Archive for July 1982

Tron

July 9, 1982

Wikipedia informs me that Tron was created on a computer with “only 2MB of memory, with a disc that had no more than 330MB of storage.” That’s pretty hilarious. You couldn’t play a QuickTime trailer for Tron on that. I just bought two memory sticks of 1GB each for my Mac; imagine what Steven Lisberger and his cadre of early-’80s programmers could have done with that.

Watching this 1982 visual game-changer through 2010 eyes brings a few things to mind. The world it creates blew a lot of young minds back then, and I wonder if viewers in 2037 will break out Avatar and chortle at how quaint it is, how endearingly clunky the technology James Cameron had to use. Cameron, though, used fancy brushes to paint a world and society that wouldn’t have understood the brushstrokes. The tech that created Tron seems inseparable from the tech in Tron. How futuristic is the movie supposed to be? I’ve found no answer online; what we see in the real-world scenes appears to be 1982 amped up a little bit. There are still arcades, and the night exteriors are awash in neon, as though the vivid palette used by gaming programmers had seeped outside the consoles and stained reality.

It might be instructive to compare Tron to the big Disney sci-fi film that predated it by three years. The Black Hole was dramatically inert; its elaborate special effects seemed divorced from the dreary scenes of actors conversing endlessly next to control panels. But it had moments of real grandeur and awe. Tron‘s effects are more organically integrated thematically and narratively, but at heart it’s, well, dorky. It’s every programmer’s epic wish fulfillment, a user-created universe where a more heroic and skilled avatar of yourself can compete in gladiatorial combat and rage against the machine. (If The Black Hole was 2001 for kiddies, Tron was Altered States for kiddies.) The images are trippy-colorful, weightlessly zesty; there’s little grandeur. But dorkiness can be fun, and Tron has a geek’s enthusiastic streak. The movie’s two programmers, Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and Alan (Bruce Boxleitner), may respectively resemble Steve Jobs and Bill Gates at the dawning of the age of Apple/Microsoft, but the film’s tone and heart — excitable, drunk on the need for speed — evoke the grinning bear-guru Steve Wozniak.

All the glow-stick pizzazz is in service of a laughably mundane plot. Flynn is mad because his former colleague (David Warner) stole Flynn’s ideas for games, passed them off as his own, and rose up the corporate ranks while Flynn got stuck managing an arcade. So Flynn tries to hack into the company computer — sternly, fascistically guarded by Master Control Program — and is instead sucked into it, where he meets many programs represented by avatar likenesses of the users who created them. This leads to an ineffable image of elderly programmer Barnard Hughes reflected in-computer as something resembling John Tenniel’s Caterpillar with a giant yellow dildo on his head.

Jeff Bridges floats through this stuff light-heartedly; he realizes it’s a nerd’s fantasy, yet he pulls off the trick of enjoying himself within the goofiness without losing his essential relaxed cool. I have to say, though, the funniest performer in Tron is a Votrax speech synthesizer, which gives voice to a “bit” Flynn encounters. The bit can say only “yes” or “no,” and it does so with a flat-affect urgency that is genuinely bizarre. If Tron: Legacy can find no space in its memory for the bit, I’ll be sad and disappointed. Otherwise, the movie gives itself over to light-cycle chases and lethal frisbee matches and guards who trundle across bridges as klutzily as did the robots in The Black Hole. In this phantasmagoric universe where events and physics are limited only by a programmer’s imagination, these guards can still be deactivated by the simple American language of a fist in the chops. As an unstable mix of traditional adventure beats and Atari 2600 whiz-bang, Tron is obliviously clunky and, as a result, often lovable.

The Thing (1982)

July 2, 1982

The nation’s critics were still floating in the warm bath of Steven Spielberg’s E.T., with its reassurance that aliens were froggy, friendly folk who enjoyed Reese’s Pieces, when John Carpenter farted at the hug-fest. The fart was called The Thing, and it was treated — by disinterested audiences as well as appalled critics — very much like a room-clearing ass bomb:

“There are times when we seem to be sticking our heads right down into the bloody, stinking maw of the unknown… Basically just a geek show, a gross-out movie…” – Roger Ebert

“…It is so bloody and horrible that it is more disgusting and disgraceful than it is frightening…” – Rex Reed

“Thoroughly disgusting…Not for anyone, particularly children.” – Lynn Minton, Movie Guide for Puzzled Parents

Now, I love E.T., but there’s always room for its antithesis. And Carpenter’s paranoid classic — one of his best, easily up there with Halloween — had to wait until video and cable, and finally a densely packed DVD, to get its full due. Those who compared it to Howard Hawks’ colloquial 1952 version of John W. Campbell’s novella missed the mark: Carpenter’s Thing is more like what might’ve happened if John Ford had adapted Lovecraft. Carpenter and special-effects wizard Rob Bottin (only in his early twenties at the time) actually did what Lovecraft was always alluding to — they visualized the unspeakable, imagined the unimaginable.

Kurt Russell, in the third of five movies with Carpenter, looks at first glance like a furrier variation on Snake Plissken, the grim and surly anti-hero of the Escape from… movies. “Cheating bitch,” Russell’s MacReady grunts as he dumps a glass of ice into a chess computer. But MacReady is probably the most conventional of Carpenter’s heroes. In the context of Outpost #13, he’s the level head, the regular guy, unimpressed but not unflappable. You know things are paranoid around the base when the men suspect MacReady of being the shape-shifting Thing (and, of course, there’s been fan speculation that MacReady is the Thing — its most successful manifestation, willing to freeze along with Childs at the end, knowing that someone will arrive and dig it up sooner or later).

The Thing begins with a sequence unmatched by anything else in Carpenter’s work. Ominously bland shots of the Antarctic profile, then a beautiful white-gray husky pursued by manic Norwegians in a black helicopter. I like to view the one with the rifle — who approaches the men, shouting words of warning they can’t understand, and then opens fire on the dog, wounding one of the men — as the unlucky Norwegian version of MacReady; I like to imagine this being the ironic end of a Thing prequel, wherein the heroes chase the Thing to an American military base after devastating losses at their own base, and then, as in Night of the Living Dead, get blown away for their troubles … while the monster in its fuzzy, frisky new form snuggles up to its fresh banquet of victims. End credits. Now, that would be a killer Carpenter movie. (Many fans thirst for a sequel; personally, I’d prefer the prequel.¹)

Some critics have complained that the men at the outpost have no particular personalities, and therefore it doesn’t make much difference when the Thing takes them over. It’s an easy and tired shot to take. We are, after all, picking these men up during a long tour of duty at the ass end of Antarctica. They are generally bored and demoralized, playing cards or ping-pong, getting stoned while watching old tapes of game shows or porno. Until the Thing arrives, the men don’t seem to have much to do except kill time and, presumably, count the days till they’re out of there. It’s supposed to be a military outpost, but except for the rigid Garry (Donald Moffat) this crew couldn’t seem less military. They have more in common with the scruffy screw-ups in Carpenter’s feature debut Dark Star than with the soldiers in the Hawks original.

And the men do have personalities; aside from the aforementioned MacReady and Garry, we have the deceptively dyspeptic Blair (Wilford Brimley), who loses his shit and trashes a communications room; the roller-skating Nauls (T.K. Carter), gliding around to the beat of Stevie Wonder and complaining that someone left their nasty underwear in his kitchen; Childs (Keith David), a skeptical bad-ass (“You believe this voodoo bullshit?”) closer in temperament to MacReady than anyone else; Clark (Richard Masur), the big, bearded dog handler, who gets my favorite line (“I dunno, but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is”); the affable Copper (Richard Dysart), who sports a tiny nose ring (an odd thing for a man his age to have in a 1982 movie); the soft and tentative Norris (Charles Hallahan), who’s “not up to” taking charge; the stoner Palmer (David Clennon), who offers to take MacReady up in the chopper but immediately gets dismissed (“Hey, thanks for thinkin‘ about it, though”); the irritable Bennings (Peter Maloney), who secures his status as a Carpenter character by taking a chug of liquor while waiting for someone to tend to his shot-up leg; the haunted-looking Windows (Thomas G. Waites), seemingly driven around the bend because he’s in charge of communications and can’t find anyone out there; and the bookish Fuchs (Joel Polis), who suggests that the men start eating out of cans, raising an image of the Thing disguised as a turkey leg and waiting patiently to be ingested.

Maybe what the critics meant is that the men aren’t likable, or at least not in the usual plastic Hollywood way. They’re just guys doing a job. They’re not heroes, and with the possible exception of Kurt Russell they’re not fantasy material for teenage girls. No doubt about it, The Thing — like Halloween — couldn’t be made the same way today. There isn’t even a woman to provide romantic tension; the film is pared down to the essentials: The Men and The Thing. After a while, the movie takes on a clothesline structure — one Thing sequence after another, until the apocalyptic finish. Carpenter, aided by cinematographer Dean Cundey and editor Todd Ramsay (to say nothing of creature-maker Bottin), stages each Thing encounter with a master’s eye for shock building on shock.

The first sequence, after the eerily calm husky is led into the dog cages and left alone, is almost cruelly intense, emphasizing the terrified helplessness of the dogs (one of which is seen trying to chew its way through the cage). The centerpiece of the film — two bookend nightmares, the unfortunate defibrillation attempt on Norris and the exquisitely drawn-out blood-test scene — contains everything you could want to know about horror filmmaking. Bodies are torn apart and redesigned; men howl and scream to echo their attacker; flailing limbs smash a lightbulb situated far too high to be smashed by flailing limbs under normal circumstances — the chaos is electrifying.

It all leads to a typically moody, ambiguous Carpenter ending; after MacReady has fed the beast a generous helping of TNT (with the priceless sentiment “Yeah, fuck you too“), he and Childs sit across from each other in the lethal cold while the outpost burns behind them. “If we have any surprises for each other,” MacReady sighs, “I don’t think we’re in much shape to do anything about it.” He’s right. The survivors will almost certainly freeze and die, but the threat has passed — unless, of course, particles from the burning Thing rise up with the thick smoke, combine with clouds, and release themselves as raindrops over a major city or three. Even if that doesn’t strike you as a reasonable possibility, The Thing doesn’t leave you with much hope. Carpenter usually doesn’t. He’s famous, after all, for the chilling montage of houses at the end of Halloween — places the killer has been and could be again, all over the neighborhood. Here, the neighborhood is Earth, with a lot more places — and people — to hide in.

¹This was, of course, written before the actual prequel came out. Be careful what you wish for…


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