Monday, June 18, 2018

Tron's journey from dated to timeless

The thing about Tron that likely lingers with most of us -- and which was one of the chief perceived advantages of making a modern update in 2010 -- is how dated the effects look. A good encapsulation of that impression came in that great Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode where Homer steps into the 3D world, and it's likened to Tron -- a movie all the other characters say they have not seen (except Chief Wiggum, who quickly changes his answer to "no" so he does not stand out). I'm not sure why the writers wanted to engage in a little round of Tron bashing, but that's clearly what it is.

I would have probably subscribed to that hot take, as it had been since the 1980s that I saw it, and only had my occasional exposure to stills to go on when formulating an impression adjusted for modernity.

So I was taken aback by just how absorbing I found the world when I saw it for the first time in probably 30 years on Saturday night.

It could have just been my new TV talking, but what others call dated, I called a wondrous stylized odyssey.

Calling Tron's effects dated feels like an incredible misnomer ... but it's not because they were never dated. I think at one time they probably were.

In the 1990s they probably looked dated. Very dated. But what was originally an attempt at a "realistic" look inside a computer fantasy world now seems like something with its own particular aesthetic that just looks awesome. The new effects Tron: Legacy was capable of in 2010 may have "looked better" or "looked more realistic," but they didn't plunge me into a world like I felt like I was plunged Saturday night.

I think it's in part because we are trying to do retro science fiction more than we used to. Tron is not retro futurism, an aesthetic I would more ascribe to something like Tomorrowland (or The Incredibles 2, which I will write about tomorrow). But Tron fits comfortably into a world where retro futurism is something we crave seeing done well.

It also, ironically, fits well into a world where we celebrate practical effects. There's nothing practical about Tron, but there is something quaint about it, something the icy digital creations of Tron: Legacy just didn't understand.

But to be clear, watching Tron today is not just an exercise in nostalgia, in being pleased with the limitations of earlier modes of filmmaking in and of themselves. Tron actually looks good. If someone today could make a celebration of retro science fiction that looks as good as Tron looks, they'd be quite happy with themselves. The closest I can think of someone accomplishing that might be something like Speed Racer.

There's something about the simple, blocky designs that really works, but also feels like a conscious aesthetic choice now, even if it was not then. There's something about it that feels very clean and lean, with the pristine straight lines of the light cycle light trails, and the perfect circles in that microchip version of jai alai they play.

And again this could be the TV talking, but the depths that were conjured by the movements of the camera also gave the world a sense of space and dimension. I dove down into it.

Before you think I'm going to start proclaiming Steven Lisberger's movie as some kind of masterpiece, I'll tell you that the plot was confusing enough that I was basically left zoning out. I couldn't really explain to you what happens or why it happens, except in the broadest strokes. I also thought some of Jeff Bridges' choices on how to play the character were a bit broad.

But as a visual spectacle, it was glorious, and I enjoyed every damn minute of it.

Tron is not a masterpiece, but I think it is properly described as a "classic," one that has transcended the apparent limitations of the moment in which it was made to become something that just looks beautiful. I'll look forward to my next viewing much sooner than 30 years from now.


Wendell Ottley said...

I'm in agreement with you on this. It's too convoluted and not particularly well-acted enough to be masterpiece, but it is a classic. It has transcended the media to become something bigger.

Derek Armstrong said...

Again another comment I didn't see until I went looking for it. I think my email notifications are falling down on the job. Yeah, in a way I think we're still looking for the best possible use of the Tron environment ... but something tells me that any future considerations of it will not be up to snuff either.