Archive for December, 2010


run logan run (logan rennt)

I wrote the following eight years ago this month. I just found it on a backup CD.

Logan’s Run is one of those movies of which I had only the vaguest childhood recollection.  I don’t remember when I first saw it, or even if I saw it in a theater, though this seems likely.  I had fragmentary memories of scenes, but suspected that many of these are from photos from the film, or bits encountered whilst channel-flipping years after the fact.  Of my first viewing of the film I only clearly remembered a robot called Box, and this so dimly that I wasn’t even certain that Box was part of Logan at all.

Clearly the film didn’t make much of an impression on me.  But then again, I can’t recall many details of most films I saw in my preteen years.  Unlike today’s youth who may watch the same movie three times a day on VHS and DVD, Logan’s Run was a singular viewing experience for me, overshadowed soon after by the likes of Star Wars and its cinematic ilk.

So, it was with some trepidation that I rented and watched Logan’s Run on DVD.  Two things struck me about the movie.  One, that the premise held all kinds of promise for commenting on society, youth, aging, responsibility, and about cultures that would dictate your life and when it ends.  Two, that the film as a whole almost totally fails to explore virtually any issue it raises.

It’s easy to make fun of Logan’s Run, what with its 70’s pedigree feathered and blow-dried on practically every frame.  From the polyester jumpsuits to the sideburns and even Farrah Fawcett with the hairdo that she’d make famous in Charlie’s Angels. Tomorrow is yesterday but picking on the film for its fashions and special effects (Oscar-winning in 1976, rendered ridiculous by Star Wars and Close Encounters the following year) is too easy.  Sure, many a classic suffers similar faults but succeeds based on the merits of its story or the film as a whole.

Sadly for Logan, it’s no classic.

In the post-“Catastrophe” 23rd century what we see of humanity resides in a City of Domes; a self-contained world where the populace have no responsibilities or cares.  Pleasure is the order of business.  But, like all science fiction utopias, there’s a catch.  Each citizen’s 30th birthday is their “Lastday”.  On that auspicious date each is expected to dutifully go to “Carousel” where their lives will end in a blaze of fire.  But the citizens go willingly either because they just accept their lot or perhaps because of the promise that some of them will experience “renewal” and be born again (and we’re not talking being “saved” here).

Every citizen’s Lastday is easily apparent, as they carry their age literally in the palm of their hand, in the form of a  small crystal that changes color with time and flashes red when 30 rolls around.

“Rosy Palm” takes on a whole new meaning…

Naturally, there are dissidents who would question the system or try to live longer.  Of course, this is not tolerated, and a police force of sorts – the Sandmen — exists to terminate all who would renounce or escape Lastday: the Runners.

Titular Logan 5 is a Sandman, and he enjoys his job.  He gets a sadistic kick out of chasing down terrified Runners.  Just Logan’s luck, he’s assigned by a computer to discover and destroy “Sanctuary”, the place to which Runners try to escape.  In order to make this ruse work, his lifeclock is altered to make him appear to be 30.  This may fool the Runners he is to use to find Sanctuary, but imperils Logan because his fellow Sandmen will take him as a Runner for real.

Logan enlists the aid of a woman he suspects to be tied to the Runners — Jessica 6 — but she’s rightfully suspicious.  After both the Runners’ underground and the Sandmen try to kill Logan, Jessica becomes convinced of his sincerity.  And Logan, who suspects he will not be given back the 4 years taken from him, begins to question the system as well.  Furthermore, he and Jessica (somewhat inexplicably) start to fall in love.

In their subsequent adventures they escape from the City to the wilderness Outside, where they learn that much of what they’ve been taught is lies, and that life needn’t end at 30 (a message for the aging teens youth of the 60s, to be sure).

Unfortunately, the film is a letdown because of its inability or unwillingness to explore the issues it raises.  Life in the City of the Domes is short but full of pleasure, but there’s no exploration of that.  What kind of people would result from a world that asks them to do nothing more than to have fun?  We see only that they are bland and childlike, having sex, doing drugs, and getting cosmetic surgery, but clearly this can’t be all.

There are tantalizing glimpses of people who operate on the fringes of this society, like the youthful “cubs” who inhabit and are locked away in a distant sector of the city.  It raises questions about how this society functions, and what supplies it, but no answers are forthcoming.  How do the cubs get food?  Why are they even tolerated?  The Sandmen seem unconcerned with these feral youth, and Logan only ventures into their domain in search of a Runner.  This implies that the Sandmen are merely enforcers of Lastday, and have no other concerns.  Are the citizens free to do whatever they want so long as they show up for Carousel on Lastday?  Are violence or even murder permissible?

The questions extend beyond the City of Domes.  Just before reaching Outside, Logan and Jessica find a series of frozen caverns, within which they encounter a creature that claims to be more than man and machine but is clearly something of both.  Its name is Box, and its stated purpose is to collect and store nutrients from the sea.  But, the sea’s bounty has long since vanished, and Box has taken to freezing the only things that come into its lair: Runners.  Logan battles Box and he and Jessica escape as Box’s world comes crashing down upon it.  But was Box a function of the City of Domes?  Was it part of the food supply?  There is an implication that the Runners are being preserved for food, with interesting implications about what that could mean, but, again, the connection with the City is tenuous, and we’re left to wonder what it all meant.

Redefining the meaning of BOXed lunch

Facing the real world Outside, Logan and Jessica struggle through the untamed wilderness.  Jessica clings to the belief that they’ll find Sanctuary, but Logan suspects there is no such place.  Two turning points change their fates and change them.  First, they discovered their lifeclocks have turned clear, symbolically freeing them from the tyranny of Lastday.  Secondly, they discover the ruins of Washington D.C., and within it discover proof of life beyond Lastday, finding the wizened visage within the Lincoln Memorial, and, more importantly, discovering a living, breathing Old Man.

Peter Ustinov’s turn as the Old Man is the biggest delight of the film.  Living in the crumbling ruins of the U.S. Capitol building with a clowder of house cats big enough to qualify as a herd, the Old Man is funny, touching and tragic.  He is by turns loony, wise, and comic, and manages to be some of these at the same time.  It’s a neat trick to be simultaneously tragic and funny, but Ustinov does it with such a deft hand that it seems effortless.

It’s the Old Man that confirms Logan’s growing suspicions of the lie that is Lastday, and this knowledge of the lie gives this one-time killer a conscience.  He now knows he can grow old, live a long life, and raise a family, but he can’t live with himself if he doesn’t try to save everyone else from Lastday.   It’s a satisfying turn for the character.

No smart remarks about the best thing in the film.

Unfortunately, from this high point the film descends into the obvious.  The climax is a letdown, because it doesn’t pay off the buildup we’ve gotten.  Logan and Jessica. return to the City of Domes, bringing the Old Man along as proof of their discoveries.  They leave him outside as they brave water systems to get in, but they don’t get far.  Calling attention to themselves by yelling at crowds bound for Carousel, they are apprehended by the Sandmen.  Logan is interrogated by the computer that assigned him to find Sanctuary.  But when the computer can’t understand Logan’s answers, it conveniently explodes.  A firefight starts in the computer room, which result not just in the room being destroyed, but the entire Sandman building, and then, it seems, much of the city itself.  Suddenly aware of the world outside, the inhabitants happen upon the Old Man, and are all smiling and happy to see him.  There is no shock of the unknown, no repulsion at what old age means, and seemingly, no real surprise at the apparent betrayal of everything they’ve believed…or at least of having their world crashing down around their ears.

It’s a unsatisfying conclusion.  It’s too pat.  Too easy.   When Logan and Jessica yell to the populace to renounce Lastday, no one listens.  They laugh and continue on to the bread and circuses.  But would everyone be so?  Would not those who were considering running want to hear more?  It would have been more dramatic to see at least one person moved by Logan’s cries.  Whose lives and ideologies would be threatened by the truth?  And who would embrace his claims?  Who would rally to Logan’s side?  The filmmakers missed an opportunity to visually represent the various factions that could result, how (lifeclock) color would turn on color.  As the costumers put the characters in wardrobes that reflected their lifeclock color, it would have been easy to dynamically illustrate these differences.  Youth, the yellows and greens, would stand for the status quo, unable to look to the future, as youth often is, and thinking only of the pleasures to come and that Logan threatens it.  The Reds, whose time is almost up, might tend towards Logan’s side, for they face with their own mortality, and the fear that invariably comes with that.

In the end I’m left to wonder what the film is about.  It’s not about a culture obsessed with youth, because it fails to explore that in any but the most superficial way.  And, for all its tawdry exhibition of a society that seems to exist for fun, sex, and drugs, it ends up in Leave it to Beaver land. Ultimately it’s just another middle of the road expression of feel-good values that people should love and settle down as mother and father, raise their children and grow old.  Nothing necessarily objectionable there, but a pretty bland destination given the journey taken to reach it.  Too bad it didn’t take the road less traveled.


the legacy of tron

Is this the computer world or Darth Vader's Apple Store?

TRON: LEGACY is title of the sequel to 1982’s Tron, and in a way the title is apt, because the new film has so much in common with the original, being a flashy and visually striking film with a number of exciting action sequences that ultimately ends up being about nothing much at all.

Where Legacy succeeds is visually. The world inside the computer is stark, simple, and often stunning: if a tad too black. The 3D is used well, switching on only when we enter the digital realm, and generally avoiding the 3D film cliches: the dimensionality is played behind the screen, rarely poking out in front of it. The action scenes are generally well-done and exhilarating.

If the film were a story told in pictures this would be fine. If it were showing us stuff we’ve never seen before or so graphically interesting that story didn’t matter it would also succeed.  Heck if, it was really fun it’d be great. But it’s none of those things, and as such must rely on primarily on story and character.

But the problem with the story is that there isn’t much of one. Sam Flynn is sucked into the computer world and forced to play games by a sapient program named Clu, who was created by and is the spitting image and creation of Sam’s long-lost father, Kevin Flynn. A program named Quorra spirits Sam from the “Game Grid” and takes him to meet his real dad, who’s been trapped in the computer for decades. There’s a limited amount of time in which to escape, and the race is on to get to the “portal” that will let Sam and his father out. Of course, the baddie Clu wants information dear old dad has that will let him invade the real world. Sam must escape, dad must stop Clu, and Quorra is the love interest….so you know what her function is. That’s pretty much it.  Oh, there’s some mumbo jumbo about life forms generated spontaneously in the computer and about changing the world and about the corporation that Sam Flynn is ignoring even though he owns a majority holding, but as none of those amount to a hill of bits they’re not worth discussing.

The second problem is with the characters. Sam Flynn is just another generic bad-boy good guy. He’s daring, smart, sexy, the hero, with nothing much of interest to say and about as much charisma as a computer program.  His dad, Kevin (Jeff Bridges) seems like a high-tech version of “The Dude” (from The Big Lebowski), and speaks most in platitudes. Quorra a is just a wide-eyed neophyte who’s a badass fighter, albeit she has a few mildly endearing moments.  Clu is just evil with a capital EEEEEV.

Hoodies...of the digital world!

The poor story and underdeveloped characters result in the entire film being little more than a flashy 3D chase movie with about as much dimension as a computer screen (despite its being filmed in 3D).

Neophyte feature director Joseph Kosinski’s insistence on real sets and self-lit costumes seems queerly at odds with the film’s subject matter. If ever a film should revel in its artificiality, a Tron film should be it. Instead, by insisting on real/functional costumes and real sets where possible, the film’s design and look becomes shackled to practical concerns. The costumes look like clothing, complete with wrinkles. Skin looks like skin. Makeup looks like makeup. As such, the world ends up looking like a bunch of fancy nightclubs and Apple Stores populated by clubbers in form fitting vinyl with glowy appliques.  Even when there are visual effects generated backgrounds and settings the film frequently fails to stylize the environment. Mist and cloud look like just that. It does not compute.

Does this look like the digital realm to you?

As technically awkward as the original Tron looks in hindsight, its world generally looks more alien and unworldly than most of Legacy. The film escapes these limitations occasionally, as the Game Grid with its disk games set in floating glass boxes and lightcycle battles on a multi-leveled glass arena with curving ramps are wonderfully unreal. There’s some real excitement to these sequences, but they’re neither so dazzling nor numerous enough to carry the film.

Surprisingly, given the ubiquity of digital technology today, the film is incredibly naive or flat out ignorant about computers. For instance, Kevin Flynn says that Clu can only repurpose (brainwash) programs but not create them, which is completely at odds with the electronic world we all know where viruses make copies of themselves into new systems and where every copy is a perfect reproduction with no loss in quality.

And that’s what’s particularly sad about Legacy: not only is the story trite, but it’s really got nothing to do with computers and the digital realm that’s part and parcel of our modern age. We live in a world where our lives are increasingly spent interacting with computers and where even our friends and friendships are conducted in a large part digitally. Our relationship status, interests, medical information, and legal misbehavior are all in that computer world, and there’s plenty of opportunity to make a story about the conflict between the “real world” you and the digital ones. But Legacy doesn’t talk about any of that. South Park’s episode “You Have 0 Friends” (click to view) has a hundred times more to say about our relationship to computers than Tron: Legacy. It’s too bad the filmmakers chose the easy path of flash minus substance when they could just as easily have opted to have all that sound and fury signify something.

So, In the end, Tron: Legacy is just a roller-coaster ride through a cool looking world absent anything really to say about computers and how they effect the human condition. In that way, it’s just like the Tron, which is why “legacy” is the perfect summation of Trons past and present.