Surface Detail

Tron Legacy

Typical of a Disney entertainment product, Tron Legacy is scrupulous in having almost nothing to say about anything. Instead it functions in a mode devoid of subtext, freely exploring the emergent age of computer-aided transmogrification. The film harbingers the future and is evidence that the future it portrays is largely here already, yet it makes no comment on the ramifications of its hyperreality [1] in much the same way that a wave on the surface has nothing to tell us about the ocean as a whole other than to confirm its is-ness.

In all the cinematic worlds of science fiction, the human face is consistently the most natural presence on the screen. Tron Legacy upends this convention by presenting to us the uncanny, distancing spectacle of Clu, a character played by a synthespian wearing a digital facsimile of Jeff Bridges’ face circa 1989. Clu is a tour de force of digital special effects: a computer-generated doppelgänger modelled after the actor’s contemporary screen appearances, composited onto a live action body double and lip-synced with newly recorded dialogue from Bridges. The result is admirable, if admired from afar; up close we detect the error, some essential failure to penetrate the surface and reproduce the full complexity of the human face.

As it is with Clu so it is on the Grid. Everything that can be conjured in this domain is a subsample of reality, a regurgitation of recorded surface detail in lieu of deep emulation. In compensation for its inability to generate truly original visual stimulus, the Grid opts for visual overload. Surfaces gleam and prickle with texture, every object is dipped in atmosphere. The virtual camera lens is heavy with chromatic aberration and diffraction of the non-existent light sources. Yet the result is to create an environment in which everything drips with a kind of textural déjà vu, betrayed by the vestiges of its limited source data.

Clu’s appearance is most easily accepted when we see him as a distorted reflection in the chromed surface of an imitation apple, the additional layers of artifice mediating our view of his disconcerting jelly-boned face. His uncanniness becomes increasingly easy to disregard as we settle in to the unreal environment of the Grid and his oneness with the surrounding fakery imbues him with a vigour that bizarrely makes Flynn seem the more incongruous on-screen presence. The most noteworthy conflict of the film exists not in the perfunctory narrative but in the visual competition between the faces of Clu/Bridges and Flynn/Bridges.

When the closing action returns us to the real world it seems lacking, diminished by the sensory overload of the Grid. We are returned to a drab reality in which things are what they are, immutably so. We never mistook the Grid for a real place despite the technical prowess of its realisation, but it wowed us all the same. The sentiment applies equally to Clu: obviously fake, impressively hyperreal.