Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tron: Old Technology, Some Quirks, but Enjoyable

My son recently showed me the trailer for the upcoming movie Tron Legacy, which is a sequel to the 1982 Disney film Tron. It had been many years since I had seen Tron, but I remembered it as being a pretty great movie.

Tron was the first movie to extensively use computer graphics in an age when green screen technology was in the stone age by today’s standards. Tron captured the interest of the video gaming genre that was burgeoning at the time. It was different, new, and exciting. But it only earned modestly at the box office. The video games it spawned produced more revenue than the movie.

Having been piqued by the trailer for the sequel (to be released just before Christmas 2010), we took an opportunity to sit down and watch the original film again. My oldest son said that he was just a kid the last time he saw it. I told him that he was born years after the last time I saw it.

It turned out that my memory of the movie was much better than the movie itself. Don’t get me wrong. We had fun watching the film. But some of the acting was lousy. Or perhaps some of the direction of the actors was lousy. And of course, the development of technology over the past 28 years makes some of Tron’s erstwhile awesome special effects seem poor, quirky, or even campy. (It is amazing to compare the 1982 Tron technology with what you see in the trailer for the sequel. We’ve come a long way.)

The constant black background in the computer scenes in the old Tron is wearying to me. The dark sets and re-colored monochrome faces sometimes make it difficult to tell which character you are seeing. Some of the film’s transitions are also rough.

The last time I saw Tron, I had not yet begun my career as a software systems engineer. I had to laugh when I saw the boxy monochrome screen computers that were state-of-the art back in those days, because I remember working on such machines. I also laughed at the klunky interfaces. Sure, these things were done for art, but they weren’t that far off from the real thing. My kids were amazed when I pointed out that no computer in the movie had a mouse. To them, computers have always had mice. Except for video games, the only input devices shown were keyboards.

I was reminded that once when my brother and I were in college, we managed to borrow a dumb terminal from a neighbor who had obtained it cheaply when a nearby hospital had shut down. We put this massive thing up in our basement. We’d dial the phone number of the college’s mainframe computer and then put the receiver of the old AT&T rotary phone in a cradle that attached to the monitor. After a series of tones, a login prompt came up on the terminal.

Once logged in, we could write and run our BASIC, COBOL, and Fortran programs from home. The transmission speed was interminably slow, but it was faster than driving to the college and waiting for a terminal in the computer room to become free. And by golly, it beat having to use a keypunch machine (like I did in my first two computer courses).

Back to Tron. As far as acting goes, David Warner does a fairly decent job as all three villains. He’s insidious and tyrannical, but he’s not completely ruthless. He is, after all, a Disney villain. As the human Dillinger, he finds himself unpleasantly subjected to the Master Control Program, a computer program he wrote. In effect, he’s the program’s stooge, but he must never let anyone discover this, lest his career be destroyed. As the computer program Sark, the MPC’s main agent inside the computer, Warner is cold and cruel.

I had not remembered how wooden Bruce Boxleitner (Alan/Tron) is when playing his real world character, Alan. Or how huge the lenses on his 1980s glasses are. At the very beginning of the movie when Alan walks into the bad guy’s office, his acting comes across as stiff as something I’d expect to see in a high school drama production. He’s better as the computer program Tron than as a human. Cindy Morgan’s character (Lora/Yori) is way too simple. She seems almost goofily willing at times. Jeff Bridges (Flynn/Clu) seems more believable, but he has some stupid lines as well.

Several transitions and plot devices in the film are odd. Flynn seems far too willing to tell Alan and Lora about his stymied attempts to illegally hack their company’s computers. When he explains that he is trying to get justice, Lora (who is a scientist with a PhD) immediately and without supporting evidence suggests that they break into the plant so they can infiltrate the computer internally. While they are sneaking around the place, Alan and Lora seem too little concerned with the idea that they could lose their jobs and/or go to jail for their activities. Perhaps the writers assumed that having a PhD doesn’t mean that one has good judgment.

When Ram is dying, the transition from a casual to an intense connection between him and Flynn seems too abrupt. Then the moment lasts too long. Flynn’s willingness to jump into the Master Control Program seems odd. Sure the computer programs he is interacting with have human features and tendencies (in fact they get more human throughout the movie), but even a computer geek isn’t going to kill himself to save bits of data. Maybe Flynn is supposed to know that jumping into the MPC will restore him to the real world, but I don’t think that’s explained in the movie.

Near the end of the film the computer prints off “evidence” that Flynn developed games for which the villain Dillinger has gotten credit. Anybody could print something like that. It hardly seems like enough evidence to result in Flynn becoming the boss of the company. Reportedly, original shots showed more of a database printout, but the film makers worried that audiences wouldn’t get the connection. So they simplified it. Too simple, I think.

The main plot device — man’s fear of technology — is older than history itself. The fear of technology has been a recurring theme ever since humans began to use rudimentary tools. Science fiction in the computer era has frequently focused on machines becoming tyrannically powerful. The hero is usually a fallible human underdog that exploits some hubristic weakness in the machine. Tron’s plot fits nicely into this story line.

As a software developer, I have to laugh at the ongoing superstition about the coming of omnipotent computers. I guess that most people don’t realize the lengths to which we must often go to get computer programs to do things most of them think of as pretty simple. While we are much better at getting applications and computers to communicate than in the old days, the idea of artificially intelligent computing omnipotence seems like extreme fantasy to me. Computers in the real world aren’t that efficient.

Tron has its flaws, but it is still a decent movie to watch. It captures a time a generation ago when video arcades were a popular social phenomenon; before kids could carry around dozens of video games on pocket-size devices. It was an important film in that it opened the eyes of the entertainment world to the possibilities of computer assisted film making. Since then, computers have become essential tools to pretty much all film making.

If you think you might want to watch the Tron Legacy sequel that comes out late this year, I suggest that you first watch the original Tron movie as a refresher. You too might get a few laughs from old technology. Just don’t expect to see any computer mice.

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