For this week’s post, I decided to raid my movie collection for a couple of films that pioneered visual effects. One is an early example of using computer generated graphics, and the other is one of the first, if not the first usage of computer generated graphics to blend with the real world. This week’s films are:
Steven Lisberger – TRON (1982)
Nick Castle – The Last Starfighter (1984)
These films are both grappling with the limitations of the technology at their disposal, and working to tell their story within those limitations.
Let’s take a look.
Flynn, an ace programmer and gamer attempts to break into his old companies computer system to prove that he wrote the games that a coworker stole from him. The company, Encon is now run by the Master Control Program, a computer program that is slowly taking over all the functions of the company, with the help of Dillinger, who stole Flynn’s games in the first place. A programmer named Alan Bradley is writing a program called Tron, that will bring the MCP back in line. But the MCP is locking out every program it can, making a power play. Will Alan and Flynn be able to free Tron before the MCP finishes taking over?
The film is directed by Steven Lisberger, whose film career includes TRON, it’s recent sequel, and not much else. I don’t really have an understanding of what he’s done outside of that, but I think that’s still a decent career. The film stars Jeff Bridges in an early part of his career, but well after he’d have been well known. It also stars Bruce Boxleitner, who would later become better known for the sci-fi series Babylon 5, and David Warner, one of the great character actors of his generation.
The plot summary I gave above is accurate, but fairly useless in describing the film. The description above makes it seem like the film is a suspense thriller, and it kind of is, but upon watching the film what you discover is that the film attempts to personify the world of 1’s and 0’s inside the computer.
The computer has it’s own little world, run by the Master Control Program. The MCP finds programs and takes them over, making itself bigger and more important. The ones it can’t use, it sends to play in the games, which are to the death. We get some background from a new program that is imprisoned, named Chrome (no relation). He speaks to Ram about his plight.
The two programs give us some insight into the world of the computer. The individuals we see here are actual programs, like accounting software, or text editors. They deify the ‘users’ as both their creators and their reason for existing. They imagine them to be all-powerful creators. But the MCP rules with an iron fist. Subjugating all the other programs.
We soon meet Flynn, who owns his own arcade. It’s hugely popular, as arcades were in the early 80s, and he’s the best at all the games. In his office upstairs, he builds a program called Clu to break into Encon’s security. We see the adventure of Clu, who drives around in a big tank, trying to take out the security programs. He loses and dies. In the real world, Flynn sees that his program was detected by the security and erased.
It’s an interesting take on the world inside of our computers. Personal computers were still uncommon at the time, and were still just becoming a thing at work. The inner workings were still a complete mystery to most of the public. Turning the electrons bouncing around these metal boxes into a life and death struggle for survival is a worthwhile direction to explore. But the film is a product of it’s time. The characters in the computer have all sorts of cutesy computer based dialogue that might have worked when people didn’t really know the terms, but in 2018 it sounds ridiculous. Lines like “They haven’t built a circuit that could hold you!”, and “Who does he calculate he is?” make the film ripe for parody.
But let’s push past that and look at it separate from the issues stemming from it’s era. When the film is in the real world, there are no special effects of any kind, but once we enter the virtual world, it’s a mix of computer generated graphics, animations, and various compositing effects to make the environment work. The computer graphics are limited to landscapes and vehicles. There are no CG characters at all.
From a modern perspective, the graphics are really basic. I was an associate instructor for a class doing computer graphics a couple years ago, and the students in the class could have easily produced most of the graphics here without too much effort. In fact, with the tools we have today, I’d guess any really motivated high school student could recreate these graphics. But at the time, it was completely cutting edge. I will say that there’s something beautiful about these graphics, especially on the Blu Ray edition that I watched on.
But the film needed a way to bridge the real world and the computer world. It manages this with some laser research that Encon is doing. A group at Encon is researching teleportation, and they’ve managed to begin teleporting organic material. It’s explained carefully that the laser diassembles the material, stores it in the computer, and then reassembles them.
We also meet Lora, a technician on the project, along with Alan, a programmer at Encon, who’s been locked out of his system due to Flynn’s hacking. Alan has been writing a program called TRON that will work for the users to ensure any problematic programs are shutdown. The MCP sees it as a threat, for good reason. Lora is dating Alan, and has a connection to Flynn, as she used to date him. This puts all the pieces in place.
Flynn comes up with a plan to free TRON and let him take out the MCP and they all go to Encon to make it happen. Lora puts Flynn at her terminal, which is right next to the laser. The MCP uses it to attack Flynn, bringing him into the computer. Now the real story begins.
Once Flynn enters the computer, we don’t see anymore of the real world. The story takes place entirely within the computer. The MCP tells Sark to put Flynn in the games and make him play until he dies. We also learn that TRON is imprisoned as well.
The two are united when they are forced to play the light cycle game together with a third program, Ram. Flynn manages to escape through a hole in the wall when another player hits the wall.
The story meanders here a bit. TRON gets separated from the others, and we get a Macguffin style plotline where he has to get to an input/output tower to contact Alan, his user. Flynn and Ram are attacked and have to run for their lives. Ram is hurt badly, and Flynn hides him in the wreck of a security drone. While there, the pieces of the drone begin to wake up around him. Flynn realizes that as a user, he has special powers in this world. He recreates the security drone around him and Ram. There’s a scene here that plays like Ram is meeting God. He realizes that Flynn is a user and treats him with that kind of reverence before dying.
In the real world, Flynn is basically a big kid. Not concerned with consequences, or how it might hurt others, but the film works here to show him dealing with death. It’s a bit of character growth, but it doesn’t become very compelling.
Eventually, things start to ramp up. TRON finds Yori, his girlfriend in the computer world, who is also played by the woman who plays Lora, Alan’s girlfriend in the real world. The film does this in every case. The main characters in the real world, are the exact same actors in the virtual world. TRON is played by Bruce Boxleitner, Sark is played by David Warner, and so on. Yori becomes an ally, and Flynn manages to reconnect with them. They steal a solar sail and make their way to the MCP, after TRON is given the code to defeat the MCP on his identity disc.
The identity disc is worth talking about a bit, simply because it’s such a unique idea. Every character in the virtual world has a disc that they wear on their back that can be removed. It acts as a weapon that can be thrown, but it also acts like a shield. It also contains all of the identifying information of the character in question.
In the end, as expected, the crew makes it to the MCP, and with the help of Flynn, TRON is able to throw his disk into the MCP and destroy him, and Flynn is returned to his physical body, along with the proof he needs to claim ownership of the games that Dillinger stole.
The final scene of the film is so obscure I have to comment on it. We see Alan and Lora standing on the roof of a building. A helicopter with the Encon logo lands and Flynn jumps out of it, excitedly greeting the two, and they begin to walk down some stairs. Then the film ends.
Credit to the film for taking a huge shortcut and trying to give us some closure without adding another 10-15 minutes to the film, but I’m not totally sure what to make of this. Was Flynn given the company? Promoted? How are Alan and Lora involved? Do they work for Flynn now? Why weren’t they promoted above him? Alan wrote TRON, and Lora knows how to teleport stuff. All Flynn ever did was create some games.
Anyway, let’s look at the next film.
The Last Starfighter (1984)
A small town teenager named Alex is desperate to get out of his boring life. He lives in a trailer park that he works at as the handyman with his mother and little brother. He never seems to have time to do anything fun. His only solace is the arcade game at the entrance to the trailer park, outside the convenience store: Starfighter. When Alex breaks the record on the game, he gets a visit from a strange man in a fancy car, and tells him that the game he was playing is a training program for an alien army, and he has passed the test. Will Alex accept his offer? Or even believe it?
The film was directed by Nick Castle, and written by Jonathan Betuel. Castle has had some solid directing work, but Betuel only has a few credits to his name. The film stars Lance Guest and Catherine Mary Stewart, who we saw a few posts ago. She was the darling of mid-80s films, and was in quite a few. The film also stars Robert Preston, best known for The Music Man, both on stage and screen. This was his final film role, and he just jumps off the screen as Centauri, the mysterious alien who visits Alex. We also have a role for Dan O’Herlihy, probably best known as the CEP of OCP in Robocop, but an actor who had a long career in film. In this film, he plays Grig, Alex’s co-pilot, and is essentially the emotional center of the film.
The early part of the film is entirely focused on Alex’s boring life, and his desire to leave. He can’t go to the lake with his girlfriend Maggie (Stewart), but tells his friends that he won’t be trapped here like they will. But for the moment he is trapped. You can see it in his reactions to everything. Every time he tries to get away or do something for himself, something is put upon him.
That evening, Alex finally has some time to himself, and begins playing the Starfighter game, like he’s done a thousand times before. But this time, he realizes that he’s playing much better than usual. Maggie, and Otis, the man who runs the convenience store notice he’s about the break the record.
In one of the strangest scenes, Otis yells to the entire trailer park that Alex is going to break the record. Instead of ignoring him like 99% of humans would, the entire trailer park drops everything they’re doing to crowd around Alex and cheer him on, like an early version of Twitch. I might buy this if it was young people, but it’s all people in the 40s and older who come running. Very strange scene.
After the excitement of the evening has passed Alex gets the bad news, his college loan has been denied, so he isn’t going anywhere. Crushed, he goes to the entrance where he meets Centauri. This is where the movie really starts to open up.
Centauri is played by Robert Preston, and it’s a great role for him. He plays up the huckster routine that he perfected in The Music Man. He tells Alex how special he is, and what a coincidence it is that he was found because the machine was supposed to go to Las Vegas. Alex is full of questions, but Centauri is an expert at talking a ton and never actually answering them.
Eventually, Centauri reveals that the car they’re in is actually a space ship, and takes him on a ride across the galaxy to a planet called Rylos. There Alex is put on a conveyor belt where he is given a uniform and various tests, until he sees Centauri again, getting paid for bringing in a new recruit.
This also gives us our first closeup view of the computer graphics. As far as I know, this film was the first that attempted to composite computer graphics on filmed backgrounds. They were working with pretty primitive technology. This film is only 2 years after TRON, after all. The model work is pretty good, but of course, the textures are essentially non-existent. But the film does a great job of downplaying the aspects of the models that aren’t going to look good, and the animation of the ships are pretty good for the era. Overall, the computer graphics work. I’m watching this on the 25th anniversary Blu-ray that came out a few years ago, and it definitely had a remaster, but I’m not sure if they re-did any of the graphics, but I can’t imagine that the models they used to create these graphics still exist, and if they do, it’s hard to believe that any modern computer would be able to make use of them.
It’s a really effective scene at putting us in Alex’s shoes. He doesn’t know what’s going on, and we don’t really understand either. Finally, he encounters the hangar, and finds one of the Gunstars, the ship he used in the game.
But things really start to become real for Alex when he sits in on a briefing, and learns how serious the war the Rylos people are facing from the Kodan Armada, the same story that Alex experienced in the game. Recently Zur, the son of the leader on Rylos defected to the Kodan, and expects to use them to take over Rylos. During this scene he appears as a hologram, threatens everyone, then broadcasts the execution of a spy. He does so via a laser that melts the head of the spy. Understandably, Alex demands to be taken home after this event.
Zur is an interesting character. He’s childish, power mad, but really only interested in the accoutrements of power, rather than actually being a leader. He has his scepter delivered to him, which is covered in spikes. He immediately uses it to threaten people. Later in the film, when the Kodan give the order to fire their meteor gun, Zur makes a big show of demanding that he give the order. The Kodan might be evil, but to their credit they also find Zur insufferable and are excited to jettison him as soon as they get what they want.
Alex does a classic ‘refusal of the call’ here, and in fact it takes up a large chunk of the movie. When Alex returns, he realizes that Centauri has provided him with an android double, who has been living his life while he has been away. With predictably hilarious results. Alex’s double, the beta unit, has it’s own subplot in the film, and it’s pretty enjoyable. While Alex tries to sort this out, he is attacked by an alien assassin. He calls back Centauri to take back the beta unit, but realizes the assassins will never stop. He reluctantly returns.
But in the maeantime, the Kodan have attacked, and with the help of Zur’s information, and have destroyed the basse where the Gunstars are housed, destroying them and killing the pilots. On his return, he finds that there is only one Gunstar left, a prototype that Grig, his co-pilot was working on. Instead of fighting an army with a battalion of talented pilots in advanced space ships, it’s just Alex and Grig in a ship that isn’t even finished. As a subplot here, Centauri was injured in the altercation with the assassin, and dies as he returns to Rylos, giving Alex the motivation to continue on.
Grig is my favorite character in the entire film. In this situation, Alex is still incredibly reluctant to participate in the battle, but eventually gets in the ship and learns the controls. He continually refuses the call, even after his first altercation. Grig casually shows Alex pictures of his family and explains that he’s fighting in order to protect them. Alex shows pictures of his own family back home. Then Grig drops in that if they’re not stopped here, the Kodan will eventually reach Earth. The way the character just slowly convinces Alex to live up to his potential is really compelling.
Alex is actually kind of frustrating. Even when he has success, he rejects his ability to succeed. I almost wonder if this kind of character would work better in a TV format, where we could really explore this kind of pathos. Here, Alex just sort of gets talked into it by Grig. But having an actor like Dan O’Herlihy in the role makes it really work. With a less talented actor to pull the greatness out of Alex, it would seem trite.
In the end, we get our big action setpiece, Alex comes up with the plan to save the day, and uses the new superweapon to destroy the entire Kodan armada, finally taking out the control ship, destroying the attackers. He is offered a role rebuilding the Star League, and when he comes back to Earth, he takes Maggie with him, leaving his old life behind.
The Double Feature
These films were early examples of effects driven film, where the effects were a major part of the film. Both of them attempted to do something that had essentially never been done before, and this barrier pushing is important in film. So the big question is, do the effects hold up?
I would say that TRON tries too hard to make the computer world it’s central theme, and has a really hard time wrapping a cohesive story around that. The Last Starfighter on the other hand takes a really simple story about the greatness inside of people and then adds a sci-fi side to it, which lends itself to the special effects. This is the real difference between the two films. TRON is a special effects film, while The Last Starfighter is a film that makes use of special effects. TRON isn’t a terrible film, and I would say it’s even an important film, but it doesn’t hold up terribly well. The sequel to it that came out a few years ago was actually a really well-done, entertaining movie. The problem with it is that everything in the film is there to serve the special effects. At some point, the special effects became the driving force of the film, which rarely leads to good things.
But The Last Starfighter holds up precisely because you could tell a similar story without space, perhaps using sports or some other job for Alex to do, and it would still work.
I decided last week that I had done enough data analysis, and it was time to start writing my dissertation in earnest. I don’t know exactly how long it needs to be, but I’m aiming for 100,000 words. With everything I’ve written in the past that is getting included in the dissertation, I have about 12,000 words written already. I suspect I need to put down about 1500 to 2000 words down each weekday to finish in February which is when I want to start getting people to edit it for me. I’m hopeful I can finish in time to graduate in May. Lots of work to do between now and then. For next week’s films, I’m going to hold off on selecting them right now. I want to dig into some holiday themed films, but I need to do a bit more research and reflection before I decide which ones to watch. But it should be fun.
See you then.