December 19th, 2010

Flynn (Tron)

"Bio-digital jazz, man."


  • I would be the first to admit that the original TRON is not a perfect film. The general story is overly familiar and much of the presentation is somewhat stilted due to the difficult nature of the shoot. And yet it remains a personal favorite for several reasons:

    • The film looks unique; the odd lighting schemes employed in order to match the computer graphics with the live-action footage in the virtual world resulted in one of the most consistently psychedelic movies ever made.

    • Wendy Carlos' prickly blend of electronics and orchestra is infectious and like nothing else out there, and her main theme is an absolutely gorgeous composition.

    • Jeff Bridges' portrayal of irreverent genius Kevin Flynn was so relaxed and charismatic, qualities that would serve the actor well in his most iconic roles.

    • While it doesn't get very ponderous about them, the film touches on some very interesting philosophical concepts, including the idea of the development of technology having unforeseen moral consequences and the theological implications of Flynn's presence in the system, making it actually rather decent, if admittedly woolly, science-fiction.

    • The intervening years have demonstrated that the impact of this film, which was denied an Oscar nomination for visual effects because they "cheated" by using computers, can not easily be quantified. TRON had images that were just impossible to have ever been able to do before. Ironically for the era, while the live-action footage often had to be locked during photography due to the lighting issues, the visual effects shots had no such limitations and so director Steven Lisberger took advantage of this to amp up the action in those sequences. There is one shot in particular in which the camera follows three light cycles, zooms out when they reach a cliff, and then tracks after them as they reverse and drive off; this sort of thing is routine today but completely impossible to achieve with analog methods.

    I was therefore understandably skeptical when it was announced that a sequel was in production. I wasn't sure where they would go or what they would do, how they could really follow up the original. Then I started hearing some encouraging news about the project. Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner were both back. The story sounded decent. Footage was looking good. The trailer had a pretty good shock twist at the end. I started to hope.

    My initial reaction to the selection of Daft Punk to do the score was a bit of disappointment, though mostly because I would have liked to have heard Wendy Carlos return and develop her thematic material for the sequel. Accepting that this wouldn't be happening (which is pretty common for a film music enthusiast), I decided to keep an open mind.

    I had the opportunity to preview the soundtrack album. At first, I was getting kind of annoyed, as after the opening "Overture" and "The Grid," the next few tracks basically sound like variations on the Batman Begins ostinato. I was actually to dismiss the score as another tired Media Ventures retread and was ready to turn it off when I got a phone call. I took the call with the score playing muted in the background, and when it was finished, I turned the music up and was hearing something really cool. I then backed up to where I'd left off when I got the call and listened to the rest of the album. It turns out that the score has an overall structure and opens up at a certain point in the film, and then it opens out with more variety and expressive material to establish emotional connections. I found myself converted long before the end of the album. The new score blends electronics with orchestra but in a very different way from Carlos' work, but like her score it is unified by an emotive theme.

    So, I have to admit that I was pretty excited when I went to see TRON: Legacy opening night.

    I have no idea how somebody unfamiliar with the original film will receive this film but for me, the movie basically fulfilled everything I wanted out of a TRON sequel and did so with panache: it was visually stunning, Jeff Bridges seemed to be having a good time reprising his character, it's always nice to see Bruce Boxleitner again (who gets the biggest stand up and cheer line toward the conclusion of the film), the film presents some fascinating philosophical ideas and the video games are %$&ing cool. The central father/son arc works because Kevin Flynn is revealed to have been trapped in the grid not only by CLU, but because he has to protect another of his "children," and Bridges is adept at expressing the compassion necessary to understand his motives.

    It's not a perfect film. There is too much "uncanny valley" with Jeff Bridges' younger incarnation; I don't think it hurts the film overmuch when he's CLU, but he looks just as disturbing in the numerous flashback scenes. Aspects of the plot are somewhat predictable, with the audience being a little ahead of the characters at times. The absence of Cindy Morgan is felt. The first portion of the film is an almost Beneath the Planet of the Apes style updating of the original film. Garrett Hedlund is a little too wide-eyed to be the angry Sam Flynn. Overall, however, I would say that these issues aren't that different from those that the first film had, and if one can accept those, it's pretty easy to accept these.

    And as I said, the ideas the film is built on are very interesting, and these are concepts are often surprising coming from the usually rather conservative Disney studios. At its heart, this is the story of a god being surprised by the evolution occurring in his own creation and having to wrestle with himself as to how to deal with the implications (adding another dimension to the "Legacy" of the title). If Kevin Flynn represents that which can find joy in what the universe can show us while CLU is that which causes us to try to force the world around us to fit into our own idea of it, then the film raises just as many eyebrow-raising theological questions as the first film did, fitting Bridges' comments about why he wanted to be involved with the project; "Myths help us kind of navigate difficult spots in our lives and we need modern-day myths to help us with things like technology, and how to deal with the darker side.”

    So there it is. I enjoyed it, warts and all. I wasn't particularly wowed by the 3D (when will this cyclical fad finally run its course this time around?), but it certainly didn't detract from the film.


  • I received grand spanking new editions of three amazing Jerry Goldsmith favorites these past few days, each presenting the complete score followed by an album presentation! Intrada's First Blood, La-La Land's Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and FSM's Poltergeist are here!

    Of these, FSM's Poltergeist offers the least amount of revelation as the Rhino edition basically had the same program as the first disc of the set, but the sonics on the new disc blow the other one over to the Other Side. The angry brass and shimmering textures now have a luster to them absent since the score's LP incarnation, itself a unique presentation thankfully preserved here in sterling sound as well. I've often written how Poltergeist contains one of my favorite moments in Goldsmith's career; when Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) is explaining about the Other Side and then starts discussing the Beast. This cue, retitled "Let's Get Her" on this new set (the Rhino title was "It Knows What Scares You") is even more effective now because the transition from the ethereal to the lowest registers of the orchestra is felt as much as it's heard on this new master.

    One can tell right from the first few guitar notes of the main title how much better Intrada's First Blood is going to be from the former CD editions. The differences are night and day; without the Len Engel compression and Dolby problems, the sound of the orchestra rings full and true. This is a very aggressive score, and the improved sound gives the action sequences a sense of both weight and movement that it needed. Over the years, this score has become a solid favorite of mine, but the sonics on the original Intrada edition was very off-putting. Now it's completely transparent. I have to admit that, finally having heard the complete score in chronological order, that I do on the whole prefer Goldsmith's original album assembly (which apparently the composer was extremely proud of), which thankfully has been included in remastered sound as well.

    And then there is Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. You can debate William Shatner's success or failure (I have to admit that over the years I've developed more and more of a fondness for the relaxed tone of the film as these people gradually leave us), but his interest in creating a sprightly, fast moving rollercoaster ride with some heady concepts thrown in certainly has given us some beautiful Jerry Goldsmith music regardless of the quality of the resulting film.

    While I had always enjoyed the album, the score definitely needed more breathing room than was afforded it on the original LP (less than usual for the era because of the inclusion of the Hiroshima song). The first half of the film was barely represented on the original record, which meant that many of the thematic catharses at the conclusion of the score were somewhat blunted. I like hearing Sybok's questing theme develop over the course of the film, and I could never get enough of his Klingon theme.

    I do have to say that I'm glad they included a remaster of the original album edit as well. There are a few album versions I do prefer over what appeared in the film (the nips and tucks in "Without Help" to smooth it out show that Goldsmith certainly did know what he was doing when making a record), and there are several interesting variations I'm finding quite enjoyable. I like the "airier" take on the main title, for example, and I found the instrumental version of "The Moon's a Window To Heaven" to be more compelling than the final song.

    It's interesting, but as I've mentioned before the main difference between the scores for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is that (the debatable qualities of the films notwithstanding) one is primarily questing but intellectual science-fiction and the other is a spiritual action-adventure. Although there is thematic continuity between them, I often mentally categorize Star Trek: The Motion Picture with more with something like Logan's Run, while Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (and pretty much all of his subsequent Star Trek scores) seem more along the rollicking lines of Supergirl or King Solomon's Mines (similarly, I cast Outland more with First Blood than with Alien).

    This score occupies a very interesting place in my own personal architecture as a film music aficionado. I was just getting interested in film music at the time this movie and its accompanying soundtrack came out. It was, frankly, the first time I came across a Jerry Goldsmith score I loved for a film I didn't like (as I mentioned, any affection I may have developed for the movie has been relatively recently). This would, of course, become almost routine in the years to come, but it made it clear to me that my enthusiasm for film music in general went far beyond its use in the film. It is fitting that I would learn this lesson with a Jerry Goldsmith score.

    I've waited a long time for an expanded or complete version of this score (it was, after Star Trek: The Motion Picture among the first time I was to pine for music not on the record), and the bonus tracks made the final package even grander than I had expected it to be.


  • My Lord of the Rings compilation is in its final stages; both discs are fully mapped out and now it is just a matter of doing some fine-tuning. The process was exciting, difficult and often heartbreaking, I broke every rule and even invented a few new ones to break. After determining that I would definitely be limiting this to a two-disc set, the feeling "if only I could have had an extra twenty minutes" began to set in, but the limitations caused me to think more about what I'd been hoping to accomplish and include (I still feel I could use another, say, ten minutes, though). The resulting set needs to be listened to a few times even after this process is completed before I can sign off on it, but I'm getting there.