In the words of Kevin Flynn, co-star of Tron: Legacy, “perfection” is achievable– but so rare that it’s almost unnatural. But at the same time, he adds, looking to his son, “it’s right in front of us.”

Whatever was in front of us in Theater 17, it sure wasn’t perfection.

TRON: Legacy was a project six years in the making.  When the preview was screened at Comic-Con, the viewing room screamed with approval.  Now, 28 years after the Tron saga began, its sleek, neon sequel is here.  With that much time to prepare, and $170 million poured into it, how could it have gone wrong?  What was it missing?

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Distinction

If you close your eyes during Tron, it’ll start to sound all too familiar.  Our hero is the quintessential loner hacker wise-cracker motorcycling rebel without a cause, Sam Flynn.  Like an urban James Dean with pointier hair.  He’s the heir to his father’s video game enterprise, but with no executive power in it, he still runs from the cops and jumps off a building to sabotage it.  His deep-seated father issues?  Caused by a dad that mysteriously disappeared 20 years ago while working on a revolutionary new game.

Enter the workaholic Dad Kevin Flynn, idealist programmer and producer of awkward 80’s slang (“radical, dude”).  He’s hiding out in a rather-modern studio apartment with a zen cushion and a view of The Grid, the digital metropolis he helped create.  Kevin’s Messiah complex makes Aslan’s look like a minor prophet– after all, he did create this world, before its people turned against him.  His disciple, a curious little cyber-warrior-princess and Sam’s inevitable love interest, adds to that.  She’s the last of her kind, a kind of sentient humanoid program that was almost killed off in “the Purge” by the villain.

Kevin’s Fallen World was corrupted by his evil twin– almost literally, a program based on himself.  In order to create the “perfect system,” the twin named Clu rebelled against Kevin and led the programs’ revolution to become its dictator.  He now kills them at will, because that’s what movie dictators do.  His master plan: create a legion of faceless ninja-stormtroopers, escape into reality and take over the world.

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Cohesion

When creating an entire universe, however, it’s important that it make sense.  Tron was a bundle of ideas, but so many of them turn into loose ends that are never explained or resolved.  This section doesn’t cover half of them.

When Sam first gets zapped into the game, he gets caught by the authorities, where he’s taken to a room to be stripped and given the trademark scuba-suit by robot supermodels.  No one knows that he’s human, but he’s instantly sentenced to fight to the death as a gladiator.  What kind of judicial system is this?  Is this part of the “perfect system” everyone, including Kevin, says the Grid is?  Another detail: Sam hasn’t fought in the “disc wars” in his life, but still makes it to the final round?

Kevin lives out in the rocky digital wasteland outside the Grid, which no programs can enter.  He’s been there for years with his disciple reading classic literature to her.  Later in the movie, not only does Clu fly a ship over to his house, but his entire secret base is off-the-grid too.  What was he waiting for?

Most of the revolutionaries seemed to meet each other while clubbing.  Was there some sort of “resistance” movement of rebel programs?  Couldn’t some of them stay alive long enough to talk about it?  How does a program have a change of heart and buck the system?

Near the end, Tron himself– the people-loving fighter program from the original– makes a guest appearance.  He says one line, saves the day (for a number of minutes) and then falls into oblivion.  There had been two awkwardly-worked-in hints that he was there earlier, but just as many hints that it couldn’t possibly be him.  His Vader-esque change of heart, complete with changing from villainous-orange to heroic-blue, felt like a last-minute idea.  Why wasn’t this fleshed out more?

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Perfection

Clu was designed to create the perfect system.  That’s how he explains his mutiny against his human creator and then his knee-jerk killings.  With a city full of programs, Clu makes… he makes… a glow-in-the-dark Gotham City.

The first person Sam sees in the city is a homeless man in a light-up poncho, shivering in an alley.  He then meets a Lady Gaga cosplayer dressed like a Macintosh, who takes him to a penthouse rave.  The rave and much of the city are run by a bleach-dipped David Bowie on happy pills, whose lines sound like they’re crafted by someone who’s heard of the British only in films.  Were these the idyllic people of Clu’s great metropolis, or of a Warhol-fan hooked on Starcraft?

How does a perfect system end up with gladiator games?  Why would a Utopia full of programs turn out to watch strangers off the street fight to the death, playing full-body versions of Pong and Snake?

There’s something else missing, something which would seem like a given in a digital world: nerds.  Tron geeks hoping to see Tron geeks in the film would want to see it, but it’d also seem like a necessity that they exist.  Why were their none?  In a world full of dictators, gladiators, clubbers and race car drivers, not one of them is a nerd.

For all the monologues that wax on perfection, The Grid doesn’t have it.  The programs themselves don’t have it.  And despite Kevin’s endearing words to his son, Tron: Legacy‘s humans don’t have it either.

The movie does have one perk.  Two hours of watching black-orange-and-blue makes driving home at night look radical.

Editor’s Note: as of press time, Tron: Legacy has made $43.6 million in its opening weekend.

“Fired up!”  “Ready to go!”   “Fired up!”  “Ready to go!”

12:30 and fifteen blocks from the University of Texas.  President Obama had likely landed in Austin just a half-hour ago.  Already a woman on her bicycle was starting up the election-year chant with a man on the street.  A block away, political dissidents dressed in doctor’s scrubs took pictures in front of a homemade sign reading “Go Home.”

With one of the most polarizing bipartisan political figures in years coming to Austin, one might expect more of a turnout from political activists.  Instead there seemed to be loners every several blocks.  Maybe the event hadn’t been well-publicized.  There wasn’t so much as an arrow on the roadside.  Gregory Gym, a single building in the vastness of the University of Texas, was hidden like a tree in a forest.

Dozens of police and volunteers eventually arrived and made the path clear.  Around several corners, the line appeared.  Some 2,000 people stretched around the courtyard and back again.  Only a dozen had brought signs.

The infamous mustache, scribbled on yet another iconic face.

The first to appear was a man in his 20’s with a tank top, crew cut and curly goatee.  “Keep Austin Mason-Free,” read his message to the world, with the Freemasons’ mathematical-looking symbol in the middle.  He told the sheepish guy behind me that every big political figure in America was part of the secret society– from Barack Obama to Ron Paul.

“Don’t vote, man,” he cautioned.  “In the end you’re just enslaving yourself.”

The next activists were Arab-Americans: not pro-Obama, not anti-Obama, but political.

“Occupation is a Crime!  Free Iraq and Palestine!”  Two of them waved flags for those countries.  The people to either side of them were anti-war in general, with a sign that read “No War is a ‘Good War'”.  “Money for Jobs and Education!  Not for War and Occupation!”

The only demonstrator who seemed happy to see the President was as older man with a giant “O” in his hands.  Each demonstrator seemed to ignore the others.  The quiet hundreds of people shuffled along, strangers walking slowly in line.

Most of them were UT students who’d stood in another line to get these tickets.  Since Friday evening, the tickets had been handed out to students who got a note at the end of one line, which qualified them to get the ticket itself in the next.  Several hundred tickets had also been given to people in political organizations– nonprofits and watchdog groups could see the man they sent so many petitions to.

“You skipping Genetics too?” one student asked another as they saw them in line.  The girl in question was an Iranian exchange student, starting Graduate School and already deep into her fifth year at UT.  Her sister invited her to the event, but had made it inside some time ago.

One hour later, the back of the line snaked past the booth handing out water in Coca-Cola cups.  The half-dozen news vans parked in front set up lights and cameras where their news anchors would stand.  As the last of the line fit onto the front steps, the bell tolled 2.  As the last people stepped through the Airport-esque metal detectors, the screams of women young-at-heart rang out.  Someone had arrived.

Like most of his less-than-nationwide speeches, this one was personalized.  He talked about education, about what he’d done, how that affected the students in the audience, and what “we” ought to aspire towards.

For everyone not standing in the front, he looked about as distinct as a fingernail at arm’s length.  All the features were there– hints of gray hair, ridge of his eyebrows and familiar hand gestures– but listeners in the bleachers could’ve gotten a clearer image from a smartphone.

He spoke the same way as he always had, albeit a little more tamed and less ambitious.  He poked fun at himself.  He had a fact for every minute of his speech.  He responded to just a few of his opponent’s accusations, and supported people and heads of Universities by name.

His standing ovation came earlier than he would’ve liked.  When a cluster of twenty clapping students rose to their feet, so did everyone else.  After several sentences of trying to speak above the crowd, he gave up and began waving.  Then he dipped into the crowd in front for handshakes.

The crowd flowed out afterwards, clusters of students staying behind to call or keep talking to each other.  The sense of political action was soon gone from the room.

Outside, the scene was a slightly more crowded and faster-moving version of the hour before.  Video cameras, for news and independent movie-makers alike, were out and interviewing.  Signs and soapboxes were out once more, not having missed a note.  None of them had tickets to get in the door.

The man with the megaphone was out trying to overthrow the New World Order with a dozen photocopies of Obama in Joker facepaint.  The back of his billboard said “9/11 was an inside job.”  Paired with the Obamas were Joker-painted pictures of Hitler and Bush, saying “Obama is a black Bush.”  A crowd of some thirty passersby closed in closely around him, and a police officer stood expressionlessly by his side.

Then came the last and most organized protesters yet: the ones with the Obama Hitler mustache.  If the Tea Party believes the Right isn’t Right enough, this trio’s conviction was that Obama wasn’t Left enough.  The Health care bill should’ve been a single-payer system and replace all HMOs for being “greedy middle-men.”  Rather than toting patriotism, they said all governments ought to cooperate to redesign the biosphere and colonize other planets.  They gave Obama the dreaded mustache for not “tearing down the monetary system”: something their Congressional candidate Kesha Rogers plans to do.

In the afternoon of blazing picket signs trying to redesign the world, two mellow girls with “Obama, Take Back the Gulf” signs seemed almost out-of-place.

It isn’t Twilight.  Nor Trueblood.  Nor Buffy the Vampire Slayer nor, good grief, LeStat.  It’s kind of it’s own thing.

The movie “Daybreakers” is equal parts “Equilibrium,” “Children of Men,” “Repo” and something completely different with vampires.  It’s well-written enough that it might become an instant classic.

In the future, almost everyone is a vampire.  The cities look like a noir film of Metropolis as pale, sullen vamp-people go about their nightly lives.  They mix blood into their coffee and store it in wine bottles, like very classy bloodsuckers.  All the humans they capture are kept in something like the Matrix and farmed for their blood. The catch?  There isn’t enough blood because there aren’t enough humans.  The vampires that don’t drink enough blood are turning feral, becoming ugly Gollum/bat hybrids that would make Nosferatu look well-to-do.  Softie scientist Edward (ironic snicker) Dalton is trying to engineer a blood substitute, but he still has to work out a few kinks.  His last test subject exploded.

But– wait for it– there is a resistance movement of humans.  They carry crossbows and are a bit jumpy, but don’t want to kill all the living dead just yet.  Instead they think they know how to turn them human again.

Throughout all the commercials, I was convinced it would be a pretty hack-and-slashy action-junkie film.  That’s how they marketed it.  But it was still extremely well-done.  Vampires have long been seen as symbols, sometimes of elitism and sometimes of primal urges.  This did justice to the former, more Dracula than Blade Trillogy.  Life hidden from the sun looks almost feasible, with very-tinted car windows, underground hallways and almost no wood anywhere– too much of a danger to use as a stake.

The action scenes are still worth remembering.  It had more red maple syrup than the average dystopia flick, and yes, more shattering glass and vamps that spontaneously combusted when shot.  It had an evil CEO, occasional car chases, and the obligatory car-plowing-into-glass-building.  But not every stereotype was seized: no frantic main-character sex scene wormed its way in.  And there was no Catholic-esque conspiracy group or grim atempts of bloody religious symbolism.  Not even an attempt at a tagline working in the movie title.  While the word “realistic” is hard to apply to vampire/action movies, “Daybreakers” nearly was.

And though much of the footage itself was black-and-white, the storyline wasn’t.  It reminded us all that the undead were people too.

It had been ten years since Disney last attempted a cartoon musical when it released “Princess and the Frog.” Instead of being welcomed by all right into the Disney family, one particular thing stuck out to some in the audience. It wasn’t the first acknowledgment of African-Americans by Disney in decades. It wasn’t it being the first Princess film in the United States. It all boiled down to one word, a word that was used again and again and put an unusual spin on “Disney magic”:

How many kids will watch this and start sticking pins in their dolls?

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“Voodoo.” The trademark villain– and the sort-of fairy godmother– both use voodoo.

A number of concerned mothers and censoring groups have bristled about them using magic and calling it that. Since 1937’s Snow White, Disney has scarcely produced a musical without some hocus and some pocus.  But this did get a little bit obvious what kind of magic it was referencing.

Take the villain, for instance.  The lanky, swanky Dr. Facilier is a voodoo practitioner whose powers are all lent to him by his “friends on the other side.”  He lures the prince and sidekick into his emporium, shows them their life stories in tarot cards and gets them to shake his hand.  That’s when the imagery really comes out: button-eyed voodoo dolls, baritone-voiced tiki heads and psychedelic smoke-and-mirrors that only Ursula from The Little Mermaid could top.

Many a wary parent sees this as too edgy for their own children.  About.com’s Movie Review for Parents rated the film High for Scary Scenes, but it merited an Extreme under ‘Disrespectful/Imitative Behavior.’  “Kids may decide to imitate the use of tarot cards, voodoo dolls, and other such items,” it suggests.

The forums and lists of comments from Disney-sponsored sites to ordinary blogs have more mixed reviews.  A woman who took her 3 year old niece to see the show wrote enthusiastically: “I thought that shadowman [Dr. Facilier] stole the show. The actor is Keith David, AMAZING!!!”  Just three comments below, another said that her church group  had a very different experience: “My 4 year old niece told me that she was scared that the shadow man would take her blood.”

Dr. Facilier totes an army of pointy-eyed shadows, a mask-shaped necklace that bites the Prince’s finger (pricking it for a drop of blood) to make him a frog, and an endless supply of little skull paraphernalia.  Mama Odie is another story.  She plays the “179-year-old blind lady” living in a shack in the bayou, with her seeing-eye snake and a host of singing birds.  What voodoo does she have in her arsenal?  A magic club that blasts the shadows with light.  And, oddly enough, a bathtub full of gumbo that shows the future.  This, too, is Disney’s un-traditional voodoo.

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Disney religion has acknowledged every belief system it’s come across as true.  Mulan’s ancestors hang around the shrine as ghosts.  Pocahontas has visions and talks to Grandmother Willow about them.  Don’t even bring up how much legitimacy the Greek gods get in Hercules.  But perhaps Princess and the Frog using an American folk magic, albeit with sketchy historical accuracy, was what crossed the line.

Does the movie teach voodoo?  Only if 101 Dalmatians teaches children to skin puppies.  Children know a villain when they see one, especially a Disney villain: dark circles around the eyes, wicked grins, hissy fits and all.  The one thing kids might be is scared.

The Movie Before...

...And After.

When I studied in Chile, I had a professor who talked indefinitely about American movies.  They were popular beyond the farthest reaches of the continent – Spider-Man was on backpacks and McNuggets every other year.  In their shadow stood Chile’s lower-budgeted La Nana, an award-winner in the U.S, but not so much as a Pepsi bottle ever bore her face.  Was it just the money and the endorsements that separated their films from ours?  Was it the scale of things, or maybe the pace?

What is it we’ve done differently?

Well, it would be easy to pontificate.  But for clarity, let’s look at a clear example where size defines the movie: Clash of the Titans.

In 1981 just after The Empire Strikes Back reached theaters, the tale of greek mythology was a slow-paced, retro-animated little epic of a film.  Perseus, the boyishly-handsome mortal son of Zeus, grew up safely on a peaceful island, until the goddess Thetis had a spat with Zeus and casually tosses the boy a hundred miles away to the city.  Zeus gives him some godly weapons to take care of himself, and the rest of the film Perseus spends on a quest trying to save the princess Andromeda from various plot-connected claymation monsters.  I rented the thing the other night.  The stop-motion animation was good for its time (by Ray Harryhausen himself), twenty-nine years ago, and looked less choppy the longer I watched it.

This April 2 of 2010, Legendary Pictures (known for producing Dark Knight and 300) has plans to remake it.  What are they doing differently, to cater to this modern audience?

1. Star Actors.  Right off the bat, Perseus will be played by Sam Worthington, primal warrior of Gladiator and Avatar.  He never stops grimacing.  Zeus, in a move sure to churn the stomachs of church youth groups everywhere, is played by Liam Neeson: voice of Aslan. And Hades, not being type-casted in any way whatsoever, will be done by Ralph Fiennes– Voldemort.

2. Plot Simplification: remember the complex triangle of Gods-playing-chess-with-Earth and family ties from the original?  Gone.  Now Zeus’ boy is off on a dangerous mission to defeat Hades before he can seize power from Zeus and unleash hell on earth.  Yep… Hades.  The Greeks didn’t have much of a problem with Hades, mythologically; he ran the underworld, which was half eternal-torments, half fields of frolicking bliss.  Heaven and Hell, we might now call them.  The trailers suggest more of the former, plus the fire, inky shadows and horned bat-winged red people we’re now accustomed to.

3. That Rebellious Streak that Seems to Be So Popular These Days.  Perseus may be half-god, but the trailer is riddled with viva-la-revolucion slogans.  The Titans trailer shown before Avatar read “Damn The Gods.”  “One day, somebody’s going to have to make a stand…” intones the old poet, Perseus’ Obi-Wan-ish guide and humble wisecracker who now looks as dreadfully unhappy as a Dumbledore replacement actor.  “One day, somebody’s going to have to say “‘enough’.”  Two cents says a Tea Partier will compare some Congressman to the Gods.  Also Perseus’ flying horse changed colors – it was white and is now black. Go figure.

4. No More Bubo.  That’s right– the mechanical owl that jabbered like R2D2 gets little more than a cameo in this one.  Sorry, kids.

I also have a few speculations, which I’m willing to wager a dollar on apiece, of things that will make it to this version.

5. Candle-lit Adultery.  In 1981 Perseus sees Andromeda, falls in love with her beauty, but can’t wed her or so much as take the girl out for coffee before he saves her from impending doom.  In 2010, they will get steamy in a dimly-lit set, on the night before he goes out to stab ugly beasts.

(Something I’ve noticed has changed over the years: in the original, he grew up with his mother on an island and they were naked now and then.  Nowadays the only nudity is done with very specific lighting and to make the character sexy.  In 300, the graphic novel, there were no red thongs: everyone went nakers.)

6. Being 300.  It’s been four long years since we had Greeks in small clothing that jumped like Mario and let blood like Beowulf.  Or, Kratos from the also-Greek God Of War games- compare his monsters to these.  Energy drink contract in the works?  Fifty-fifty chance.  Now I wouldn’t call this movie cliche bas on that, but the look has been done before.

7. Evil Arabs and Other Veiled Political Messages.  The trailer shows giant stony scorpions, which are controlled by crablike men covered in shreds of cloth, wrapped in a bunch around their heads.  Iran was furious when it saw 300, which was about Greek Democrats slaughtering oppressive, king-worshipping Persians.  Iranians are Persian.  Besides overthrowing authority and killing enemies the moment they come into view, we’ll see what real-world parallels show up in th film.  See if it references a bailout.

8. Slow, Heavy Guitar Riffs as Perseus Walks Away from a Giant Falling Thing He Just Killed.  Quite simply, this has to be done.

This time tomorrow, my Chilean teacher will see who was right.