Blu-ray Review: “Tron” x 2

1982–what a great year to be a teenager in thrall to horror, sci-fi, and fantasy films! 3-D was back in a big way for the first time since the 50s, reviving House of Wax (1953) and putting Jason in our laps in the third Friday the 13th movie. 2D was nothing to sneeze at, either–the spring and summer brought us Star Trek II: The Wrath of KhanConan The BarbarianPoltergeistE.T.: The ExtraterrestrialThe ThingBlade Runner. Hell, even the remaining drive-ins were jumping, with the likes of Parasite,The Sword and the SorcererThe Beastmaster, and The Beast Within. Many of these are woven into the DNA of today’s genre blockbusters.

But only one earned a sequel that appeared not hot on its heels but a full 28 years later, an eternity in followup time–and that was the runt of the litter, Tron. It may have been that at 17 I was too cool for Disney movies, even “grownup” ones aimed at a broader audience. Then again the studio, prone to poor decisions post-Walt and before its mid-80s makeover, had pretty much alienated kids and families with haphazard live action and animated releases. Tron was its most ambitious attempt yet to fuse the two, a fantasy for the emerging videogame generation (which I was never a part of; pinball for this arcade Luddite) that took audiences inside the computers that were gobbling up our leisure time like so many Pac-Men. And it fell short; despite the obvious enthusiasm of writer/director Steven Lisberger (all of 31 when it was released) the script came across as juvenile, and the technology felt inadequate to the task. Star Wars it wasn’t.

But like a ghost in the machine Tron lingered, a cult item. To my surprise I found myself, if not eager for a continuation, at least ready for one. Time had caught up with it, and the coming of digital animation and 3D (1982 again!) promised something arresting. In a way Tron: Legacy was–the solidity of the effects work makes the innerverse of the films believable. It also made it heavy, and joyless. I couldn’t wait for the thing to end. Was it that I was too old?

Watching the movies back to back on Blu-ray I realize I was unfair to both. This is never going to be my favorite franchise, though there’s more here than meets the eye. Actually, it all meets the eye. This is, truly, a generational saga, not the fathers-and-sons theme given rote treatment in Legacy but a two-picture commentary on how far we’ve come that may only hit you if you, too, were one of those disappointed teens wishing you had picked Blade Runner to see on the big screen when you had the chance and weren’t struck with Tron. (I think Tron, a recouper released July 9, replaced Blade Runner, an outright failure that came out on June 25, at my multplex.)

Viewed as a double feature the two films are visually and aurally captivating. 1080p does wonders for these films, the original especially, which looks to have come out in 2002–the live action segments, I mean. The fantasy sequences are pure 1982, which discomfited me back then but today are the source of its charm, a quality this early “hardware movie” distinctly lacked. I found myself reveling in the colors, as I did at Avatar. Within its brightly hued boxes and cubes and cylinders the movie isn’t afraid to take flight into its world and bring Disney magic into a new realm. And at 96 minutes it doesn’t belabor our visit, though the joints of the screenplay really could have used some oiling. (And do note that the imperfect matte lines and other effects twitches are only magnified in hi-def, not terribly so, however, and they sort of add to their handmade appeal.)

It makes sense that the world of Tron: Legacy, fallen into dystopia, should look like my MacBook Pro. The anarchic colors have been chilled to near-freezing by a new creative team led by commercials director Joseph Kosinski. But it’s pretty much the same look that every fantasy of this sort has. Tron has been Matrix-ed. A lot of things are off–Jeff Bridges, so young in the original, is given to un-Tron Dude-isms that patch into a much different movie universe, and Tron itself has been reduced to an embarrassing fly-on (it’s not the fault of Bruce Boxleitner, who has aged into a fine, gravel-voiced character actor, that he’s not a name-above-the-title star–he was the star of this show, once upon a time, and merited more respect). Of course it must run over two hours, and those blacks and grays are a drag to look at in the theater through chunky glasses. At home, though, at optimized viewing conditions, it’s easier to go with its flow, and tap into what works–Michael Sheen breaks through the neo gloom to give the latter portion of the film a lift, and the movie ends with a notion the practically begs for a third installment. There’s still something rattling around in there, not that it’ll keep until 2038.

Sonically speaking both films are transporting, with Tron given a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and the sequel the full 7.1 treatment. The bells and whistles of an immersive environment are all there, though what’s most prominent to my ears are two highly listenable soundtracks, the most successful element overall of Tron. Wendy Carlos’ shimmying synthesized beeps are a perfect complement to the more innocent, look-at-this dimension of the first film, while Daft Punk surprises with a lavish orchestral score that practically bathes you in techno sensuality. Interestingly, the “Derezzed” video included as a Legacy supplement harks back to the look and color scheme of the first movie, as if the band was signaling where its true allegiance lies.

Tron gets the lion’s share of the extras in this two-film, five-disc package, which includes a DVD (yawn) and a digital copy of Legacy and a 3D Blu-ray of the movie, which given what I saw at the multiplex must be 3-disappointing–the lenticular cover of this collection has more dimensionality than the production. That said in common Blu-ray practice what’s best of its supplements are drawn from a 2002 DVD that itself borrowed from a 1995 laserdisc, including a 90-minute making of; nothing’s gone to waste, which I applaud, though it might have been recycled from 480i to give it that new format smell. The highlight of the newly created material is “Photo Tronology,” where Lisberger (who produced Legacy) takes his son Carl to the Disney Archive and shows him some production photos; Disney likes these sentimental, more personal extras, and this one works quite well. (Lisberger directed just two films after Tron, the forgettable John Cusack vehicle Hot Pursuit and another ambitious, uneven sci-fi film, Slipstream, both in the 80s.)

Legacy‘s features are the usual run of bite- (or byte-) sized making-ofs covering the actors, the costumes, and the production design, a 10-minute featurette that fills in some of the gaps of the chronology, and a brief glimpse at an animated series to be based on the movie. Tron lives–and if you’re really into it check out the Versace fashions inspired by the movie (pictured), which I have on now I finish this up in my stylin’ Blu-ray man cave.