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Tron


Computer engineer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) makes it his life goal to prove software conglomerate ENCOM senior executive Ed Dillinger (David Warner) stole his software, and used it to rise to power within the company. Flynn’s hacking attempts fail thanks to an impressive mainframe protector named Master Control Program, or MCP (also Warner). Flynn has two friends working for the company, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan), who agree to help him attack MCP from the inside. Just when it looks like things are finally going his way, MCP uses an experimental laser system to scan Flynn, digitize him, and drop him into the mainframe. Inside the system, Flynn is forced by Commander Sark (also Warner) to play games for MCP’s enjoyment. Here Flynn meets Alan’s security program Tron (also Boxleitner), Yori (also Morgan), and Ram (Dan Shor), and escapes into the system.

 Tron: Legacy/Tron: The Original Classic
Tron is one of those films I respect much more than I actually like. I respect it for being miles ahead of its time in terms of technology, and even more for its narrative choices, which confused the living hell out of everyone that watched it in 1982. The major support behind the film is usually in reference to its technical achievements, but the rather abstract and daring narrative aspects are occasionally more impressive. The ‘users equal gods’ subtext, and the (then) foreign concept of in-computer ‘avatars’ both delve into Philip K. Dickian levels of sophisticated science fiction, that was mostly ignored by mainstream movie theaters at the time. Even simple discussion concerning the internet, programs and computer memory was over a decade above the original audience’s head, setting Tron way ahead of the curve. The enduring problem with the film isn’t a lack of ideas, rather it’s quite the opposite. Tron swims in a listless ocean of ideas, without the appropriate level of distillation. There’s enough plot, but it’s either awkwardly stated (as in the real world), or spread thin over a thin layer of feature length runtime. The characters are chock full of potential, but they aren’t given a chance to develop between set pieces (good performances aside). More tragically the pacing stretches and snaps to the point of exhaustion, making it hard to believe the experience isn’t longer than the manageable 96 minute runtime.

Another often overlooked aspect of the film is the cinematography, which features almost rigidly restrained camera movement, and repeating frame-ups between the real world and the computer world. This is usually due to the restraints of the compositing technology, but the filmmakers make the confines work to their advantage. The stark look of the computer world (which I don’t remember them ever calling ‘The Grid’ until the second film) is reminiscent of the bleak environments of Lucas’ THX 1138, which also is likely due to technical limitations, but again, the look appears intended, and is generally the most memorable thing about the entire film. THX 1138 and Tron are also pretty notorious monetary flops that have managed to endure thanks to their artistic merit and intelligent ideas. THX’s failure was soon forgotten following the massive popularity of American Graffiti and Star Wars, but Tron took longer to really catch on, which explains the nearly three decade span between the original film and its first sequel. 1982 ended up a notorious year for science fiction flops that would go on to huge critical acclaim and cult followings, specifically Tron, Blade Runner, and The Thing. For decades everyone blamed Steven Spielberg and E.T., but the more likely answer was these darker, more experimental films were just outside Regan era comfort zones.

 Tron: Legacy/Tron: The Original Classic

Tron Legacy


Following the events of the original Tron Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) continued entering ‘The Grid’ in an effort to make cyberspace a better place. But one day Flynn disappears, leaving his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) an orphan, and majority shareholder. Twenty years later Flynn’s best friend, and Sam’s surrogate father Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) receives a mysterious page pointing him toward Flynn’s long closed arcade. Alan convinces Sam to investigate, and soon the son of Flynn finds himself transported into the system, where he finds the Grid is under the rule of a program that looks just like his father.

There were few films I was looking forward to more in 2010 than Tron: Legacy. I would often go on rants about how I was never going to pay to see another 3D movie again, only to amend the statement with a ‘except for Tron: Legacy’. The teaser trailer (released well before actual production had commenced) was action-packed, gorgeously designed, and delectably confusing (how are there two Jeff Bridges’?!?). The build-up to the release started with a lot more design work, and talk of scientific society involvement, but there wasn’t a lot of discussion concerning the film’s plot. At first it appeared that the plot was a big secret, but later news verified that within months of release that the production was going to the folks at Pixar for assistance in pulling their screenplay together. Those of us that read the news entered theaters knowing that the storyline was going to be a bit iffy, but I doubt many expected such a mess of meandering threads, underdeveloped themes, and tired exposition.

Some of the story based failure can be placed on the fact that Disney was aiming for a Pirates of the Caribbean-like franchise. The filmmakers are clearly spreading some breadcrumbs here, which would’ve lead to a likely more satisfying series of films that equaled a greater whole. Obvious examples include an early scene featuring Cillian Murphy as a seemingly incidental character (the son of the original film’s human villain), or plot elements totted as important, specifically the ‘Isos’ being dumped almost as soon as their mentioned. This disc’s extra features fill in a few more possible future details. There’s also a distinct possibility of last minute structural reconstruction (the Pixar story seems to add some credence to this theory), and there may be a better, longer story sitting on a cutting room floor somewhere. This, of course, doesn’t excuse the whole film, which almost never finds a satisfying character, narrative thread or even set-piece climax (I find myself especially disappointed by the wet noodle revel of the title character’s new identity, or his pathetic final fate). Jeff Bridges manages to garner sympathy via sheer force of his persona, and overall I’d say the characters are relatively strong (though clearly having an entire film’s worth of back story and good actors help), but no one is able to save the film through charm. Legacy is similar to J.J. Abrams’ equally plot-starved Star Trek, but fails to successfully fight through its narrative issues with as much dignity. In the end Star Trek manages to be a good movie, where Legacy does not.

 Tron: Legacy/Tron: The Original Classic
But it’s not a wash. This is a clear case of style over substance, and readers that know my taste know that if the style is strong enough, I’m more than willing to excuse a lack of substance. I can’t in good conscience characterize Legacy in an utter failure while praising the visual grandeur of other narrative deficient films like the Star Wars prequels, Blade Runner, or the myriad of Italian horror flicks I review for Blue Underground every month. Legacy is a triumph of graphic design, and does an incredible job building on the original film’s already triumphant style. The visuals are so perfect they actually feel familiar, as if they’ve always been a part of the pop-culture zeitgeist. It wasn’t until I watched these films back to back that I really realized how much the Legacy team had redefined the first film’s designs. The instant classic status may have something to do with how much of the imagery was drilled into consumer minds prior to the films release, in the forms of varying media like Marvel comics and sports magazines (I can’t recall which one). The nearly monochromatic, vector art look also makes for a novel 3D experience, the first since Avatar turned the process into a ‘viable’ part of the filmmaking landscape.

Video


Tron looks great, way better than it has since its initial release (I assume, as I was only a couple of years old at the time). This HD release, in the preferred 2.20:1 framing, is a clear upgrade over the 20th Anniversary DVD release, though not what I’d call a reference level transfer. Surprisingly enough, it’s the real world scenes that are the most stunning in 1080p. The original negative has clearly been scrubbed of all but the most unavoidable film grain and a couple of fuzzy wide shots. The sequences in Flynn’s arcade are positively teeming with colours, battling contrast levels, and needle fine details. The entirely computer generated images are also much sharper, but inconsistent in terms of cleanliness. People are going to be most disappointed with the heavy grain levels over the composite shots, and many of the CG animations, but having just watched the DVD I can assure you that this is an improvement in both frequency and size of grain. I’m not going to pretend I understand the specifics of the technical processes (the composite work was a frame-by-frame technique based around 70mm black and white footage), and I never saw the film on the big screen, but it’s plenty obvious that this is just the way the footage looks. One of the less ideal side effects of the increased detail is their effect on some of the less impressive visual effects, especially those that touch the real world sequences. Look at the scene where Boxleitner leaves his desk towards the beginning of the film, and a matte painting of dozens of cubicles shifts before he finally exits frame. These ‘short comings’ just sort of come with the property, and fans should probably be used to this stuff by now.

 Tron: Legacy/Tron: The Original Classic
Tron: Legacy is more or less the picture of perfection. The image quality is impeccable, sharp as a Ginsu blade, and as vibrant as a laser beam to the face. Legacy doesn’t share the same wide ranging palette as the original film, but it makes up for variety in frequency and clarity. Most of the scenes within the Grid are practically monochromatic, or at the very least duo-chromatic (blue equals good, orange equals bad). The limited hues are solid and consistent enough to makes the slightly varying shades pop. For example, Clu is more yellow than the rest of the bad guys, but it’s so subtle that the variation is almost subconscious. The included DVD copy is still plenty colourful, but the minor differentiations are difficult to notice in 480p. Stark contrast levels basically define the entire look, even when it comes to the difference between facial textures and the sharp and super-simple graphic design of the Grid. This, unfortunately, does not extend to the uncanny valley, artificially de-aged Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner faces, which look extra strange when presented this cleanly. Lines are an important element, as are the distinguishing characteristics of negative and positive space, which thanks to the utter sharpness are almost grotesquely flawless.

The collection I’m reviewing does come with the 3D version of the film as well, but I’m afraid I don’t have the capabilities to watch it. The aspect ratio of this 2D version fluctuates a few times between 2.35:1 and an IMAX friendly 1.78:1, just like the Dark Knight disc did. There’s warning of this when you hit the play button.

 Tron: Legacy/Tron: The Original Classic

Audio


Tron’s DTS-HD Master Audio sounds similar to the 20th Anniversary DVD release in terms of surround redesign, but the uncompressed nature of the track shows pretty large improvements in volume levels and general clarity. Major highlights include Clu senior’s derezzing, the whizzy disc war sequence, and anything featuring lightcycles. The lightcycles especially are a continuing source of surround enhancement, immersive directional effects, and pretty heavy bass. The LFE gets a pretty consistent workout from the abstract rumble of computer spaceship ‘engines’, and the overall dynamic range is quite wide. The only real negative aspect of the track is the somewhat inconsistent dialogue. Clarity isn’t really an issue, but volume levels are all over the place, and occasionally so low they’re almost indecipherable, even when other elements are threatening to blow out the stereo and surround speakers.

I’m a little surprised that Tron: Legacy didn’t win the best sound mixing and/or editing. The whole film is awash with aural stimulation, from real world scenes featuring revving motorcycles and Journey songs, to the buzzing games and Daft Punk of the Grid. The games in the new film are levels above the original’s in terms of pure sound design, often due to the integration of more stereotypical video game noises into the mix. Lightcycles now make the sound of a real motorcycle, 8-bit video game cycle, and a synthesizer all at once. The same effect is placed on some of the vocal performances as well, and even cooler yet, some of these ‘robotic’ vocals bleed into the stereo and surround channels (I’m a sucker for big, echoing voices). Legacy not winning sound mixing/editing was a surprise, but Daft Punk not even being nominated for best original score was a travesty. And by ‘travesty’ I of course mean that I was a fan, and like most fans I assume everyone should like the same things I like. Full disclosure: I adore Daft Punk. They single handedly (double handedly?) turned me around on techno music during my punk rock phase, and their involvement with Legacy definitely upped my interest level. Admittedly sections of the score sounds a little Batman Begins-ish, but the themes are so beautifully entwined with the rest of the soundscape, not to mention infectious, so I find myself more than willing to forgive a dash of unoriginality.

 Tron: Legacy/Tron: The Original Classic

Extras


The new Tron extras begin with a new audio commentary featuring writer/director Steven Lisberger, producer Donald Kushner, associate producer and visual effects supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw, and visual effects supervisor Richard Taylor. The track is informative and features plenty of factoids that don’t overlap with the already impressive behind the scenes footage, but the focus is very technical and the tone is pretty dull. There are jokes made at the film’s expense and some fun anecdotes, but the bulk of the track is a bit of a choir. ‘The Tron Phenomenon’ (9:50, HD), a featurette featuring the cast and crew of the new film discussing their memories of the original, along with some more basic behind the scenes information that doesn’t match the making-of documentary included on the original special edition DVD. Some of Syd Mead’s concept art is new, but mostly this is rerun info. The new stuff ends with ‘Photo Tronology’ (15:40, HD) which follows Tron director Steven Lisberger and his son to the original Disney archives. The guys look through a series of production photos and discuss the process. The coolest fact I learned: Lisberger reveals that he chose to work with Moebius because of Heavy Metal magazine, and (more importantly to me) the artist’s work with enigmatic Mexican film genius Alejandro Jorodowsky (though I’m pretty sure Moebius didn’t actually work on either El Topo or The Holy Mountain).

Under ‘Original DVD Features’ is the already impressive extras that were found on the 20th Anniversary release. These start with ‘The Making of Tron’ (1:28:30, SD) – a fantastic retrospective documentary which mostly focuses on the film’s technical achievements, but basically covers the entire story of the film’s production. This doc is among my personal favourites in DVD extra history, and reason enough to have purchased the original anniversary edition release. All the major players are interviewed, and everything from developing the technology, putting together the production team, casting, filming, post-production, and release is covered. These are augmented with behind the scenes photos, and clips from the team’s early animation tests. The ‘Development’ banner features EPK and production snippets including ‘Early Development’ (3:00, SD), ‘Early Lisberger Studios Animation’ (:30, SD), ‘Computers are People Too’ (4:20, SD) and ‘Early Video Tests’ (:30, SD). The ‘Digital Imagery’ banner features ‘Backlight Animation’ (1:40, SD), ‘Digital Imagery in Tron’ with Richard Taylor (3:40, SD), ‘Beyond Tron’ MAGI TV segment (4:00, SD), ‘Role of Triple I’ (:30, SD) and ‘Triple I Demo’ (2:20, SD). The ‘Music’ header features ‘Lightcycle Scene with Alternate Carlos Music Tracks’ (2:50, SD) and ‘End Credits with Original Carlos Music’ (5:20, SD). The collection also features three deleted/alternate scenes with director intro, a ‘Nato Reel’, WIP reel, four trailers, storyboard explorations, and several image galleries. The only way this stuff could be better would be an HD upgrade, but I’m sure the interview footage wasn’t shot for that kind of quality.

 Tron: Legacy/Tron: The Original Classic
Tron Legacy starts with another Disney Second Screen option, which is toted to include stuff like storyboards, conceptual art and effects breakdowns. I couldn’t get it to work with my crummy laptop, and it didn’t appear to have gone live yet anyway at the time of this review, so I wasn’t able to give it a look.

Extras continue with ‘The Next Day’ short (HD), which was originally toted as an elongated teaser for the next sequel, but following Legacy’s less than stellar box office returns, it now appears to be a mini-sequel itself. It’s a lot of fun, and actually adds a lot of plot filler on what happened between the films. More set up for the next film can be found if various codes are typed into the ‘high score’ screen (the codes are all on screen so you don’t have to guess), including a ‘Space Paranoids’ commercial. Or you can be lazy, and type in ‘ALL’ for the whole collection. I also tried ‘CLU’ and ‘ROM’ to no effect. I still think Legacy was a rather weak film, but these clips do awaken hope for a future sequel. ‘Launching the Legacy’ (10:20, HD) is a reasonably informative behind the scenes EPK that skips over most of the project’s false starts, but does include the early test footage, building a screenplay and look, and the ‘real science’ (ah hahaha!). ‘Visualizing Tron’ (11:50, HD) covers the films all-important production design, which actually involves more set building than you’d probably think. ‘Installing the Cast’ (12:00, HD) kind of speaks for itself, and involves the casting process. ‘Disc Roars’(3:00, HD) fills out this section with a look at the recording of the Comic-Con crowd for the crowd noises during the disc wars fight.

The more ad-like extras include ‘First Look at Tron: Uprising The Disney XD Animated Series’ teaser trailer (1:20, HD), a ‘Derezzed’ Daft Punk music video (2:30, HD), and Disney 3D Blu-ray and Movies on the Go ads.

 Tron: Legacy/Tron: The Original Classic

Overall


One flawed but important piece of film history, and a disappointing but utterly gorgeous belated sequel. Neither is a must own by my personal barometer, but fans of the series should be happy with the result. The original film looks and sounds as good as it ever will outside of Disney taking the George Lucas route and recreating all the special effects, and the extra features are exhaustive. Tron: Legacy is a reference level disc (and I’m guessing the 3D version meets those expectations as well), but the extras are a disappointment, even if they fill in some important back story. The film wasn’t that popular, so a double dip seems doubtful at this point, but there simply has to be more behind the scenes footage, and at least one deleted scene.

* Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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