Serious science fiction film dates back to at least 1969 (2001, Marooned), if not 1916 (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). A more recent sub-genre, though, is that of the science fiction film which embodies its own technological subject matter. The first of these was Tron, the great grandaddy of computer generated imagery ('CGI') films, released in 1982. Looking back at where Tron succeeded and failed is a useful entry point to understanding the entire sub-genre of subject-embodying SF films in general, and the sub-genre's newest entry, Matrix Reloaded, in particular.
Tron began as an attempt by Disney to respond to the Star Wars phenomenon. The studio had initially tied to do so with the truly awful and quickly forgotten The Black Hole, but had managed to follow it up with something that, stylistically at least, was on the cutting edge of design. I saw it with my friend Richard Baskind on a day when the real world was far less inviting than its cinematic simulacra: the cold sleeting rain was no match for either the 'real' world of sunny L.A. or the perfect lines and daring imagination of the video-game world portrayed in Tron. As an avid reader and watcher of science fiction, I was really excited to see it, and forced one of our poor mothers to drive us to Yeadon. It was disappointing. Richard fell asleep half way through. My criticism was not so physical, but I too felt let down without knowing why.
Looking back the three crucial problems with Tron were old-fashioned ones: the dialogue, the characters, and the plot.
Tron was the brainchild of an animator, Steven Lisberger, and it would never have been made, nor paved the way for other CGI movies, had it not been headed by a visionary. His determination and belief that the film could be made the way he envisaged it were crucial in overcoming the immense logistical problems of doing so. However, had it been conceived by a writer, or based on more of a concept than 'man fights evil in video game' perhaps the most notable piece of dialogue might not have been the Master Control Program's (MCP's) sign off tag "End of line."
Now, it might be argued that the subordination of meaningful dialogue to CGI is part of the point - like a Kraftwerk song, the world of Tron is one in which human speech is subordinated to electronic. But subordinated dialogue is not the same as bad dialogue. Although Jeff Bridges (Starman) and Bruce Boxleitner (Captain John Sheridan in Babylon 5) went on to show that they were highly capable Science Fiction actors, even they could not redeem the execrable script of Tron.
Nor were their characters at all compelling. The fact that there is a love triangle between Alan/Tron (Boxleitner), Lora/Yori (Cindy Morgan) and Flynn (Bridges), never seems to trouble any of them. In the long tradition of Disney's reactionary female stereotypes, Lora/Yori playfully accepts any romance she gets from either man, and since Flynn seems mainly to have finished with her, the men have reached an accommodation.
Made by an animation company which had intended to create an Animalympics in conjunction with the 1980 Moscow Olympics (scotched when the U.S. decided to boycott), Tron is like a film in search of a plot. Disney's target audience was the new demographic of video game players, but the studio underestimated them. Instead of making a film for college-age students that would appeal to a high school audience, they made it a tediously childish good versus evil fight, cast in typically Reagan/Disney fashion between "democratic capitalism" (good) against "communistic centralized planning" (bad). Even the writers seemed bored by the Cold War conflation of theft of intellectual property with Master Programs, and the inclusion of the obligatory English-accented baddie was surely a gesture of defeat or desperation.
It is possible to make a great film based on special or photographic
effects, without conventional dialogue, characters, or plot (the Qatsi
trilogy comes to mind). But Tron lacked the courage, or perhaps the personnel, to experiment with its genre as it had done with its effects. As a result, it had the feeling of being WalMart dressed as Gucci.
Zeek in Print
Spring 03 issue available here
Simulacra and Science Fiction
I Hear America
I wish I was...
Josh Gets Contacts
When I Met Humility, I saw Letters
Zeek @ Low
June 26, 2003
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