Saturday, January 2, 2016

How Fanboys Have Gained The World But (Begun) To Lose Their Souls

[Five years ago I wrote this review of Tron: Legacy (2010) for Shadow & Act. I noticed that it no longer appears to be available and I thought I'd post it here. It's a little bit prescient about the direction of fanboy/geek culture.] 

Ever since the 2008 Comic-Con, the Fanboy Universe has been waiting with bated breath for the follow-up to Steve Lisberger’s Tron, a groundbreaking science-fiction adventure released by Disney 28 years ago. Considered the first shot fired in the digital cinema revolution, Tron has carved out a singular space in the genre. Now that the revolution Tron began has changed cinema, the time seems perfect to revisit the world of the film with an eye towards birthing a new franchise.

And that’s what Disney has done. The new film, entitled Tron: Legacy will doubtlessly reap a fortune from both the aging nerds who saw the first one and the new generation brought up on gaming. It is also poised to launch more films and become another blockbuster franchise.

Already, some have complained that the original Tron  has now gone into that Black Hole Disney is fond of hurling its properties into so as to create a demand for the next DVD edition. But I think there’s more than that at work. The new Tron  is no mere sequel to the earlier film. It is a complete re-imagining, and one gets the impression Disney would prefer that you NOT know about the original.  This reason, among many others, makes Tron: Legacy an intriguing film to consider as the shape of things to come even as it delivers yet another variation of Joseph Campbell’s generic mythology to the public.

Joseph Kosinski is the director. This is his first feature. That might strike you as odd considering how much is riding on this film’s success for Disney. But Kosinski has had a storied career in advertising, directing slick and memorable ads like the “Mad World” commercial for the game Gears of War.  He also holds a degree in architecture from Columbia University. I think Kosinski is to this age what film school brats were to the 70’s. If a (feature) first-timer directing a blockbuster is strange now it won’t be in the years to come.

So how did he do? Tron: Legacy is a triumph of design and can be downright jaw-dropping at times. The action is constant, the slow-motion-punctuated “Ain’t It Cool?” moments largely deliver. After the halfway point, the film begins to lose energy, and in the end, it feels much longer than its 127 minute running time would suggest. Lisberger’s film also had pacing problems. The more things change…

The story centers on the 27 year-old son of visionary computer guru Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, then and now), who went missing seven years after the events of Tron. Sam (Garrett Hedlund), the son, apparently spends his time practicing capoeira, base-jumping and parkour rather than run his father’s empire. His surrogate father Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, then and now) gives Sam a nudge to visit the old man’s now-abandoned arcade, which results in Sam being whisked away to The Grid, that world within the computers established in the first film long before cyberspace was a household term.

Where the original took its cues from Star Wars, the new film adds The Matrix into the mix. Sam becomes a Neo, reeling from the discovery of a world he is destined to change. He meets that world’s overlord, Clu, a program that physically resembles his long-lost younger father. When Clu removes his menacing black helmet, revealing the digitally younged-up countenance of Jeff Bridges, Sam is shocked. But Clu tells him “I’m not your father, Sam”, a sly reference to and tweaking of the climactic moment in Empire Strikes Back.

Sam engages in amped up new versions of the gladiatorial games seen in the first (that Jai Alai game doesn’t make the cut) only to be rescued by this tale’s Trinity (Olivia Wilde playing Quorra) and delivered to his old man, now in Morpheus/Alec Guiness-Obi-Wan mode in a remote home reminiscent of aging Dave Bowman’s flat from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The rest is pretty standard a-chosen-one-will-defeat-a-dark-lord territory. It’s the production design that’s the star of Tron: Legacy, not the plot. Darren Gilford (production designer) creates a radically different Grid. Now it looks like a futuristic but recognizably urban megalopolis, not the wholly alien landscape from the earlier film.  It feels like the first time a sci-fi film has tried to create a world on this scale (a la Blade Runner)  for some time (lately sci-fi prefers to present a normal looking environment where the gadgets are the only indication you’re not in the real world).

The costumes and art direction are all state-of-the-art future cool. I kept thinking how much they’ll love this film in Japan as I watched it. And this is where the contrast between Tron and Tron: Legacy is so striking. The digital filmmaking revolution isn’t the only revolution that’s happened since 1982. There’s also been a Fanboy Revolution, wherein the genre fare that was once marginalized (even in the immediate aftermath of Star Wars) has now conquered the culture. And with that dominion comes the need to be cool.

Tron was NOT cool. Tron, with its actors wearing helmets like special ed students and spandex was so uncool it was endearing.  And all that uncool has been erased from the sequel. Even the flashbacks have been stylistically retconned so that when we see the younger Flynn in the grid he looks nothing like he did in the old film. Like a self-important, successful adult who hides his dorky high school picture out of shame, Tron has adopted an aesthetic at odds with the original but reflective of the way Fanboy Culture has re-branded itself.

That is, I believe part of the reason why Disney has de-rezzed the DVD of the Lisberger film. That is why Sean Bailey, producer of Tron: Legacy says it is “technically a stand-alone film.”

But if nerd/geek culture is to become cool, isn’t it bound to lose something essential in the process? Compare Kevin Flynn to Sam Flynn. Kevin (in ’82) was an unabashed geek who lived in his own arcade and hung out with pimply, uncool teenagers. He was a goof and an oddball. Not Sam Flynn. Sam is from the Young Bruce Wayne School of Loner Richboys Who Like Extreme Sports. He’s a daredevil. He can fight. This is the new nerd-hero? Sam Flynn was the guy in ’82 who wouldn’t be caught dead watching Tron. Now he is at the center of that world.

Clu is also a great metaphor for the shift that’s occurred. Just as geek culture has conquered the culture at large, Clu himself (once a benign avatar for Flynn) has now become drunk with power and swagger. He’s got something to prove, and dominating two worlds is how he aims to prove it. This isn’t new, Clu is another villain in the tradition of Lucifer himself, but this villain addressing his army made me think of a would-be geek tyrant addressing the costumed hoards at Comic-Con, telling them that their geekitude entitled them to rule the world.

Another sign of this shift: Tron  was made by actual computer experts and is far more meticulously nerdy and based on computer technology than Tron: Legacy. The new film bastardizes nerdiness and cuts out the techspeak for a 21st century audience that should be more receptive to it.

The saddest casualty of this revolution is femininity. Cindy Morgan played Dr. Lora Baines in the original, a bespectacled female scientist that once dated Kevin but has moved on to the more adult Alan. The three of them formed the core of Tron  as Leia, Luke, & Han did for that other franchise. Just as the eponymous warrior was Alan’s program in The Grid, Lora was represented by Yori there. The triangle in our world also occurred in The Grid.

Lora, present in the final scene of Tron, along with a triumphant Flynn and Alan on the roof of a skyscraper is totally erased from Tron: Legacy. She isn’t in it, and she isn’t even mentioned. Yori is similarly absent from The Grid.

Fans did protest. I’m told there’s a Facebook group advocating for her. The filmmakers’ choice to leave Lora/Yori out is yet another stunning example of the rampant gynophobia this emboldened fanboy culture has manifested. Even Sam’s mother is neither explained or identified. As with this year’s loathsome Kick-Ass, women have no place in a film unless they’re young, and/or hot, and can fight.

Yes, we do have Quorra, and she is an important character. But compare her to Lora in the first film. Lora was attractive, but modestly so. She was the kind of woman that actually dated guys who like Tron. And she was a scientist, an equal to the men in the film. Now she’s been supplanted by a total fantasy woman. Not much is “real” about Quorra. And she’s not the equal of Sam as Lora was (except in the fighting department). She’s child-like. She wants to be taught about the world by someone smart (every fanboy’s fantasy). Lora is the girl our successful, self-important hypothetical guy took the to the prom, but Quorra is his trophy wife. What this says about the fanboy audience is not encouraging if feminism is something you care about. In that respect, Tron: Legacy is a major step backwards.

As the action goes on and on and the world of The Grid begins to become less captivating it is Jeff Bridges that keeps it interesting. Bridges is an Oscar-winner now, and he’s at that point in his career where his persona is an inextricable part of whatever role he’s playing. This Kevin Flynn is different from the earlier incarnation. The difference can be summed up in two words: The Dude. Bridges peppers Flynn with a zen master ease and the occasional “man” in his dialogue. An audience member even muttered “The Dude abides” behind me. This didn’t distract or detract from the film, it gave the film a humor and humanity that is otherwise sorely lacking from Kosinski’s beautiful but sterile landscape.

Ultimately, that demo trailer from 2 years ago may have been better suited to Kosinski’s skill set than a feature film. But Tron: Legacy will prosper and the Fanboy Revolution will continue and like Clu, look for more worlds to conquer.

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