Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Ghost in the Machine

It's all that I can do to keep from counting Tron: Legacy (2010, directed Joseph Kosinski) as a horror movie. I mean, yeah. I get it. It doesn't feel like a horror movie, with its sleek, glazed surfaces and its visionary digital landscapes and its weird, quasi-fetish wardrobes. But the fact that Tron: Legacy is Frankenstein is completely inescapable to my way of thinking. That it doubles down on its roots in horror by casting its monster as a doppelganger only deepens its shadows. It's a horror movie in the sense that Metropolis is a horror movie. It's a Gothic set in an autoclave. Science fiction, it should be noted, has been a Halloween-y genre for a long time, from the publication of Frankenstein to that long-ago Halloween in 1938 when Orson Welles terrified the nation and beyond. Science fiction and horror both occupy le fantastique, after all, like two peas in a pod.

Tron: Legacy is obviously a follow-on waaaaay after the fact of the original Tron from 1982. 28 years is an eon in special effects years, and the state of the art on display in the new movie makes the state of the art in the old look almost like cave paintings. Rarely have two movies shown the stark truth of the march of technology. Moore's Law has been implacable. I'll state right up front that Tron: Legacy is gorgeous, a marvel of special effects and production design. It's a more compelling digital world than what you find in any of the Matrix movies and this film doesn't populate its surface with a bunch of philosophical faux-profundities. Which isn't to say that they aren't there. Jeff Bridges is channeling The Dude for the older Kevin Flynn after all, which takes an edge off of the philosophy. The movie also disguises a lot of this behind Disney's usual "daddy" issues.

The story here finds Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) growing up without a father. His dad, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) vanished many years ago. Sam has no interest in his father's company, Encom, which he views as a sell-out. When we first see him, he's conducting a bit of corporate sabotage on Encom as a prank. The irony of Disney, of all people, making a movie about a couple of open source socialists is not lost on me, I should note. Shortly after his prank, he's contacted by Alan Bradley, his father's last remaining friend on the board of Encom. He's received a page from Flynn's old arcade, where, he notes, the power and phones have been turned off for years. Sam investigates. He finds his dad's old projects in a secret workshop and, sure enough, gets sucked into the grid where his dad has been trapped, lo these many years. Sam's presence upsets the balance of the power struggle between Flynn and Clu, the program he created to build his utopia. Clu, for his part, is a renegade, who feels abandoned when Flynn discovers the Isos a new form of digital life that has arisen on the grid. Clu views the Isos as imperfections and wipes them out in a genocidal purge. All but one. Sam is taken on his arrival to the games, where, like his dad before him, he fights with data discs and rides a lightcycle. He's busted out by his dad's majordomo, Quorra (Olivia Wilde), and the rest of the movie becomes a race to escape the grid before Clu can wrest Flynn's data disc from him and use it to invade our world. He's built an army for that purpose.

Kevin Flynn has built his Creature, Clu, in his own image. Clu should have been his Adam, but was instead his fallen angel. Clu, like Shelly's Creature, feels betrayed by a creator who discards him. Like Shelly's Creature, Clu vows to make him pay. Tron: Legacy is canny here: Clu, like Flynn, is played by Jeff Bridges, forging a bond between creature and creator that eludes many Frankensteinian stories. The de-aging of the actor with digital effects falls into the valley of the uncanny, but that works to the movie's advantage. Clu is a monster, after all, and that hint of the uncanny serves his monstrosity. His visual "wrongness" acts as a kind of mark of Cain. (The movie is less sure-footed at the beginning, when it uses the same effects to portray Flynn himself as a younger man). As a 21st century reworking of Frankenstein, the filmmakers are able to contrast Kevin Flynn's drive to play god on the grid he created with the natural process of evolution that produces the Isos. This wouldn't have occurred to Mary Shelly, even though she knew of the work of Erasmus Darwin. Darwin was an early proponent of the survival of the fittest. His grandson, Charles, would frame the grand theory of evolution. This movie favors letting nature take its course, I think, in a weird variant of the usual "there are things in which mankind was not meant to meddle." There are other horror movie tropes in Tron: Legacy, too, not least of which is the specter of genocide that hangs over things, as well as science fictional horror's usual emphasis on the shaky nature of identity. Clu, after all, is Flynn's secret sharer, his doppelganger, and when the movie ends, it makes a point of fusing them back together. It's a striking climax.

This kind of sci fi is about world building and the world this movie builds for its melodrama is a nightworld. The sun does not shine in this movie. For all its technological gloss, the grid is a Lovecraftian landscape, with its mountains of crystal looking like what I imagine "cyclopean" stones would look like. The center of the grid is no better; it's a nightmare version of The Emerald City, populated by ravers and fetishists. It's a world out of joint. Even the lighted places have a coldness to them. Flynn's lair, for instance, recalls the decor on the other side of the stargate in Kubrick's 2001. It's not a comforting space by any means. It's not a comforting movie, either, in spite of the way it ends on the rising sun, as if to say its heroes have come through their long dark night of the soul or as if they've made it through the night when the vampires were on all sides of them. I won't say that this is unearned--the movie is gloomy enough that I don't mind the sun rising at the end--but it's a bittersweet sunrise.

Current tally: 5 films

First time viewings: 5

Around the web:

The Vicar of VHS returns with his thoughts on Insidious, which he finds wanting.

Mr. Gable's Reality survives another movie in Butchered

Insanislupis at 1001 Things racks up The Invitation and The Entrance

Justin at The Bloody Pit of Horror keeps up his blistering pace with The Man with Two Heads and Torture Dungeon.

Meanwhile, Aaron Christensen, the redoubtable Dr.AC, is deep into his challenge for charity. Read about it here, here, here, and here.

1 comment:

Insanislupus said...

My ex (still on good terms) is going as Quorra for Halloween, eyes and all. It's a bit depressing knowing she will not be spending the night with me. But I've yet to see this film and now need to.