Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

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I was 12 when Tron played in Boulder at the Basemar cinema. I probably went to see it five times, after which I could recite most of the dialogue and name all of the cast and much of the crew. It solidified a life-long love of the movies and a desire to learn how they are made.

Tron Revisited

20th Anniversary DVD packs a lot in a small packageThe plot sounds ridiculous now. Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a rogue programmer is fired from Encom. He wrote several best-selling video games but they were stolen by his rival Dillinger (David Warner) and the evidence was locked up in the Encom computer. Flynn recruits a pair of old friends to help him break into Encom to retrieve the evidence. But during the break-in, the computer (“Master Control Program”) foils Flynn’s plan by de-rezzing him with a laser beam, and transporting him into the world inside the computer.

Interacting with anthropomorphized programs and fighting in gladiatorial computer games, Flynn must find the evidence from within the computer, then find a way to be re-rezzed back in the real world.

Although the plot was probably just as absurd then as now, to an adolescent nerd it seemed like cutting-edge science fiction and not quaint naivete. But even today, the movie holds up incredibly well, not because of the plot but because of its unprecedented and never-repeated look. The world inside the computer glows with life and energy and wonder.

Smoke and Mirrors

Most of the film takes place inside the computer, and Tron was the first feature film to use “100% computer animated scenes.” In other words, there are scenes in Tron that are completely computer generated.

But most of the scenes involve human actors, and these scenes, while assisted by computers, were often hand-animated using layers upon layers of cels. The actors wore costumes with black detailing on white. The footage was printed on large cels for animators to work with. The black detailing was photographically removed and then lit from behind with neon-colored lights. Each frame was rephotographed and set in motion. In this way, each character seems to glow with electronic energy.

Ironically, it’s because of the success of computer animation that this painstaking process has never been duplicated. With the great strides in computer animation over the last 20 years, this labor-intensive, manual process probably never will be done again.

Picture and Sound

Tron still looks great, even after 20 years. It was photographed on 65mm film, which hadn’t been done for a decade or more. Although the style may look dated, the film still looks clean and crisp. The DVD presents Tron in its original widescreen format, which until now was only available on LaserDisc. The movie benefits greatly from the wide screen. It lets you see the full details, including surprise cameos by Pac Man and Mickey Mouse.

Tron is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. If you have a home theater with surround sound, you’ll love it. The sound effects and the 20-year old music by Wendy Carlos hold up very well. The orchestral score is off-kilter but not atonal. In 1982, it fit the world of a computer, and it still sounds futuristic even in 2002. The DVD also includes the original end credits music that was replaced by a gratuitous pop song by Journey.

DVD Extras

Five years ago I bought the giant LaserDisc box set for $100. Now you can buy the deluxe edition DVD, with almost the same set of features, for $29.99.

The audio commentary on the DVD was originally recorded for the LaserDisc release. In fact, many of the DVD extras were included on the LD release. But unless you were as fanatical as me (and you had a LaserDisc player) you probably haven’t seen these extras.

The most conspicuous absence on the DVD is the lack of a printed essay. The LD contained a handsome fold-out with pictures and liner notes. The DVD’s content is all on the disc. There’s nothing to read or handle in anticipation of putting the disc in your player.

But the DVD advertises that it contains never- before-seen footage, and indeed it does. Steven Lisberger and others recorded new interviews for the DVD, reminiscing about the early days of their careers.

Most of the DVD extras are indispensably good, although some are self-aggrandizingly bad. The running commentary, for example, is at times self-congratulatory and not insightful. But at other times it tells stories of how Tron was made, both technically and politically. It was interesting to learn, for example, that shooting on 65mm film creates depth of field problems (no 2 actors could be in focus at the same time unless they were within a few inches of each other.) The disc menus are really good-looking, but they often get in the way. You’re forced to watch a 6-second animation between choosing the next feature and actually seeing the feature. Once or twice it’s cool, but beyond that, it’s just annoying.

Evil Programs

Ironically, the worst thing about the Tron DVD is the computer program that comes with it. When I looked at Tron on my laptop, free DVD software tried to install itself. The install screen claims “This InterActual Player [...] allows you to access additional [emphasis mine] content and features on the disc ....” That statement appears to be false. I installed the player, but no additional content was apparent in any of the menus. I managed to find a sub-menu labeled “Interactual Features,” but when I clicked it, the disc restarted and played the damn intro again.

Even worse, its interface is terrible. The player doesn’t give me any controls until the Disney fairy does a little dance and reminds me to visit Disneyland (with a monorail-shaped control bar), and there is no way to bypass this annoying animation.

I tried to get help, but the software wanted to send me online. Luckily, I wasn’t connected, because you have to opt out or else the software will send “anonymous” info about your computer to Disney HQ. I removed this Tron software faster than you can say “Greetings Programs.”

Aside from a few minor disappointments, the Tron DVD is a great disc, full of hours of interesting material, and all for a small price. If you, like me, were once an adolescent computer nerd, Tron is a must-have DVD.