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Video: 'Tron Legacy' visual effects teaser

By
TODAY contributor
updated 12/13/2010 3:29:32 PM ET 2010-12-13T20:29:32

Have you been seeing trailers and ads for “Tron: Legacy” but still have no idea what it’s about? Did you even know that there was another movie named “Tron” released nearly 30 years ago? Does it matter if you don’t? And why are all these middle-aged nerds so excited about it? The answers to your questions are all right here.

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What is 'Tron'?
“Tron” is a 1982 science-fiction film from Walt Disney Studios that was supposed to be their huge summer movie that year. But it wasn’t.

It starred Jeff Bridges as a software engineer who became digitized and trapped as a “program” inside the Master Control Program of his company’s operating system. There, he was forced to play games against other “programs” to the death. In the world of the computer, he was also known as one of the outside world’s godlike “users,” entities the Master Control Program tried to pretend didn't exist. For a variety of reasons the movie throws at the audience, using tech-speak both real and imagined, and against a disorienting, ultra-stylized visual field, Bridges had to stop the program and prevent it from taking over.

It’s also sort of a dystopian, futuristic, existentialist drama with religious themes. Confused yet? So were audiences at the time, because it was a big, giant, box-office bust, all but lost in the excitement over “E.T.”

Video: 'Tron Legacy': Dec. 17

Was it the first computer movie?
Kind of. It was one of the first movies to use an extended amount of computer-generated footage. Most of the film’s unique look comes from the computer sequences being shot in black and white, then hand painted and inked on animation cels to make everything look like it’s back-lit and glowing. In that way it’s much more like an old-school Disney animated feature than the kind of digital filmmaking we know today.

Story: 'Tron: Legacy' makes you feel trapped in the Grid

But the lightcycles? The glowing bikes everyone remembers first when the word “Tron” comes up? Those were all computer generated. And guess what "Tron" was NOT nominated for at that year’s Academy Awards? Special effects.

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Why are they making a sequel to a film that nobody went to see?
Call it a reboot or a rebrand or a relaunch. Call it anything but a sequel, really. How foolish would it be to base a big holiday film on a three-decades-old movie that underperformed at the box office? The quality that makes this title ripe for reinvention is how it foreshadowed the technological explosions to come. It was a movie about computers dominating the world before they actually did dominate the world. Look at the original today and it feels weirdly current.

Video: 'Tron: Legacy': Traveling off-grid scene

Is Jeff Bridges in the new one?
Yes, he returns to play his original character, now disappeared, but with a son who resents being abandoned. But was he? Either way, from the promo efforts, you’d be forgiven for thinking Bridges isn't in the film at all. They’re smartly using those lightcycles, glow-in-the-dark suits and Daft Punk associations to market this thing.

Story: 'Tron: Legacy' reverse-ages Jeff Bridges

Do I have to see the original movie first to understand the new one?
When you have a beloved cult film, that means you have cultists. And cultists care a lot. They also like to complain when you mess with their fond memories. If Disney has done its job right, those true believers will be petted and massaged all along the way, and the rest of the audience will be given plenty of economical backstory to fill in the blanks. So no, don’t worry about doing your homework.

Video: 'Tron' great visuals, creepy young Jeff Bridges

Why do all these Generation X people with computer jobs care so much about it?
While writing this piece, I consulted with a die-hard “Tron” fan who saw the movie three times in a row on opening day when he was 12. People like that imprinted on this movie hard. And a lot of them went into creative fields themselves. It’s kind of like how no one outside of a small circle paid attention to The Velvet Underground when they were playing in Andy Warhol’s studio. Then everyone who heard that band went and started their own. That’s how culture works sometimes, snaking its way through the world person by person, creating influence instead of giant waves.

So this is nerd 'Twilight'?
Yes.

What is 'Tron' again?
A character played by Bruce Boxleitner. The movie’s not really about him. Still confused?

Dave White is a film critic for Movies.com

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