Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tron Legacy Review

In my article on the original Tron, I noted the upcoming sequel and stated that from the trailers it appeared this very late follow up would have none of the elements in it that made the original a classic. Now that I've seen Tron Legacy, I can confirm the truth of that statement. The unique computer animation styles seen in the first Tron are replaced by slick CGI graphics. Very polished, but so ubiquitous to moviegoers that it is simply expected to be part of any sci-fi film today. The visuals, characterization, and score have taken on a heavier and darker feel. Given the conceptual connection between Tron and the The Matrix, it is not surprising that this new version seeks to capitalize on the latter's successful fusion of sci-fi and stylism, sometimes rather gratiutiously (the original film took no interest in flaunting beautiful girls in tights). Every visual that was employed before has been fed into a computer and embellished in great detail. It adds nothing to the telling of the story except flashy visuals that are even less appealing than the simpler forms from which they were derived.

You would think with Lisberger in the producer's role they might at least maintain the ingenius allegorical parallels between the real and computer worlds. Alas, most is just sloppily borrowed and what is new does not try very hard to maintain the symbolism. I almost dropped my popcorn in one scene where Flynn's son is discovered to be a user because of what looks like anti-gravity blood droplets coming from him after an injury on the playing field. If he is only a programmatic representation of himself, would that really include a bleeding program? Does Flynn have a simulated dinner with his guests just for the nostalgia of it? The original games in Tron were there because the system running the matter transfer experiments happened to belong to an arcade gaming company and the evil master program was using the game programs to carry out his plans. In this film, the games are spectacles of entertainment for the sole pleasure of the inhabiting programs. This is explained as the creation of an evil twin program of Flynn's that has created some sort of perfect society in something called "The Grid" (yep, Matrix was already taken). However, the actual connection to the word "perfect" is never really illustrated.

Once I had accepted that this sequel would not be like the original, I at least held out a little bit of hope that an original story might allow it to take on a life of its own. Here is where we find the greatest disappointment. In 1980, the story in the real world was an interesting plot in its own right, and the computer world simply paralleled it in a way that actually made some sense. In this film, the reverse has happened. The evil plot comes from the computer world and intends to invade the real one. Instead of a clever allegory, we have the usual one-dimensional villain-wants-to-take-over-the-world idea. So much time is spent on the battles and flashy special effects that there is only minimal room for character development, which is a shame because it is the characters and their relationships that aim to be the meat of the story this time around. All the other peripheral characters are nothing more than a means to some end. Tron himself is only seen in a last minute Han Solo type rescue without ever really interacting with him (probably because programs aren't supposed to age like Boxleiter's character in real life does). The supposed helper, Zeus, who turns out to be a turncoat was never anything more than a silly showman anyway. How disappointed can you be at a betrayal when you never took the guy seriously? I'm afraid the script is of no real significance.

One new concept is introduced which is the supposed appearance of independent programs with an emergent consciousness. They are called bio-morphs and are portrayed as having child-like innocence. Of course, we are denied any exploration of this since they are all wiped out by the bad guy before we arrive. The one surviving specimen, played by Olivia Wilde, is by far the most interesting character in the film. It is refreshing to see a beautiful lead female play a character that is not essentially a love interest, although she is definitely loved. She plays the innocence angle very convincingly and I think we will be seeing more of her in future films. On the positive, the CGI work was integrated with some really nice sets in a way where you could not tell what was live set and what was not. All said, in spite of the huge promotional effort, I recommend waiting for the rental unless you want to see the 3D effects (I did not), which might prove entertaining.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Minority Report Futurama

One of the intriguing things about Minority Report is that it represents at least three different story telling motifs, each of which could be lifted out and placed in some other context that would work just as well. On the one hand, it replays the familiar theme of a murder in which the innocent protagonist gets framed and spends the rest of the movie trying to prove his innocence while being chased by the authorities. The bad guys turn out to be part of the system that's meant to protect the little guy. Does that sound just like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive? Now let's add a twist and say that the murder hasn't happened yet, but it has been predicted to happen. In fact, the "system" in this case involves a society, even a police force, that relies on such predictions to prevent murders before they happen. They use clairvoyants, referred to as precogs, whose gifts have been enhanced by technology. Although the framing motif still remains intact, now the methods by which someone can be framed for a future murder become a lot more interesting and different. Note, however, that although this sounds like science fiction, the central mechanism, a pre-supposed belief in clairvoyance, is a paranormal phenomenon, not science. Also, the concepts of free will and determinism that it plays with are more philosophy than science as well.

So if the plot is pure action and drama and the twist turns it into a psychological thriller, where is the science fiction? Basically, it is in the setting in which the story takes place, which is simply human society in the relatively near future (2054 A.D). But unlike most other futuristic tales, this one attempts to be believable, and that alone is what makes this film stand apart from the others. Since the story line, which took some ideas from a short story by the always intriguing Philip K. Dick, relies only remotely on the setting in which it takes place, the creators did not have to mold the future to serve the plot. In fact, Spielberg conducted brainstorming sessions with scientists in various fields to get their predictions about what society might look like 50 years in the future. That's the kind of stuff sci-fi is all about and I'd rather spend a little time looking at what they came up with than doing just a run-of-the-mill movie review. After all, there's lots of that already on the web.

One of the first things you see is Tom Cruz in front of a huge transparent screen sliding images and data around and commanding various operations by making particular gestures with special laser gloves. This is a very natural extension of today's computer technology of course, and it showcased in 2002 a multi-touch type of interface at a time when Windows Surface was just an idea in a few people's heads. Surface was finally unveiled in 2007, and there's great demo video here on youtube. Microsoft's "surface" detects commands via camera image from below, which is actually more like the action-at-a-distance featured in the film than a touch screen device like the Apple iPad. Anyway, the opening sequence of the film that features this future technology plays like a digital symphony with Cruz as the conductor. In fact, the accompanying music track is a symphony that is cleverly worked into the action on screen - check it out here.

Another thing that struck me as quite insightful was the portrayal of the continuity of brand names. Many companies come and go but the ones that last tend to last a long time, and their images will change with the times. For example, car companies are so integral to society that they tend to hang around even when they almost go bankrupt. In the film we see a whole new transportation infrastructure but the same car companies building and selling the cars, often with the same or similar logos. Communications companies like AT&T have lasted forever also because of their importance to a working society. If you look at the number of companies today that were around 100 years ago, it is not hard to imagine them and others like them still being around 50 years from now. You would think this would be rather obvious and yet I've never seen it portrayed like in MR. And it's a win-win because the companies can look real cool and futuristic while Spielberg gets to collect the royalties.

The same goes for architecture. Many homes look the same as today because people like living in houses that look old and traditional and will keep them basically unchanged for many decades, even as more modern offerings are built. The creators really looked back in history to determine not only what might change, but also what might stay the same. That is just plain genius.

One thing that MR does not hold back on is the idea that human nature does not change even as technology advances. Cruz's character is shown going through a divorce and becoming addicted to some type of drug. The delivery mechanism is different and the physical side effects of the drug itself has been refined away, but the effect on a person's life is just the same. Crime will not disappear and so neither would the police, even if their methods change. Instead of fingerprint identification they use iris imaging in MR. If you can be identified instantly by your iris signature, the existence of a black market in eye transplants does not seem like a stretch to me.

Another thing that I think MR got spot on with is the steady encroachment of commercial advertising into our daily lives. We've seen this with every new technology that has come along. Telephones and telemarketers, radio and TV commercials, and now email spam and internet pop up ads. It makes sense in the context of free capitalism. If there's a way to use technology to make a buck, companies will do it. They will avoid public outcry by introducing it slowly so consumers can become acclimated. One of the more memorable moments was when Cruz walks into a mall and is greeted by personalized computer sales pitches based on a remote iris scan that is done as soon as he walks in. It really hits you just how real that might become someday, even if they use a simpler method to identify you.

There are just so many thought provoking ideas to throw around in this film. One of them that struck me as a little ahead of its time was the maglev transportation system. It will take some time to move from oil based infrastructure to electric battery while still keeping the current road system. But to build a whole new magnetic road infrastructure in the major cities and mass transit based on a free running car technology to match it seems closer to a 100 year development to me at least. I'm not even counting the extension of the road system to allow it to go straight up the sides of the buildings and into your apartment on the 47th floor. We're talking major integrated city planning. The helicopters used by the police don't require an infrastructure like that, but whether rocket powered vehicles like that could appear in 50 years is still up for debate. And of course, the little spider bots that search out people is way far off, even if easy to do on film with CGI.

I think the hardest idea to swallow was the way they portrayed the precogs. Even if you could find three people with such abilities, and even if they were willing to dedicate their entire lives to police work, could they really withstand floating motionless in a half dream state for their entire existence? That's just crazy, and even raises some ethical concerns. However, I do think that Jessica Capshaw did an excellent job portraying precog Evanna when she actually had to wake up and do something. I just discovered that Capshaw is Spielberg's stepdaughter, interestingly enough. But I will close here by saying that Minority Report remains a bit of an enigma. How can a film that contains so much fascinating insight suffer from such a one-dimensional plot line? Then again, it is a Spielberg film.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dark Star

Well, I knew at some point I would have to write about Dark Star. This is one oddity that anyone who likes sci-fi should see at some time or another, not because it is good sci-fi, but because of its place in sci-fi history, its smart sci-fi satire, and its raw honesty and originality. You could call it comedy, but that would not quite do it justice.

By history I am referring to it being a collaboration by two college kids who would later become influential figures in the world of Hollywood sci-fi, fantasy, and horror - John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon. Among other films, Carpenter would hit it big time with The Thing and O'Bannon with the script for Alien. They made this film as a college project at USC on a budget of about $60K. Some of it was even filmed in studios on the campus. It was originally a 45 minute short that got such great response at film festivals that a producer grabbed hold of it, had the guys extend it another 40 minutes, and released and distributed it as a feature film. That extra time causes the film to drag in places but the director's cut took most of it back out, the opposite of what normally happens in director's cut versions. The acting is bad, the special effects are gloriously bad, but the writing, dialogue, and even some of the directing is quite original and entertaining.

The film was made in 1974 when the only serious space travel film on anyone's mind was 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of the more realistic yet sometimes unnerving aspects of 2001 was the long drawn out zero-gravity sequences. Dark Star sort of pokes fun at that idea by portraying a crew that is so bored with the endless tedium of space that they either start finding odd ways to pass the time or just drift off into their own fantasy worlds. One of them keeps a pet alien that looks like a beach ball with feet, probably because that is exactly what it is. And instead of HAL, the ship's computer is named Mother. That still makes me laugh.
Due to the low budget, many of the sets were built from whatever the crew could get their hands on - like having ice cube trays pass for console control buttons. But the highlight is the smartly oddball humor, like the mysterious death of their beloved captain Powell, who turns out to still be available enough for some advice in a crisis. And of course, the crisis itself which has to do with a smart bomb malfunctioning and deciding it wants to blow up while still attached to the ship. The acting captain, Lt. Doolittle, manages to keep the bomb busy thinking about epistomological questions such as "How do you know you even exist?". That exchange between Doolittle and the bomb is enough to make the film worth the sit through. So if you are a science fiction fan and haven't seen it, and you ever get the chance to do so, I recommend taking it. Of course, you'll know for sure by gauging your reaction to the trailer below: