Saturday, March 31, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Through the Stargate" (October 27, 1979)

The Tantalution story arc is now behind the series, and Jason of Star Command's second season continues with an episode entitled "Through the Stargate."  

Here, a minion of Dragos named Adron (Rod Loomis) pretends to be an ambassador so that his disabled ship, "The Space Flyer" can be repaired at an unsuspecting Star Command.

Jason rescues Adron after he experiences a blow-out in his engine.  Specifically, Jason "piggybacks" the alien ship to Star Command in a dangerous, perfectly-timed maneuver.  

Once at command, Adron reveals a precious and "fragile" artifact aboard his ship, one that shares an emblem with Samantha's (Tamara Dobson necklace.  Thus, the artifact may be from her world, which she still can't recall because of amnesia.  This similarity proves an irresistible mystery to the alien woman...

Soon, Samantha, Jason and Parsafoot use the artifact to transport to an alien world, one where they encounter a giant, injured creature, and nurse it to health.  Soon however, Adron shows up too, and reveals his true form.  Before long, he traps his enemies in a cavernous prison edifice.

"Through the Stargate" features a new alien monster costume (Adron), a new stop-motion creature, and even a new spaceship miniature for the "Space Flyer."  Unfortunately, the moments set on the planet surface all look abundantly familiar.  We've been to this sound stage and seen these rocks at least three times before during the second season.

Also, we seem to be in bit of a rerun, storywise. 

In "The Power of the Star Disk" and "Secret of the Ancients" episodes, Parsafoot learned that an alien device was actually a matter transporter, and Dragos used it to strand the crew on a planet in another dimension.

In this episode, "Through the Stargate," yet another matter transmitter strands the heroes on another planet...and the same sound-stage to boot.  This planet, like its predecessor, seems to be set in another dimension, since Dragos tells Adron "We have intruders in your universe."  All the same story elements are repeated, only this time, the narrative promises to reveal more about Samantha than Commander Stone.

The twin-highlights of this episode of Jason of Star Command are the piggy-back action sequence set in space (which forecasts a similar scene, done with CGI, in Star Trek: Insurrection [1998]) and Samantha's telepathic communication with the affectionate, stop-motion monster.  Otherwise, this is a case of been there, seen that.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Flash Gordon (1980)

Each time I write about Mike Hodge’s 1980 movie Flash Gordon, I fight the temptation to describe it as merely “a guilty pleasure.” This Dino De Laurentiis movie is occasionally flawed, I readily concede, and yet it is also a feast for the eyes, the mind, and for the funny bone too. The truth is that Flash Gordon is one of those genre movies that I absolutely adore, but for which it is difficult to enunciate a defense on purely intellectual grounds.  

So bear with me.

The core of the problem, I submit, is Flash Gordon’s pervasive tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, or rather, our society’s perception of how humor ought to be used as a dramatic tool. It’s a strange thing to write and acknowledge, but because a work of art is funny, it is often disqualified by general audiences from discussions regarding quality or thematic consistency.  It's much easier  to dismiss the work of art in question as a "lark" or as being "silly."  This truth, however, flies in the face of the fact that to craft a genuinely funny film is exceedingly challenging, and requires, among other qualities, a certain pace and meticulous attention to detail. 

A funny movie that goes too far risks seeing its entire reality fall apart.  And if that happens, you don’t end up with a movie. You end up with a mess. 

Although many will certainly quibble with my assessment, I find that Flash Gordon hits exactly the right notes in terms of its application of tongue-in-cheek humor. A largely European supporting cast underplays the humorous aspects of the adventure splendidly, with the exception of Brian Blessed...who goes big (BIG!) to rather dramatic effect. 

Yet for me, the movie works effectively because when it does wax serious, the sense of danger to our heroes is palpable.  If the camp humor were utilized in destructive, mood-shattering fashion, Flash Gordon's fate would not matter to us one whit.  And yet there's that classic scene here with the "Woodbeast" of Arboria.   You may recall it. As a rite-of-passage on Arboria, young Treemen must insert their naked arms into a hollow tree stump where a poisonous, horribly slimy creature dwells.  If it the creature bites "death is certain, but only after tortured madness."

This sequence is brilliantly-shot and edited so that we see Flash and his opponent, Barin, repeatedly reaching down inside a dark stump -- towards the camera -- as the unseen monster threatens to strike.  For a movie in which so much is so big, operatic, and campy, this scene remains remarkably intimate, and down-to-business.  The fear of sudden, horrible death is tangible even though -- as audience members -- we fully expect Flash will survive the day.

More trenchantly, the film's understanding of situational humor seems absolutely legitimate. Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) does not believe she is being funny when she dutifully reminds Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) that only fourteen hours remain to rescue the imperiled Earth.  But were she able to step back a little, Dale might notice she is standing inside a floating silver city in the clouds, surrounded by winged Hawkmen, and wearing an overly-ornate headdress and skimpy gown.  Or that her boyfriend must fight an opponent (with a whip!) on a gyrating platform managed by an over-sized "remote control."

As audience members, we see and register what Dale simply cannot from her perspective: the notion that her dilemma is gravely serious and yet, at the same time, utterly ludicrous. She’s an American travel agent trying to save the Earth with the help of a football quarterback, for goodness sake! 

Though widely derided (especially in terms of the TV series Batman), a campy-styled sense of humor actually permits a tremendous amount of self-reflexivity. The utility of this approach is that a campy narrative may operate simultaneously on two tracks of "reality."  Flash Gordon indulges in this approach, revealing characters locked in a life-and-death struggle while we, as experienced movie goers and consumers of stories, sense how silly it all is. 

 Because it indulges so fully in camp humor, however, we should not make the mistake of believing that Flash Gordon means nothing, or that it is an inconsequential lark. Dave Kehr at the Chicago Reader seemed to have some inkling of this fact. He notes that although “the film lapses too often into easy facetiousness, much of it feels surprisingly substantial.” 

That sense of the substantial arises, I would estimate, from the film’s stellar production design and wardrobe, which both allude to a real world context: the rise of fascism in Europe leading up to World War II. 

Also – and this is virtually impossible to deny – the film is veritably energized by the pounding Queen score, which revs up excitement and engagement on a wholly unexpected and delightful level. 

Between the score, the costumes, the sets, the action, and the humor, Flash Gordon is a gory, sexy, spectacularly good time at the movies.  

“I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth…" 

On distant Mongo, the warlord Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), visits death and destruction upon the Earth in order to test the planet's level of intelligence. 

Meanwhile, on Terra Firma, scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol) sees through the so-called “natural” attacks and realizes that his world is under attack. With a real estate agent, Dale Arden and professional quarterback, Flash Gordon in tow, Zarkov launches his makeshift rocket through the “Imperial Vortex” to confront his planet's unseen assailant. 

Once they arrive, the Earth trio discovers that Ming rules the disparate kingdoms of Mongo with terror, plus the high-tech mechanisms of a totalitarian police state. With the help of Ming’s daughter, the sensual Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), Flash hopes to unify the planet and take the fight to Ming himself. 

Although King Vultan (Brian Blessed) of the Hawkmen and Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) of the Tree People of Arboria resist Flash at first, they soon see the wisdom of his campaign for unity. 

“What is this? Humanity!” 

Flash Gordon, the comic-strip by Alex Raymond (1909 – 1956), premiered in 1934 as a competitor for the popular Buck Rogers. The world at the time was marching inexorably towards World War II and many artists in various disciplines were responding to the demands of austerity that dominated Europe following World War I. Out of this context arrived a new vision for the evolution of man and his world: Futurism, or more specifically, Italian Futurism. Art Deco -- with its ornamental and ornate architecture and interior design -- grew out of this movement, at least in part. 

Although aesthetically Futurism was supposed to involve the “modernization of the State” with technology, youth, and speed, it eventually became connected, alas, to the rise of fascism. Many of the futurists in relatively short order became fascists, or their work was adopted by fascist states and leaders. 

In terms of Flash Gordon, the comic strip involved an American polo player and Yale graduate, Flash Gordon, who, through the mad toiling of scientist Hans Zarkov, came to interface with a world of, essentially, Italian Futurism. That world was Mongo, a "foreign" realm ruled by the ultimate despot, Ming the Merciless. The overarching story, in some way could be described as “An American Abroad” set in a sci-fi setting and yet commenting upon the frightening, dark political tide threatening to consume Europe, and the world itself. 

A true American patriot, Alex Raymond enlisted to fight in World War II, even dropping the Flash Gordon comic to do so. But retrospectively, the comic certainly appeared to be prepping the world for American involvement in the battle against Hitler and fascism. For at its core, Flash Gordon is the tale of an American who goes overseas and allies himself with foreigners (like Prince Barin or King Vultan) to stop the aggression of a tyrant. It’s about people who are “unlike”or diverse learning to work together for a common good. 

Given this background, the true star of Hodges’ Flash Gordon (1980) may very well be production designer Danilo Donati, who crafts the film’s costumes and sets with great fidelity not only to Raymond’s comic-strip details, but to the tenets of Italian Futurism. 

In this context, Ming’s court makes a kind of sense, and even seems to possess a kind of implied history. It’s not just a realm of ornate but weird costumes and strange creatures.  Rather, it’s a world that has been lulled into submission by the visual “beauty” of this form of fascism.  

In short order, we see that Ming boasts a standing army, a secret police force (commanded by Klytus), and oversees a gigantic surveillance state. The roving camera that spies on each citizen’s every word and action, however, is not some utilitarian device with a zoom lens. Rather, it’s a floating golden orb with wings. The gorgeous, "Futurism"-fueled form of this insidious “tool” has overtaken the dark meaning behind it. The same is true of the execution chamber where Flash nearly loses his life. It’s a transparent dome atop a beautiful ledge…overlooking a sky of mauve and blue clouds.  What's apparent from both details is that form has overtaken function so much so that the function hardly matters.   

Life on Mongo -- in Ming's State -- is beautiful.

Only far below, out of sight, does the form of Ming's police state become more utilitarian. Kala’s men, for instance, wear utilitarian glasses – glued right to their eyes – to spy on the citizens of Mongo above. They sit at a bulky computer station, in a long, nondescript row. This is the “hidden” portion of Ming’s empire: the gears that keep his monstrous machine in motion. 

Ming himself seems relatively unconcerned with how things work in his world, leaving the day-to-day atrocities to Klytus and Kara.  Ming is a tyrant who is “bored” and who cannot formulate a reason for his terrible activities. When Flash asks him “why do you attack us?” Ming responds, “Why not?” He has become so accustomed to the beautiful trappings of power on Mongo that he doesn’t even possess an agenda, except to keep his citizens fighting one another so he can continue to live the good life. For Klytus, Hitler may have shown “great promise,” but for Ming, it’s simply good to be king. He is destructive almost arbitrarily, simply because he can be so.

Flash Gordon -- the quarterback/leader of a team -- offers a pointed contrast to Ming. His constant refrain is: “I want to rescue my friends and save the Earth…Why don’t we team up?” In actions and deeds, Flash shows the Hawkmen and Tree Men that he is “for real,” so that they can ultimately conclude that “there is something finer in the universe than Ming’s law.”   

In short, Flash brings American Exceptionalism to Mongo.  As a child of our nation's egalitarianism, Flash reveals to Barin, Vultan and the others that liberty is worth dying for.

Zarkov is an important and necessary part of this equation too. Where Flash talks generically about “teaming up” to fight Ming, Zarkov understands the idea of self-sacrifice as a “rational transaction,” a fair trade for eliminating the likes of a Ming…or a Hitler. What is worth fighting for, Zarkov, suggests is the diversity and glory of man’s intellectual history: the works of Shakespeare, The Beatles, Einstein’s philosophy, the Talmud. All of these texts or ideas arise from diverse sources and ethnic groups but simultaneously join under the umbrella of “humanity.” 

Just as the disparate kingdoms of Mongo can join under together under a common umbrella of purpose to stop the tyrant.   

Flash Gordon’s sense of humor may obscure the message of the film for some, but the production design and wardrobe suggest the nature of the threat ("beautiful" fascism unloosed).  Furthermore, the oft-criticized script by Semple is actually abundantly literate, showcasing visions of Zarkov’s “youth” in Nazi Germany as a reminder that Ming’s evil is not just a fantasy threat, but something that man must, from time to time, deal with right here on Earth. The film’s dialogue, which explicitly mentions “police states” and the like does not shy away from comparing Flash’s efforts on Mongo to America’s efforts in World War II to bring unity to nations separated by language or ethnicity.

Putting aside such thematic leitmotifs, Flash Gordon never ceases to make me laugh. In the opening scene on a plane, Flash hopes to impress Dale, who is afraid of flying. But even the supportive Flash can’t find encouraging words when the sky suddenly fills with bright red light and a strange “cloud” obscures the sun. It’s humorous to see even the gung-ho Flash rendered speechless by the utterly unexpected. The film’s first action sequence in Ming’s court is choreographed like a football game, and also generates chuckles...and excitement. 

The best scene, in terms of humor, may be Ming and Dale’s wedding. The high priest recites a vow that Ming shall take Dale as his Empress “of the hour,” and that he must promise “not to blast her into space.” 

Not surprisingly, Ming has trouble committing himself even to that level of civility. 

Between these guffaws, the film unceasingly awes with spectacular set designs and vistas. We see the woods of Arboria, the court of Vultan, and the interior/exterior of the war rocket Ajax. We travel through the Imperial Vortex, even. Although today some of the matte-lines may prove bothersome, the film was actually awe-inspiring in terms of visual effects back in its day.  The final battle is an incredible spectacle.

If Flash Gordon boasts any dramatic flaw it is that, at times, Flash himself often seems like a tourist in his own adventure, led around by the likes of Zarkov and Aura from one amazing destination to another. He never seems truly in charge of his own destiny, or persuasive enough to unify this “cosmic” Europe, as it were. 

Another film, which I will be reviewing here next Tuesday, Big Trouble in Little China (1986) offers a similar metaphor for America’s place in the world, but that exquisite Carpenter film makes full social critique about our nature as a people through the blow-hard but essentially positive personality of Jack Burton (Kurt Russell). 

Flash Gordon isn’t quite so adroit. 

Still, Flash Gordon remains such a fun and impressive space adventure, even thirty-two years after it failed at the box office. Every time I watch it, Flash Gordon provides a “galaxy of pleasure.” 

All creatures watching this sexy, funny, epic space film will – without exception – want to “make merry."

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"Pathetic earthlings. Hurling your bodies out into the void, without the slightest inkling of who or what is out here. If you had known anything about the true nature of the universe, anything at all, you would've hidden from it in terror."

- Flash Gordon (1980)

Movie Trailer: Flash Gordon (1980)

Thursday, March 29, 2012

From the Archive: Tron Legacy (2010)

"The Grid: a digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they traveled through the computer. Ships, motorcycles, with the circuits like freeways. I kept dreaming of a world I thought I'd never see. And then, one day, I got in."

-Programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) describes a breakthrough in human knowledge in TRON Legacy.

Nearly thirty years ago, the state-of-the-art cinematic fantasy TRON (1982) ended with a beautiful and resonant image: 

Day slides quietly into night and a 1980s brick-and-mortar metropolis changes before our eyes.   All the roads, skyscrapers and moving cars in the frame seem to morph into the raw, blinking data of the virtual Grid, of the movie's neon computer world.  Our eyes detect colorful light trails just like those generated by the light cycles, but these light trails exist here in our world; in our cities and on our streets.

I wrote in my original review of TRON that this valedictory and artistic composition  is "an image that connects man's natural world and his technological one, and reminds us, visually, that we inhabit both.  To our detriment or to our glorification."

Joseph Kosinski's commercially-successful, action-adventure sequel, TRON Legacy, is constructed upon this very notion; upon the passing of a gift -- a legacy -- whose nature each ensuing generation must interpret for itself .
Specifically, ENCOM programmer Kevin Flynn's (Jeff Bridges)  legacy to his adult son, Sam  (Garrett Hedlund) is a virtual Grid that has miraculously sprouted independent, artificial life.  The Grid and its young life forms -- Isos -- can either prove detrimental to the human race or something completely glorious: a change (or evolution?) to rock the very foundations of medicine, science, and even religion.  
And as the sequel ends, Sam becomes the keeper of that torch for the time being.  He can either repeat his father's mistakes...or learn from them

That's the narrative terrain of the movie, and TRON Legacy explores it about as deeply and as meaningfully as one would desire from a high-tech, 3-D, action entertainment.  Niggling complaints aside, this is a genre film featuring just about the right alchemical equation of thrills and heart.
Despite this relatively adroit balance of action and "think" sequences -- plus some truly kick-ass 3-D moments -- many film reviewers have been grievously unkind to TRON Legacy.  But really, this just is deju vu all over again.  Those of us who were around in 1982 remember that TRON also earned bad notices for the most part.

For instance, New York Times critic Janet Maslin essentially called the original Lisberger effort beautiful but stupid.  And that's a variation of the same charge leveled against this sequel in the closing weeks of 2010.

However, if you enjoyed and appreciated the original TRON, it's probably a safe bet you will also appreciate this very faithful, very enjoyable follow-up film.  It seems like many critics -- echoing the film's villain, CLU -- are seeking their own personal brand of "perfection."  Not finding it,  these reviewers fail to enjoy the movie's on its own stated terms.

In terms of narrative structure, the 2010 sequel almost slavishly apes the blueprint of the original film, and in terms of human interest, the sequel dramatizes the affecting story of an ambitious father who seeks perfection outside the human realm of his family...and ultimately comes to regret his mistake.  After correcting that mistake, he passes on his legacy to another protector: the son he once abandoned.

There are indeed minor resonances of Apocalypse Now (1979) in the TRON Legacy mix too, as I had hoped there would be after seeing the early previews.  Jeff Bridge's older (but not necessarily wiser...) Flynn is a Kurtz-like figure who leaves the difficult, emotional world of family and responsibility behind, and who then stakes out his own fiefdom "up river," in the virtual world, seeking to shape it exactly to his liking. 

These background touches lend TRON Legacy a solid grounding in the human realm, even when the intense gladiatorial sequences come hot and heavy, and the screen is splashed with dazzling, dueling neon lights.  In terms of action, the movie is also pretty much unimpeachable: it's an exciting film, legitimately augmented by the 3-D process so to feel totally immersing.
"Change the scheme! Alter the mood! Electrify the boys and girls if you'd be so kind."  

TRON Legacy begins in 1989, some seven years after the events of TRON. Kevin Flynn has defeated Dillinger and the MCP, and reclaimed ENCOM. One night, Flynn informs his young son, Sam, of a breakthrough on The Grid; a miracle that could "change everything."

He is never seen again.

Decades later, a grown Sam -- aimless and hurt over the disappearance of his Dad all those years ago -- continues to be a thorn in the side of ENCOM, a software company threatening to fall into the clutches of Dillinger's money-hungry son (Cillian Murphy). 

Although Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) speaks up for the missing Flynn's philosophy and wishes, the inhuman corporation is only interested in profits.  Sam's attempts to hijack ENCOM"s new release (a new- but-not-improved operating system) are not greeted warmly by the Board.

Then, however, Alan comes to Sam with curious news that he  has received a page from Flynn; a page originating from Flynn's Arcade.  Sam visits the old Arcade and finds the means -- in the basement -- to transport himself to the Grid.  Almost immediately, Sam is apprehended there, in the computer world, by the gestapo-like forces of the Grid's commandant, CLU (Jeff Bridges). 
CLU -- Kevin Flynn's doppelganger -- dispatches Sam to the life-or-death gladiatorial games that the Grid's Program's seem to hunger for, but the lad escapes at the last minute, thanks to the intervention of the beautiful Quorra (Olivia Wilde).  She takes Flynn to meet with his father, and Sam learns of the Virtual World's history; a history marred by Clu's attempt to achieve a "perfect system."

In attaining that lofty goal, Clu has actually resorted to genocide, destroying the self-aware beings who were born inside the grid, the Isos.  Now, Clu wants to go even further: he wants to take his genocidal ways to the outside world and reshape our human life.  But he needs Flynn's identity disc to accomplish this goal; to find the hidden way out of the computer world... 

"Out there is a new world! Out there... is our destiny!"

In very specific terms, TRON Legacy, mimics the narrative flow of the original Lisberger film.  In the 1982 effort, Flynn entered the computer world and was captured.  He was then -- rather promptly -- put on the game grid.   The elder Flynn first had to battle a single enemy on a dangerous game platform, and later had to engage other Programs in battle inside the light-cycle arena.  Following an escape, Flynn and his friends used a beam rider as transport to cross the virtual wasteland and reach their quarry: the malevolent MCP.

In the 2010 sequel, the same sequence repeats.  Sam is zapped into the Grid, and captured by a Recognizer.  He is forced into disc-on-disc combat against a single opponent, and then put into light cycle combat.  After an escape with Quorra, Flynn and his Dad use a beam rider to transport across the virtual wasteland and reach their quarry: a portal that can return them to the "real world." 

The characters are similar too.  In both films, we encounter a triumvirate or triangle involving one female and two males. 

The identical order of events -- and deliberately re-use of  trademark franchise moments such as the disc battle, light-cycle race and beam-rider interlude -- suggest that this "Grid test," as it were, is actually symbolic.  It's a rite of passage.  First the Dad had to survive it, and now it is the son's turn to run the same gauntlet. 

Since so much of TRON Legacy concerns the the son growing up, and (hopefully) avoiding the mistakes of his father, this narrative structure does not feel like a re-hash of the earlier film, but rather an important point of context.  This is life, the broaching of adulthood and responsibility, the movie seems to intimate. And by putting our new hero, Sam through the same events his father endured -- and in the same order, no less --the film gets that point across rather nicely, and without forcing the issue. 

The prime difference between original and sequel arises not in the order which the the action-packed events occur, but rather in the perspective in which how they are viewed.  In the first film, Flynn attempted to survive in someone else's system. 

Here, Kevin and his son are struggling in the system the Father engineered...a system controlled by a monstrous, calculating alter ego called CLU (voiced by Bridges and visualized by CGI). 

In other words, this is the story of one father and two sons. 

Sam is the human son Kevin left behind for the technological "miracles" of his work, his job.  And CLU is the technological son Kevin  abandoned when CLU's viewpoints about a "perfect system" diverged from his Father's ideals.  Everything that occurs in the virtual world of TRON Legacy is a clear result of dear old Dad's mistakes; his vanity and arrogance.  His "God Complex," if you will.

Kevin Flynn believed he could craft a utopia, a perfect system, but didn't stop to consider  that his "computer" son, CLU, might execute his will in an inhuman manner (owing to his nature as a machine.)  When Flynn is later greeted by his (prodigal?) son, Sam -- a fallible but wholly human creation -- he realizes, in a sense, the error of his ways.  He realies that "perfection" was indeed within in his reach all along, but it was a "perfection" resting in his feelings of love and devotion for his biological, human son. "Engineering" perfection was an impossibility all along.  Perhaps only God -- who created both Kevin and the Isos -- could engineer such perfect creations.

It's not too difficult, given this context, to view TRON Legacy as a kind of critique or commentary on the different stages of adulthood, really.  As a young man, Flynn rebelled against "The System," (the MCP, Dillinger running ENCOM, etc.) and took down that system.  Now, years an older man, Kevin Flynn is The System.  And all the problems encountered in the sequel are not external ones of another individual's making.  They are his mistakes.

Again, this is how life is. 

As youngsters, we have so much to rail and rage against: the Establishment, the way-of-things, the world at large, the slow pace of change.  As middle-aged men and women, we are the ones to be rebelled against; the living, breathing results of a million choices and (some) bad decisions.   The world around us is one we've made, or at least shaped. 

I should hasten to add, this 2010 sequel is clearly and cleverly designed for the contemporary middle aged guy, like me. It arrives in theaters nearly three decades after the original TRON.  I was twelve years old when I saw the original; only-just forty one when I saw the sequel. 

Smartly, the movie makers take into account that so much time has passed and have crafted a film that appeals to that same audience, only grown up.  We are now the fathers, not the sons.  We are the ones who have made the mistakes.  How do we want to be remembered?

TRON Legacy both passes the torch to the next generation, and brings Kevin Flynn some measure of peace and understanding about his amazing life; and the mistakes he has made.   His acceptance of his flaws is visualized perfectly, and in distinctly sci-fi terms, when he must literally take them all back.  Those errors and foibles have coalesced in the person of CLU, and in the end, Flynn must re-absorb CLU into himself.  It's the ultimate act of responsibility, and one that paves the way for Sam and Quorra to have a positive future.

Perhaps this plot line is the reason why the younger fan boys may not groove so much on the film.  Though youthful Sam is undeniably the physical hero of the pic, Kevin Flynn remains the heart and soul of the Tron universe.  His journey is the one that resonates deeply, at least with those who fell in love with TRON twenty-eight years ago. 

And I should add as well, that the journey of TRON (Boxleitner) himself nicely  reflects and augments Flynn's journey of self-discovery.  TRON too has changed over the years -- veritably going to the dark side -- before a last minute redemption saves the day.  Watching our two heroes of yesteryear in this film -- responsible for and absorbed by the prevailing system -- men of my age must wonder if this too has happened to us, in the "real world."

In very simple terms, the movie reminds us to pay attention to our children, and not to let professional ambition interfere with what is perhaps the only truly perfect, unconditional thing in this mortal coil: the love of a son or daughter

To some that idea may sound hokey or corny, and I rarely make blanket statements like "you need to be a parent" to enjoy this film.  But in the case of TRON Legacy  it certainly helps you enjoy this film if you are over thirty, have some familiarity and nostalgia for the original, and are the parent of a child.

In terms of visual expression and ingenuity, I would still give the nod to TRON as a superior genre film, but I feel that TRON Legacy does not dishonor the original's accomplishments in any, way, shape or form

Indeed, this 2010 sequel culminates on a tight, unassuming two-shot of Sam and Quorra (Olivia Wilde) -- an artificial life form called an "ISO" -- riding off on a motorcycle together into the unwritten, unprogrammed future.

This is an appropriate and timely image, for Man and his technology have become infinitely more intertwined in 2010 than they were in 1982. The sequel's ending thus reflects our increasing sense of comfort with computers, software and "applications." Monolithic, computerized monstrosities such as HAL and the MCP don't carry the same dramatic power they once did because so many of us "interface" with our Droids, desktops, laptops, Internet and other high-tech tools several times a day.

Not once have these advanced tools tried to bite our hands, or transform us into malevolent, unfeeling cyborgs.

So TRON Legacy's final visual flourish -- the motorcycle two-shot with Sam and Quorra -- actually portends a kind of welcoming man/machine intimacy: the total marriage of the natural world and the technological one. A new direction that -- given our vigilance -- can open up a new information age and broaden our understanding of creation itself.

Technology is our co-pilot, in other words.

This idea is a dramatic and valid next step beyond TRON's Reagan-era ending, a deliberate moving of the ball down the field to our current epoch and its unique pitfalls and promises. 

In this fashion and in this ending, the 2010 sequel speaks to today's youth in the same literate and cinematic matter as its predecessor spoke to my generation. 

In the end, both TRON and TRON Legacy are not about video "games," but about how people choose to use or misuse technology.  Intriguingly, these movies also show how our high-tech creation's mirror -- more and more -- their creators.

Let's hope that these "programs" will continue to "fight for the users" on the Grid -- and in reality -- for generations to come.

The Films of 1982: Tron (From the Archive)

Steven Lisberger's Tron arrived in American theaters during the magical, unmatched summer of 1982. This was the golden season that gifted to cineplexes Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, John Carpenter's The Thing, Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist, Steven Spielberg's E.T., Nick Meyer's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Clint Eastwood's Firefox.

And much like Blade Runner and The Thing, Walt Disney's Tron received largely negative reviews from film critics. They judged that the film -- while a technological wonder -- failed utterly to connect on some basic human level. This was an easy conclusion to draw since Tron involved, predominantly, computers and computer programs.

Writing for The New York Times, critic Janet Maslin opined that Tron's "technological wizardry isn't accompanied by any of the old-fashioned virtues - plot, drama, clarity and emotion - for which other Disney movies, or other films of any kind, are best remembered. It is beautiful - spectacularly so, at times - but dumb. Computer fans may very well love it, because ''Tron'' is a nonstop parade of stunning computer graphics, accompanied by a barrage of scientific-sounding jargon. Though it's certainly very impressive, it may not be the film for you if you haven't played Atari today."

Well, Maslin was half-right...

The visuals of Tron are indeed utterly spectacular...and trail-blazing. But there also exists encoded here a powerful human dimension. Specifically, Lisberger's narrative carries an undeniable subtext concerning the devouring nature of 1980s corporate America. It was a corporate America, in fact, unleashed (and virtually unregulated...) by the laissez-faire policies of the new American President, Ronald Reagan.

Impressively, Tron even seems to position itself as a critique of the "new" Walt Disney Disney. It thus bites the hand that made it, so-to-speak. For Disney is a company, the film indicates, where the computers and the bean-counters have seized control.

Contrarily, one might also cogently argue an opposite point with some validity; that Tron is actually a jingoistic Cold War statement against Communism; one depicting a battle for personal freedom against a "Red"-hued assimilating enemy, the Master Computer Program.

Beyond these intriguing and debatable sub-texts, Tron continues to fascinate new generations of viewers on the basis of the intricate, visually-complex fantasy computer world it creates with such aplomb. This is a dazzling alternate universe where all the main characters of the human world -- in the spirit of The Wizard of Oz -- boast an identity "double," -- a computer program doppelganger. Given the contemporary popularity of World of Warcraft and Second Life, Tron's notion of electronic counterparts or computer avatars acting as our alternate identities in a man-made photoelectric landscape is very timely a quarter-century after the film's release.

Greetings, Programs!

Tron depicts the story of a rogue computer programmer named Flynn (Jeff Bridges) who was fired from his job at the mighty corporation ENCOM when a fellow programmer and now executive-senior-vice president, Dillinger (David Warner) stole his design for several blockbuster video games, including the popular Space Paranoids.

Dillinger has also all-but-ousted the company's original president, the gentle and elderly Walt (Barnard Hughes) -- who created ENCOM in his garage.

Dillinger has turned Walt's creation into a devouring machine bent on the acquisition of smaller corporations and companies so as to seize a bigger market share. Assisting him in this dedicated raiding effort to control all commerce (international and domestic) is the monstrous MCP -- Master Control Program.

Flynn is zapped by a matter-transformer controlled by the MCP and "digitized." He thus enters the world of the MCP and other computer programs. There, he attempts to re-claim his cstolen reations and destroy Dillinger's machine servant. Flynn is assisted in this matter by a regulatory program, Tron, created by another information-seeking ENCOM programmer, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner). The MCP attempts to destroy Flynn -- a man the other programs revere as a god-being called a "User" -- using his right-hand man, the villainous Sark (also David Warner), to do it.

I Programmed You To Want Too Much: Big Business Unfettered in Tron

An excavation of the context underlining Tron is important to any understanding of this unique fantasy film.

The first significant trend to discuss here is technological advance: the evolution of arcade video games into home based game systems (like the Atari 2600) in the late 1970s; and then the lightning-fast, subsequent replacement of those game systems with home computing devices like the Commodore VIC-20 in the early 1980s.

Forget a chicken in every pot, by the mid-1980s there was a PC in every American house. Accordingly, terms such as BASIC, DOS, RAM, "user friendly" "disk drive," "program" and "memory" (not to mention "crash...") entered our lexicon as we accommodated a new and useful device into our daily lives.

Tron expresses, in fascinating terms, the sense of uneasiness many Americans felt with the rapid growth of this new technology. On one hand, humans were still at the top of the food chain in Tron: "Users" sending "programs" to do their bidding in an invisible (to our eyes...) electronic universe.

However, on the other hand, the electronic world of our helpful programs had been (secretly) co-opted by a hungry, assimilating devourer that put the food-pellet-gobbling Pac Man to shame: the MCP. This fear of insidious technology in our homes finds voice in much of Tron's dialogue. "The computers will start thinking and people will stop," warns Walt Dumont (Hughes) in one critical scene.

At other points, however, Tron expresses the desire for a "free system" in which Man and Program ally in beneficial unison. And the film's brilliant climax is not entirely unlike that depictedin Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) a sort of religious communion/fusion between Man and machine. As in that cinematic case, man here is the deity, shepherding his sense of traditional human values to the "cold," "intellectual" machine. In Tron, Flynn dives into the MCP (in a Godly beam of blinding light...) and briefly joins with it. His decency -- his humanity -- transforms the outward shade of evil (a crimson, coruscating red) into the film's shade of rebellion and liberty; blue.

The second important element of Tron's context involves the Walt Disney Company and the policies of Ronald Reagan (though in fairness to Mr. Reagan, his predecessor in the office, Jimmy Carter, had begun the process of deregulation well before he took office...).

However, Reagan was important because it was he who oversaw the de-regulation of the financial industry on his watch. He not only made regulation far less less stringent (which eventually led to a housing bubble...), but also expanded the powers of Savings and Loans to diversify -- 
with a keen eye directed towards profits. This move essentially eliminated the distinctions between commercial and saving banks. As a result, interest rates rose, and so did rampant real estate speculation.

In the fall of 2008, we all finally understood where this dead end of deregulation led. The permissiveness of the Reagan Administraton had exposed our economy to new dangers. Merging companies in the 1980s became titans...monopolies. And they soon grew...too big to fail (thus requiring financial bail-out from tax-payers).

Now consider the troubled history of the Walt Disney Company during this same time period; the time period leading up to Tron.

Walt Disney had passed away in 1966, and the company floundered through the 1970s. Walt's nephew, Ray Disney, left the company in 1977 after vocally disagreeing with the company's creative direction. In 1979, Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and John Pomeroy -- the creative brain trust of the Disney animation family -- also walked away. The general feeling at the time was that Disney had lost its way creatively. The answer, according to some business-minded voices, was assimilation. 

Now consider that in the years since Tron, Disney has assimilated independent characters such as the Muppets and Winnie the Pooh. In MCP-like fashion, it has also "acquired" TV networks such ABC, Fox Family, Capital Cities, and production companies including Saban Entertainment and Pixar.

Tron arrives in the very early days of this new and aggressive corporate policy. Corporate raider Dillinger has "acquired" (illegally...) a variety of video games from Flynn, while his alter ego in the computer world, The MCP acquires (legally, but through force), every computer program he comes in contact with...making him a more formidable opponent.

Daringly, the film even provides us a Walt Disney surrogate in the person of the amusingly named "Walt Dumont," a flannel-shirted, avuncular-type with a heart of gold. Uncle Walt was with ENCOM when the company's motives were not purely commercial; when it tended first to people, to customers -- to "user requests."

By explicit contrast, Dillinger -- a surrogate for the Reagan-Era, laissez-faire CEO -- states that "doing business is what computers are for," and tells Walt that "the company you started in your garage doesn't exist anymore." In other words, Walt Disney was rolling in his grave and the company he created just didn't care...

In focusing on the bottom-line of profits (and the pirate-like acquisition of more businesses/programs), however, Dillinger makes a mistake. He neglects the human spirit. Thus the computer world as run by the MCP is cold and harsh...and a rebellion and a religion are born there.

The old school contingent, led by Walt Dumont and his avatar, the Guardian, believe that "our spirit remains in every program we design for this computer." But the MCP isn't interested in personality or individuality, and in the film's climax, we register him attempting to absorb all the "individual" rogue programs he has captured; in the film's lingo, "snapping them up."

Merging, acquiring and re-purposing the landscape for raw material and (thus wealth), the MCP is thus the Reagonomics financial model set loose in the computer world.

Tron's coda even suggests further particulars of the Walt Disney Company. After Dillinger's (Card Walker's?) ouster, the family-friendly, old-school Flynn becomes CEO -- flown in a helicopter to his corporate office. In real life, this sort of restoration happened in 1982 (Tron's release year). Walt Disney's son-in-law, Ron W. Miller became CEO, at least before big business won out again and Michael Eisner took over.

So, in telling fashion, Tron comments directly on the corporate raiders of the early 1980s and warns about what might come next if these 1980s laissez-faire economic policies were to continue unabated. It even predicted a move by big corporations "beyond operations" domination. The film's video-game titles highlighted in Flynn's arcade -- and brightly lit in neon, -- seem to warn of an impending disaster, with names such as "ZERO HOUR," "THE END" and "INTRUDER."

And if you look today at Blackwater or Halliburton, you can see that the MCP has reached finally achieved his dream of conquest: reaching "inside" the Pentagon...and deciding national policy.

Red, White and Blue:  Communism vs. Capitalism in Tron

For all the visual bells and whistles, Tron is a fairly deep, fairly substantial genre film. In fact, I believe you can interpret Tron in an entirely different fashion than I've enumerated above. Specifically, in a Pro-Reagan way.

The MCP -- quashing religious freedom, assimilating businesses, and lording it over innocent programs -- may be an allegory not for big business amok; but for the Soviet Union.

The MCP's color of choice/identification is scarlet red (think red scare...). And as far back as Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the 1950s, communists have been associated with non-human evil; either alien or machine. The MCP -- the emotionless computer -- fits perfectly the bill of Cold War Era jingoism. Especially under the President who joked that he had "outlawed Russia" and planned to "begin bombing in five minutes..."

If you study the arguments of the aggrieved programs in Tron, that "the high and mighty master control" has: restricted movement of programs on "the micro-circuits," (think interstate travel between Eastern Bloc countries...), conscripted a vast army, and assimilated control of all individual programs (essentially nationalizing them), then the Cold War metaphor holds as strongly, perhaps, as does the film's anti-corporate streak. The desire for a "free system" is the American desire for the CCCP to adopt freedom and liberty overy tyranny. And the key to the MCP's destruction is getting in behind his force field, a protective, impenetrable wall. Tron "tears down that wall," and brings down the MCP in the process.

On the Other Side of the Screen, It All Looks So Easy

Tron illuminates late 20th century issues of technology, humanity, contemporary politics, perhaps even foreign affairs, in the setting of an amazing, richly-visualized fantasy world. The film's major set pieces are gorgeous, and remain amazing to behold. It is for this reason, indeed, that the film entertains so mightily.  

There's the Game Grid, where Flynn is forced to engage in a life-and-death game of electronic jai lai. There's the light-cycle race and break-out, an adrenalin-inducing action sequence and visual trademark for the film itself. There's a recognizer tank out-of control...disassembling itself a layer at a time as it crashes into the staggered technological landscape. And, perhaps most impressively, there's the digital beam transport -- a butterfly-like light ship, crossing "unprogrammed space," a kind of computer world wilderness.wasteland. The MCP itself is a great villain: a computerized Devil, part Wizard of Oz and part Darth Vader. Both heir to Forbin's Colossus and antecedent to War Games' WOPR.

I hasten to add that all these amazing and imaginative visuals and characters serve an important purpose in Tron. Because the computer world is a twisted reflection of ours; the landscapes tell us something about ourselves, and about our world. How we shunt aside the old and obsolete seemingly without thinking (Walt/Guardian). How we seek purpose through a belief in the divine. And how we all create God in our own image (the "Users" of the programs

And finally, the gorgeous, artistic last shot of Tron punctuates the film's carefully-crafted connection between the computer world and the world of the human Users (the builders of that computer world). It's a simple, long-view shot of a contemporary American city; of a skyline.

But as day slides irrevocably into night, something unusual happens. The substance of this brick and mortar metropolis changes. All the roads, the buildings, and the moving cars seem to transform into the very raw, blinking "data" we have come to associate with Tron's glowing computer world. Beacons in the dark; searching for meaning...leading us into the technological future and limitless possibility.

It is an image that connects man's natural world and his technological one, and reminds us, visually, that we inhabit both. To our detriment or to our glorification.

End of Line.

Movie Trailer: Tron (1982)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Memory Bank: Photon: The Ultimate Game on Planet Earth (1984 - 1989)

Back in the mid-1980s, Photon: the Ultimate Game on Planet Earth was a fascinating new spin on paint ball wars. 

Created by George Carter (who was reportedly inspired by the battles in Star Wars), Photon was a laser-tag-styled game that, at its peak in 1987, boasted some forty-five "game" arenas across the continental United States.

Essentially, you'd go to a Photon arena, pick a handle or nickname for yourself (like mine, "Ash"), join a red or green team, and then put on something like twenty pounds of heavy equipment, including a chest-plate and a helmet.

And, of course, you'd be given a laser pistol.

Then,  for five-or-six minute intervals, you'd be let loose onto the multi-leveled high-tech battleground arena, which featured catwalks, mazes, smokes, strobe lights and other fun atmospherics.

There was even an observation deck overlooking the arena where you could get a good lay of the land.

The goal, naturally, was to stay alive and to shoot down your enemies on the opposing team.  Your hits were "tagged" on the chest receivers, and if you got zapped, your gun went inactive for a short interval.

Photon: the Ultimate Game on Planet Earth ignited a laser-tag mini-fad in the mid-1980s.  A line of Photon books was published, with titles such as "High Stakes" and "For the Glory," and DIC Entertainment produced an authentically weird Photon syndicated live-action TV series about the "Guardians of the light of Photon" and starring a lead character named Bhodi Li (Christopher Lockwood).  The series plot was something akin to The Last Starfighter, with the greatest Photon warriors battling a warlord named Arr, if memory serves.

I never reeally got into the ancillary stuff (toys, books or TV show), but during my senior year in high school, I organized a Friday night trip to a nearby Photon arena as class president.  It was completely awesome, although I remember one of my friends was alarmed that he couldn't have the handle "God" as his nickname.  I can't remember how much it cost to play Photon, but the game play was pretty terrific.  It was also exhausting.  Carrying around all that heavy equipment quickly grew tiring.

Then, just a few short weeks after that first awesome visit, I decided to go back to Photon with a group of friends to relive the experience...and the arena was gone.

I mean the place was literally the Borg had scooped it up off the Earth.

Baffled, my buddies and I went to a nearby furniture store to ask what had happened to Photon, and the employees thought we were asking for a "futon."  Urgh.

We went bowling instead, and so ended the Photon phenomenon.

Photon: The Ultimate Game on Planet Earth died quickly, but to kids like me in the 1980s, it also burned brightly.  In fact, last decade, by my understanding, a new Photon arena opened in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, though it too is now defunct.

Today, more generic laser tag arenas can still be found at places like Sports Connection here in Charlotte, and I intend to take Joel into battle as soon as he's old enough to carry around all that armor...

Until then, "the light shines..."

Collectible of the Week: Mad Scientist Dissect-an-Alien Kit (Mattel; 1986)

This Mattel toy from 1986 was my son Joel's toy "pick" from The Mad Monster Party in Uptown Charlotte last weekend.  

His eyes fell-upon this vintage toy, and he knew he had to have it.  

And what's more, he knew his Dad would purchase it for him...

This strange 1980s-era toy encourages the intrepid young scientist to "yank out alien organs dripping in glowing ALIEN BLOOD!"  

The Mad Scientist Dissect-An-Alien Kit box also relates that inside the alien body there are "12 body organs" and "only one way they'll fit together."  In other words, "it's the slimiest puzzle on Earth."

The bug-eyed scientist featured on the box also opines "Yeech! What an oozy operation! Can you make all the organs fit inside the alien?" 

You know, it's actually much harder than it looks...

The Mad Scientist Dissect-an-Alien Kit includes: "alien, 12 alien organs, Glow-in-the-dark Alien Blood compound, plastic scalpel, Operating Mat, Alien body bag, and a Journal of Mad Experiments with Instructions."

The interesting thing about the Operating Mat is that the colorful background names all twelve of the alien's unusual organs.  

You've got the "veinausea," "heartipus," "liverot," "spleenius," "mad bladder," "stumuckus," "blooblob," "fleshonius," "branium," "gutball" and "lungross." 

The toy also comes replete with a short comic-book describing the scientist's discovery of the alien creature.

Joel and I have played with the toy a couple of times already (after washing it off, because, in my wife's words, it was "mega-sticky") and the best part, after inserting all the organs, is bandaging up the poor old alien with a giant plastic band-aid.  It's ouchless.

Mattel, the makers of the Mad Scientist Dissect-an-Alien Kit also released (and sold separately) some Alien Blood Monster Kits ("Squeeze Em! Alien blood oozes from their eyes, mouth or nose!")

Now where am I can going to find those for Joel?!

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...