It is occasionally alarming how much geek culture is defined by nostalgia. Watching Star Trek or Star Wars or the rest of it does not make me me think of the future or possibility or sweeping vistas of the world of tomorrow. Instead it calls to mind childhood and adolescent comfort, something familiar, tested, and proven. They are narratives and artifacts that don’t have to stand up to the rigors of contemporary scrutiny. Why should they? They carry so much emotional cache.
The fact remains, though, that they don’t transport me to the future. They transport me to the 1990s.
Nostalgia pieces by definition wistful, and bring to mind forgiving smiles and gentle rationalizations of their flaws. An object of nostalgia might appear simple, but we justify it by saying that it was from a simpler time. Effects were less sophisticated. Budgets were lower. Audiences weren’t as savvy. That’s what we tell ourselves to excuse Luke Skywalkers’s ludicrous comment about “power converters,” or to justify transparently cheap monster costumes.
Nostalgia is not bad or wrong per se, but it is warm and unchallenging. It is easy to idealize the objects that produce it, to put layers upon them and add dimensions that are not there. In almost every incident, the idea of the nostalgic item is much better than the work itself.
Which brings me to Tron.
Tron blew my fucking mind. I don’t remember how old I was when I first watched it. Maybe eleven? Twelve? I don’t really know. But there were glowy lights on everything and it was about a guy who got zapped into a computer and, man, that was cool. The guy had to play computer games inside of a computer! C’mon- how neat is that? There were tanks and motorcycles and everything was covered in neon because back then that’s what the future looked like.
I watched it again in college, and, much to my surprise, found that I still liked it. Last year I actually got my ex-girlfriend to watch it and she had to concede that the movie that her geeky, overenthusiastic boyfriend had recommended to her was “kind of fun.”
And it is. Tron, though, is quite a simple movie. There isn’t much to it, really. Why is the Master Control Program so evil? He just is. Why is Tron the good guy? He just is. How is it that Tron’s disc will bring about a new order on the grid? It’s a MacGuffin- just go with it.
Tron is a very pretty movie with an okay plot. Fortunately, it seems that the filmmakers knew that. Tron is shallow, but has no pretension to depth. It is thin, but does not pretend to be substantive. The ultimate message of Tron is, really “Hey, look! Shiny computers! Whee!” This is all well and good, and makes it the perfect nostalgia piece.
Because Tron is so basic, it’s completely possible for a thirty-year-old geek like me to invest it with all kinds of layers and awesomeness as I wistfully recall it. Fans like me can imagine any sort of drama or depth we want of Tron, because the movie is ultimately just a bunch of cool blinky lights and zoomy computer game action. In lots of ways its a blank slate that we can project all kinds of affection and imagination onto. The idea of Tron is oftentimes better than Tron the actual movie. If it were to come out now as an original film, it would probably be dismissed as readily as Avatar was by people who actually care about science fiction.
Disney has decided to cash in on the widespread affection and nostalgia for Tron and release a sequel later this month, nearly three decades later. Like many other genre fans, I’m completely geeking out about this and probably will fork over the extra cash to see this thing in 3D. However, once the sequel comes out, a certain amount of the nostalgic “oomf” of the original is going to get taken away. Tron will cease to become an object of nostalgic affection, and turn into a franchise.
With that, it will go from being something that can be vague and unspecified, to something specific. It will no longer exist primarily in the minds and emotions and memories of fans- instead it will be an actual thing, separate from their feelings and ideas of of the original. Tron won’t be something that belongs to fans anymore, a pop-culture byword that recalls shared experiences of wonderment about computers. Instead, it will become the first movie in what is likely to be a series. We won’t have a blank slate to play with anymore. The idea of Tron will be gone, and in its place there will just be Tron.
This does not bother me too much. Later this month, though, I’m going to buy a movie ticket, put on a pair of 3D glasses, and a little bit of my nostalgia and geeky affection for Tron will be gone forever.