'Tron Legacy' -- It's a Movie, It's a Game, It's Both?

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There are better movies than “Tron Legacy,” but there aren’t better topics for a movie. In its own Hollywood-happy-ending way, “Tron Legacy” attempts to wrestle with the impact of computer technology on the way we think and live today. And so as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is honored as Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” for linking up almost a tenth of humanity in a social network, we might all take stock of computer-generated changes in the iPad era. “Tron Legacy” is one small metric of that social transformation--and a big measure of how computers are influencing the medium of the movies.

Those of us who were young males in 1982 probably saw the original “Tron” in the theater, and many others--joined, eventually, by girls--have seen it since on video. Indeed, the ’82 movie burgeoned into a video cult, finally inspiring Disney to make “Tron Legacy” as a sequel.

The original “Tron” was a bold, ahead-of-its time attempt to imagine a life that would take place in virtual reality--that is, inside a video game and, by extension, inside a computer. Such an idea might have seemed like a far-fetched idea back then, in the era when clunky telephones and Selectric typewriters burdened the earth. But today, in the midst of physical-action videogames such as Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect, as well as SecondLife.com, the idea of human/computer merging seems, instead, “near-fetched.”

Indeed, a mere two years after the original “Tron,” science fiction writer William Gibson coined the phrase “cyberspace” in his award-winning novel "Necromancer." In that work, Gibson described a virtual world, somewhere in the future, made possible by networked computers formed into a vast collective neural network. Cyberspace would be, Gibson prophesied, a “mind beyond the prison of the skull.”

Here’s how Gibson described what we now think of as the Internet, years before anyone called it the Internet:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.

Such fluid and evocative prose was the 80s answer to the hardboiled evocations of Raymond Chandler, back in the 40s and 50s.

Unfortunately, today, in the 10s, “Tron Legacy” never achieves any of the techno-verbal poetry of Gibson’s prose. But at least the new movie strives to capture the sense of wonder that an Internet visionary would have felt three decades ago; Jeff Bridges, who starred in the first “Tron,” reprises his role as the character Kevin Flynn, a computer programmer who went through the cyber-looking glass in the first film--and never came out. As Kevin says of that long-ago time time, “I kept dreaming of a world I thought I’d never see . . . Then I got in.” And so indeed, Kevin got into the Internet, big time; he was soon joined, on the inside, by a twin of his own creation. Together, the two Kevins created a vast world of computer programs, from cobalt-gleaming cities to armies of slave-warriors to sexy female servants. But then the manufactured twin goes rogue, and the real Kevin becomes an exile in his own kingdom.

Yet while the script never rises above the ordinary--and is barely comprehensible to a filmgoer interested in plot-logic or continuity--the film achieves a stunning visual poetry. Vast flat-lands of shining black are inlaid with neon-ish circuitry; the “cyberscapes” seem like a photo-negative Western movie. And the outfits, all shiny black with silver and gold piping, seem destined to influence fashion runways for years to come. The indoor furnishings, even the foods and drinks, all have a glowing look to them, as if they were made of radium; in this inner Internet world, nobody needs to worry about strange chemicals or cancer. In “Tron Legacy,” one can imagine the hippest, coolest, sapphire-est night club one has even seen--and then multiply it by a thousand.

And let’s not forget the “lightcycles,” featured so prominently in the movie. Influenced by the ultra-sleek “batcycle” from the rebooted “Batman” series--but taking a quantum beyond any two-wheeler in their gold- and silver-blazing--the shining and shimmering “Tron” cycles take motorcycle design to a whole new level. If these vehicles could ever be built in the real world, they would sell out faster than you can say “computer-generated imagery.”

The plot and the cast, by contrast, are far less interesting. The plot concerns the efforts of Kevin, having disappeared into cyberspace decades ago, to be reunited with his family. The cast is dominated by Bridges, playing a dual role, as the cyber-equivalent of Dr. Frankenstein and as his run-amok creation. Bridges is a talented actor--he won an Oscar last year for his performance as an aging country singer in “Crazy Heart”--although in this film, he seems less like a computer visionary, or a questing father, and more like Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, the character he played in the 1998 movie, “The Big Lebowski.” The other characters are forgettable, although Olivia Wilde, seen on TV’s “House,” is surely the foxiest “isomorphic algorithm” ever.

If the plot and characters seem like over-familiar cliches, ill-concealed in all that CGI, it’s because they are just that--high-tech cliches. And that’s the way Hollywood seems to want it: Moviemakers have figured out that most of the best sci-fi works--including Gibson’s Neuromancer--are un-filmable, or at least unprofitable, because the storylines are just too “out there” for a mass audience.

Instead, having taken us into the newness of cyberspace, “Tron Legacy” immediately takes us back to old-movie tropes. We see killer frisbees, as in “Goldfinger”; we see crowd scenes from “Gladiator,” or even the Nazi-era “Triumph of the Will.” We see bomber-vs.-fighter scenes derived from “12 O’Clock High” or, more recently, “Star Wars.” The high-tech motorcycle duels remind us the chariot races in “Ben Hur.” And the legions of mass-produced bad guys will summon up memories of the Orc-hordes in “Lord of the Rings.”

Yet despite its many derivative elements, “Tron Legacy” is a predictive movie, because computers are going to continue to transform movies, just as computers have transformed everything else in our world. We could even say that computers are to movies what WikiLeaks is to journalism: In the end, the computers will win, because they can “scale” up so quickly.

That is, WikiLeaks-level data dumps have made a mockery of traditional journalism, which once prided itself on picking and choosing information, weighing accuracy and relevance. But in the WikiLeaks era, everything hangs out, leaving web-surfers to pick and choose for themselves what to read. Journalists can still summarize, but they can no longer edit. After WikiLeaks, and the overall profusion of information that comes out of the web, news-consumers themselves can decide what to consume.

Similarly, computers will eventually flood out the movies, offering infinite CGI characters and vistas that will say or do or be anything--and can be changed or tweaked by anyone, including the viewer. Yup, the kids’ books “Choose Your Own Adventure” have been merely a low-tech anticipation of things to come. It won’t be long before movie-goers can pick and choose among endings--or beginnings and middles, for that matter.

But one might ask: Doesn’t that turn a movie into a videogame? And the answer is, “Why yes, it does.” Most likely, the game will give the game-player a “set” storyline that can be followed like a movie, but of course, the player can change the story anytime.

So does that leave us with a movie? Or a game? The answer is “both.” For some, it will be hard to imagine a movie inside a game, or a game inside a movie, but it was hard to imagine virtual reality back in 1982. But the first “Tron” took a stab at it, and if “Tron Legacy” fails to advance such thinking, the new film at least provides us with some cool ideas for designing and decorating the new alt-future world to come.

James P. Pinkerton is a writer, Fox News contributor and the editor/founder of SeriousMedicineStrategy.