Saturday, March 26, 2011

TRON: Legacy

I can sum up the Tron sequel in two words: Profoundly stupid.

That's neither here nor there, necessarily, as a recommendation for whether or not you should see it. I mean, I didn't hate it. If you don't like stupid movies, it's out for sure. But you probably don't go to the movies much at all, if that's the case.

OK, I'm being snarky but a lot of dumb movies are fun. They're kind of like what I imagine marijuana is like. They put you in a haze and your brain shuts off, and you just enjoy the experience.

This movie is like what I imagine smoking a big fat blunt is like, while someone is sitting behind you jabbing a pin into you at random intervals.

The premise of Tron: Legacy is that, after nearly 30 years, the original Tron has evolved enough of a cult following that a sequel was almost guaranteed to be profitable, so they made it.

Wow, I'm having trouble here, huh? Dial back the snark a bit, Bit...

That last jab isn't even fair. They tried. They really did.

I saw the original when it came out. It was fairly dull, but it had some cute moments. My favorite part (okay, the only part I remember) was the character "Bit". The only joke in the entire movie, I think, is when they first meet the Bit, and ask it questions, but it only responds with "Yes".

Then they ask if it can only say "Yes" and it says "No".

Nerd humor. (See, a bit can only be zero or one.) Now, that's not a big deal these days—nerd humor abounds. But for Disney to make a major motion picture with a big special effects budget in 1982, as a vehicle for nerd humor? Dabbling in PG at the same time? Pretty risqué.

In fact, there was an idea that Tron doomed Disney financially that may still be floating around. (There's an episode of "Freakazoid", I think, where the ultra-nerdy character launches a huge harangue about how it wasn't Tron but Disney's other PG movie from that year, The Black Hole, that killed Disney. I strive not to be That Guy.)

The nerdiness of the original permeates many levels and decades of popular culture.

Oh, let's be honest: The original Tron was okay, just completely forgettable if not for the groundbreaking animation. Do I remember the story? Vaguely: Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan are transmitted (through the power of utter preposterousness) into a virtual reality where they're menaced by David Warner.

I love David Warner. Every time I see Alan Rickman in a movie I wonder if David Warner is somewhere spitting at the screen. (There's only five years between them but Warner has only gotten old-guy roles since Die Hard.)

Anyway, there's some kind of power struggle going on that involves programs and users and the master control program. It was pretty incomprehensible at the time, because, you know, all the talk about users and programs and so forth was only barely grasped by audiences. This was okay because it didn't make a lick of sense.

So one of the most astounding things about this sequel is that it manages to be even less technically literate than the first one. The first one didn't have to be literate. Really, any kind of nod to technical literacy (like the bit joke) had to be considered gravy if it wasn't, in fact, a serious liability.

But, you know, stuff has changed in the past 30 years. Like, oh, I don't know: The Damned Internet? World of Warcraft has over ten million subscribers. People actually live on-line now. In the world of Tron: Legacy, it's like none of this exists.

Let me try to peel back some of the layers of stupid here. Jeff Bridges' son (not a pasty-faced, fat-thumbed, video-game playing 30-something, but a tan, daredevil, motorcycle-riding 27 year old) starts by breaking into his own company in order to steal their OS and publish it on the 'net. As if:
  • every version of every OS doesn't get leaked to the 'net already.
  • the OS would be on a removable, single physical medium—well, I can't even address all the stupid in having this guy break in to steal a DVD
  • a hacker wouldn't prefer to, you know, hack his way into the system
We touch all the typical corporation-as-seen-by-Hollywood buttons here, with the old software company being made into an evil ConGlomCo, etc. etc. Just stupid stuff. Didn't have to be, but okay, it's not really the focus. (And I will give them some credit for trying to touch on the conflicting business urges that one finds in the computer world.)

But really, it just gets dumber from there. Once in the machine, the world of Tron is populated by programs that have cast off their users. Well, wait a second: What users? The original's (too cute by half) premise was based on a multi-user mainframe system, where there was at least the possibility of someone using programs. Nobody knows this incarnation of The Grid exists. What users are they supposed to be serving?

It didn't make a whole lot of sense in the original for a program to "die" in the dramatic sense, but it added some (very little) tension, and you could get away with it because who knew anything? Today? Anyone who's ever played an online game understands the concept of "respawning".

But if it makes no sense for a program to "die", it makes even less sense for it to be injured. (Or to eat and drink and have sex, but we'll get to that in a second.)

We're not given a lot of time to ponder it, because when Garrett Hedlund enters the grid, he's immediately sent to the games. The movie's action sequences are pretty good, except you don't really get involved.

First, there are all the dramatic problems: The competitors are all faceless. There's no reason to care about them, and absolutely no reason to fear for Hedlund's safety. Second, see previous note on respawning. Third—and this may just be me—advances in computer technology have pursued the concept of organic curves and natural movements, so the extremely abrupt, highly artificial 90-degree turns of the original movie's light cycles have been replaced by graceful swoops that ironically just don't pack the same thrill.

Hedlund's character escapes and manages to locate his father, which brings us to Jeff Bridges. With his unkempt, ragged charisma, he manages to breathe a little life into the movie. The scene where he meets his long-lost son is genuinely touching before it's strangely and inexplicably aborted as Bridges wanders away in a daze.

This ultimately leads to the Great Exposition, which is a gawdawful mishmash of The Bible and The Matrix.

Jeff Bridges' character is God, and the programs are his angels. They even rebel, with his in-world avatar Clu, being his Satan. What happens is the well-designed grid ends up giving birth to real human-like life that the programs immediately exterminate.

And now Bridges lives the life of a hermit (in a really nice virtual house) where, somehow, he eludes capture by Clu and his minions, hangin' with his hottie program, played by Olivia Wilde. The director kept cutting to Olivia Wilde stretched out on a couch as Bridges spoke, suggesting to me he didn't have a lot of faith in the story either.

Tragically, Wilde is completely de-sexed by the makeup and costume. What's a guy to do?

Well, I left half-way through the exposition. Went to the bathroom. Washed up thoroughly. Got a refill of my popcorn and soda. Chatted with the concession girl. Went back and the damned exposition was still going.

Maybe that's why the rest of the movie didn't make any sense. But I doubt it.

From there, the hacker and the hottie go off to the (obligatory) Star Wars-style bar where Michael Sheen does an impression of Malcolm MacDowell from Clockwork Orange (WHY?!?!?! How would that even happen?!?!), as various programs eat, drink and canoodle.

Where are the baby programs is what I wanna know. There's no indication that there's any form of reproduction, yet we know for a fact that programs "die", so how does this whole thing hold together?

This assault on logic and reason is interrupted by some more action.

Then there's some travelling because, you know, in virtual space, nobody's ever heard of teleportation.

But this should give you a sense of the rhythm of the movie: stupid followed by suspension of disbelief followed by a decent action sequence and back to stupid.

The ending is a combination of The Matrix and Star Trek V. Wish I were kidding.

I really didn't hate it. Really! But it irritated me that every time I tried to just enjoy the ride, there was something profoundly stupid to jar me out of it.

Maybe I'm just too uptight—though I managed to enjoy The Transformers.

I mean, is it just me? The plot requires the movement of a large quantity of Tron-world items into the real world. Is it too nerdy to wonder where the mass would've come from? I mean, we're talking about E equalling MC2—and that's a whole lot of E.

The Tron world could've invaded the 'net. That'd be devastating and plausible, right? A world full of hostile AI that controlled all the information? You know? It's not like there weren't lots of other non-stupid options.

The effects are good, at least. And a lot of people loved the score. Jeff Bridges does a game job as Neo-Meets-The-Dude—again, wish I were kidding. The other actors do well when Bridges is around.

Bridges plays Clu, too, which is himself 30 years ago. It's completely uncanny valley stuff. Every time "young" Bridges is on, it looks wrong. That could work, though, since it is sort of wrong. (It increasingly irritated me, though.)

I didn't hate it. Really. (Did I say that twice already?) But I couldn't get anyone to go see it with me, and they all gloated when I came back.

And they didn't have the bits in this movie, either.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Unknown

Well, Liam Neeson's at it again, alternating between his roles as The Magic Caucasian (Narnia, Ponyo, Clash of the Titans) and bad-ass action hero like 2009's Taken and now, Unknown.

Who knew an actor's mid-50s was a good time to start being an action hero?

In this movie (sort of a reverse Fugitive), he travels to Berlin with his wife in order to speak at a agri-bio conference where some rich good guys (including himself and a prince) are going to make a special kind of corn available for free to the world. Yay! (Except it'll probably lead to High Fructose Corn Syrup.)

Anyway, right upon arriving, he realizes he's left his briefcase at the airport and rushes back to get it. On the way to the airport, he ends up in a car accident, a coma, and awake four days later in a hospital with a fractured memory and no one who knows who he is. Not only does no one know who he is, when he tries to prove who he is, he can't.

And thus is the mystery of Unknown.

The next couple hours are spent unraveling the riddle of his identity. This involves some pretty good car chases, some fisticuffs, and some intrigue hearkening back to the cold war.

Sure, we've seen it a thousand times before. But never with Liam Neeson! Erm, in Berlin. With January Jones. And, this doesn't suck.

That is to say, the riddle of the story is resolved in about the only plausible way, after presenting a few awful alternatives that have been used in other movies.

It's not great. It's a fun little potboiler along the lines of Taken but less gripping somehow. Good supporting cast including Bruno "Hitler" Ganz, Frank "Nixon" Langella and January "Betty Draper" Jones.

The Boy liked it though he was instructed by one of his friends that if anyone should say it's better than Taken he was to kick them in the crotch. Anyway, not for Mr. Neeson's high-brow fans, who would probably be watching, I dunno, Next of Kin or The Dead Pool.

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