Sunday, 1 February 2015

TRON: Legacy or TRON 2.0?

I don't consider myself any kind of big TRON fan. Sure I have DVDs of the original and TRON: Legacy, and I've seen all of TRON: Uprising, and I recently played the Legacy prequel game TRON: Evolution, which in turn led me around to finally playing TRON 2.0, which I had heard so much about for so long, and I've found where you can play the original TRON and Discs of TRON arcade games online, and I've considered a TRON Halloween costume several times, but I wouldn't consider myself, y'know, a real die hard devotee of the franchise. I appreciate them for what they are, and a disingenuous 30-year-after-the-fact sequel certainly helped me to appreciate what the original film was doing even more. It sluggishly plods along its story, but as an early attempt to develop a Sci-Fi concept about these magical new boxes called "computers" and those crazy "video games" that kids these days are playing, TRON does a pretty good job. Add in religious overtones and about 12 minutes of genuine 1982 vintage CGI, and you have the ingredients of a pretty important film if not an overwhelmingly good one.

Developing a sequel several decades after the original film is a daunting prospect. It only ever achieved cult status to begin with, and the heat had long since gone off of it. Not to mention that someone already made about the best conceptual sequel to TRON that anyone could hope for: The Matrix. Between the two attempts, TRON 2.0 comes off as more legitimate. One gets the sense of the team at Monolith Productions looking for a new concept and turning with high fidelity to a favourite childhood film. TRON: Legacy, on the other hand, comes off like executives at Team Disney sitting around a boardroom and deciding what IP they can dust off for the young male 9 to 34 demographic groups. This really comes out when considering Legacy's weaknesses.

TRON: Legacy is some beautiful candy for the eyes and ears. It has a slick, stylish Apple Store aesthetic and it is hard to go wrong with a soundtrack by Daft Punk (if you want a real treat, track down Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, an anime film by the legendary Leiji Matsumoto set to the entirety of Daft Punk's album Discovery). The problem is that it doesn't seem to know why it exists or what it wants to say. TRON had a very clearly developed world and strong ideas about what Programs were, how they related to Users, what the threat posed by the MCP was, and that little bit of Messianic religious theme thrown in for good measure. Legacy has none of that. How does The Grid function? Are all of these people you see around it Programs? What do they do? What about Clu's legions of soldiers? What is their function in a working computer system? If Clu is changing Programs into soldiers, what does that mean for the system? I assume the Isos aren't .iso programs, so if not, what are they? Spontaneously generated Programs that do... what? To a programmer or the company IT guy, what would an Iso look like? In the original film, lightcycles and disc games were actual video games being run in the system, so is The Grid running video games too? Who is playing them? Nothing is really established about this world that our characters are living and fighting in.

Ultimately, there wasn't any new thematic ground for Legacy to cover. I suppose one would wring out a theme of how Clu was bad or misguided because he didn't have free will but Quorra was awesome because she did, but it was never developed out into an actual idea, let alone a plot. Nor was there any new filmmaking ground for Legacy to break. Just as TRON ushered in the age of CGI, The Matrix ushered in modern effects, with Legacy only really doing what came before (and failing to deliver a convincing 20-something year old Jeff Bridges). Perhaps this is part of why TRON: Uprising was consistently so much better than Legacy. Sure it inherited the problem of poor worldbuilding, but at least it could deliver a more interesting story and characters by virtue of being a series. Too bad that, being a prequel, there was only one way it could have ended. The same is true of TRON: Evolution, though that had the additional problems of garbage play control and Legacy's Apple aesthetic making nothing look like anything, which is bad when you can't tell what is or isn't a platform you can jump to.

So suffice it to say, while TRON: Legacy was a fine diversion, it left me unimpressed. My favourite thing to come out of Legacy was the official music video for Derezzed, which awesomely actually looks like TRON. It's too bad the whole movie couldn't have looked more like that.

TRON 2.0 does a much better job of looking and feeling like the original film. The interiors of the computer world look like they did in TRON, the characters are elaborations on the same aesthetic, and they nailed the idea of what the subjective interior world of a computer is supposed to look like. The storyline also develops naturally from the premise of the franchise. Whereas TRON: Legacy really could have been told in any setting, there is no other setting in which TRON 2.0 would make sense. The story foregoes high ideas and Messianic themes for down-and-dirty exploration of what could be done with technology that would allow people to be digitized into computers.

Set 20 years after TRON, the story picks up with the mysterious fCon corporation buying out Encom. Despite Flynn being a video games whizz, apparently he wasn't everything he could have been as a corporate CEO. After Flynn left the company, Walter Gibbs Jr. took over and orchestrated the sale to fCon. But why would fCon, a data management company, want Encom? Their top secret digitization technology and the opportunities it offers for... data acquisition... might be one reason. The presence of a malignant Virus claiming to be a User suggests that fCon was already trying to acquire Encom's technology but lacked the proper knowhow to digitize people safely. That might also explain why Alan Bradley, head of Encom's digitization project, has suddenly gone missing. Bradley's computer launches into action, and unable to find "Alan One" opts instead to digitize "Alan Two": his son, Jethro "Jet" Bradley.

Playing fast and loose with computer lingo, TRON 2.0 crafts a much better-defined world. When you equip yourself with the app that allows you to see the stats of other characters, you notice that they all have program file names. For example, the Intrusion Countermeasures Program goons have names like "spam_filter.exe". Later on you fight "Resource Hogs" - programs that have upgraded themselves to the point of requiring vast stores of computer memory - with names like "photo_editor.exe" and "reelplayer.exe". When you start fighting other digitized Users, they are identified by their e-mail addresses, like "". You bounce around from Alan's desktop which undergoes a reformat that you have to outrun, to the Internet, to an old system archived in the 1980's which can't handle the amount of data you're bringing into it, to a wee little PDA, and beyond. As mentioned, you have to outrun reformatting waves, puzzle out a firewall bypass, and crash servers (literally). To equip your different weapons and armour apps you first have to defrag your disk, and then stay apprised of whenever you get a viral infection so you can quarantine and disinfect. Suffice it to say, TRON 2.0 gets the original idea of TRON totally right. No wonder that, until TRON: Legacy went into production, TRON 2.0 was considered the official canon sequel.

On the gameplay front, TRON 2.0  is a different type of game than TRON: Evolution. The latter is one of those modern button-mashers requiring preternatural timing just to leap to what might be a ledge. The former is much slower and more deliberate, with better control, playing out as most PC-type games do (rather than a more kinetic console-type game). Things at least look like things in TRON 2.0, and when you play lightcycles it actually works like lightcycles and not just a difficult to control race down a street. TRON 2.0 wins on that front as well.

All that said, let's compare aesthetics one-to-one:

The hero:
Sam Flynn and Jet Bradley

The backside of the love interest (because those were the easiest pictures to find, which says a lot):
Quorra and Mercury
Sweet ride bro:
5th Generation Light Cycle and the Super Light Cycle (designed by Syd Mead, designer of the original)
(click to enlarge) 
Dueling Light Cycles:
TRON: Evolution light cycle level and TRON 2.0 light cycle arena
(click to enlarge)
Viral villains:
Abraxas (TRON: Evolution) and Thorne
Goons, Who? Hired Goons. Hired Goons?:
Sentry and Intrusion Countermeasures Program (ICP)
Welcome program:
The Grid and The Internet
(click to enlarge)

Perhaps you'll disagree, but for me, TRON 2.0 comes out on top of TRON: Legacy in every area except maybe music. It's too bad that Legacy couldn't have rezzed more like it. If you'd like to play it for yourself, it has recently been rereleased on Steam.

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