause “Tron” blew us away. Cool special effects like nothing else we’d seen before (or since), awesome fight scenes (come on, who wouldn’t be impressed by some dude using a Frisbee as an information storage medium one minute, a drinking bowl the next, and then taking it and blowing away bad guys after that!), good guys who were funny, bad guys full of menace, and, a sense that there were deeper elements to the plot that we were still too young and naïve to understand. Good times, good times.

Over the years, this film has aged well. Sure, the realities of the high-tech world have changed, but we can look at their clunky computers and the arcades and say, that’s how things used to be (kind of). As for the look of the special effects, the synthesis of computer graphics and traditional animation, running side-by-side with live action film elements, were seamless. Together they created a unique world that we hadn’t seen before and haven’t seen since. It gave the world of “Tron” its own texture and atmosphere, and a style that doesn’t date itself because it is so utterly different. This early representation of cyberspace essentially showed moviegoers a totally alien environment (something which was itself unheard of – take any other SF movie prior to “Tron” and look at its environment, in most cases it was something easily recognizable, be it cityscape, desert or jungle [with the exception, perhaps, of “2001”] – but no-one had ever seen anything like the world of “Tron”) – but one where recognizable characters were (for the most part) totally at home in, and thus it was an alien environment that we, as viewers, were able to be comfortable enough to visit for a while. Watch “Tron” today, and for all the advances in CG that have been employed to enhance the reality of film backdrops, it’s still pretty rare to see anything that utterly strange (and cool!).

Beyond the pretty pictures, as an adult, the deeper elements are what the story worth coming back to. As writer/director Steven Lisberger has mentioned on the commentary track, the movie explores the issue of freedom of creativity – who owns what gets created, along with the threat of corporations squeezing out individuals – something he notes many programmers were concerned about during the early days of computing. It’s an issue that’s still relevant today. All you have to do is listen to anyone who’s deeply into the software scene discussing the proprietary moves of certain big corporations versus the open-source and collaborative approach, and the impact of each on users. The film is also a series of “religious discussions” (to borrow from Ed Dillenger’s conversation with old Walter). We see programs created in their users’ images, those programs worshipping their users (after a fashion) as gods. In so presenting this macro-micro universe relationship, the film poses the question of whether we, as users/human beings, are merely running systems for larger, higher powers. By showing Flynn’s confusion and vulnerability upon entering the computer world, the film also asks whether theoretical gods thrown into our world would be any more capable (despite having a few bonus powers) or far-seeing than we. I think it also pointedly raises the issue of, as we see from Flynn’s initial surprise upon arrival, whether any creating entities would even be aware of humans as functioning, thinking, feeling minds. Lastly, though I don’t think it’s quite as overt as the other issues, I think “Tron” also brings up the question of a creator’s responsibility to its creations. Initially, Flynn, like any other user, gives no thought to the state of his programs, like Clu – they are things to be used to achieve his ends. The capture and destruction of Clu in the beginning has no meaning to Flynn beyond the personal inconvenience of not being able to hack into the memory he was looking for to find his evidence. He has no concept of Clu’s fear, pain or death. Until he arrives in the computer world, himself, and, most especially because he’s in as much physical danger as the programs around him, learns that what happens to these programs matters – he learns they have feelings too (here the writers tap into a kind of Shinto notion, that anything created by man that serves a purpose for man has a soul of its own). This begins to hit home when he has a hand in the de-rezzing of the slightly portly accounting program Crom (played nicely Peter Jurasik). But the real change comes aboard the salvaged recognizer when Ram dies. Ram asks Flynn to “Help Tron”, which, let’s face it, Flynn probably would have done anyway, having something of an idea that he probably needs Tron to help him get home, but Ram’s dying request puts an added imperative on it. Flynn says yes for Ram’s sake, to put the program at ease as he dies. Flynn is now feeling responsible for what happens to the programs. One wonders if that was an idea of the writers too, to ask the question of whether any supposed gods would feel any kind of responsibility to humanity? The other implied question, of course, is whether creators do have a responsibility to their creations, whether creations can simply be thrown away or if a creator must ask him or herself what the consequences are. A viewer is left wondering whether, back in the real world, Flynn will treat his programs differently (and I guess we’ll find out in “Tron 2”!). But the implication here is that perhaps we, as an audience, also have to start asking ourselves if we, as a society, need to be thinking about this as our science allows us to create more and more complex things – perhaps even artificial intelligences or genetically engineered life forms. I don’t think a viewer has to be religious or not to toss these questions around. The fact that the questions are posed gives the film much greater depth than the simple quest storyline on the surface and makes “Tron” worth re-watching every now and again.

I’m normally pretty cautious about sequels. Even with a great foundation to build upon, it’s too easy to teeter off balance and have a movie come crashing down upon itself (and risk damaging one’s impression of the original). “Tron 2” is no exception – there’s no way of telling whether it will successfully build about the smarts and the wonder of “Tron” until we see it. I am hopeful though. And while I’m being hopeful, I hope that Disney will smarten up and do a better job with releasing its trailers.

End of line.
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