Hard News by Russell Brown


A very roundabout review of 'Tron Legacy'

The first column I wrote for Red Bulletin, back in March, was in some respects a bold start to the job. I wrote about my kids' autism, which might be seen as an odd fit in a magazine that more frequently focuses on aspirational and sporting culture. But they said they loved it.

Clearly, they weren't bullshitting when they said I could please myself what I wrote. But it has also occurred to me that our family has just fulfilled that column's concluding prediction: it is Christmas, and we have been to Tron Legacy together, booking the best (iMax) seats in advance. (Yes, alright, I also said we "might just be having pizza afterwards," which we didn't, but Jim did have two huge slices from the food court beforehand.)

So, given the way our family convened over the original Tron movie (see the column below), what did we make of the flash new 3D sequel? Well, "meh" would be too harsh a word, but "okay" was the one we agreed on.

"That movie really did not have a good script," observed Leo as we left.

To refine the point a little more, Tron Legacy did not have any good lines -- in contrast to Tron, which had many resonant lines, as witnessed by the multitude of results that a Googling of "Tron quotes" will get you.

For purposes of science, here are the IMDB "memorable quotes" for Tron and Tron Legacy. Compare them. The Tron Legacy list is not only considerably shorter, the quotes really stink. And IMDB's Tron list doesn't even include what I think are the film's great lines.

Where Tron's script nailed down a philosophy for the film, Tron Legacy's is so bland and unexceptional that the film doesn't really have a philosophy.

There's some sort of homily about how efficiency isn't everything and you need some chaos in the system, but that's a shitty metaphor for actual computer programming. Hints at freeing data early in the film aren't followed through, presumably because they'd sound a little too much like "steal this film". Disney made an anti-corporate film in 1982. There's not a chance it's going to make one in 2010.

But still. Both Daft Punk's soundtrack and the sound design in general are thoroughly bangin', and along with the 3D eye candy (or "eye sex" as Leo insisted on saying) make for a fun iMax experience. We didn't have a bad time and the film certainly isn't totally broken. But we will not be talking about it in 28 years' time.

Leo would like it to be known that it's also not as good as the first-person shooter game Tron 2.0.

And as an update on the column below, I'd like to say a very heartfelt thanks to Ben Wilson for his work with Leo this year. We don't think Leo will become a hardcore programmer, but the experience of cutting real Java code was not wasted. Far from it.

Ben succeeded where a string of professionals failed in teaching and engaging Leo. On Friday, Leo's NotSchool certificates arrived. After several years of struggling to get him to engage with NotSchool, a British-based online learning service that isn't funded here (thanks so much to Jean Hughes for her help with it), he had agreed to do NotSchool's Adult Literacy Level 1, a reasonably challenging online examination of grammar and comprehension skills. He got 80%. We suggested he did Level 2 the following week. He got 87%. He hasn't attended school in years.

I do wonder if we could have done more, I know the system could have done a lot more, and I'm deeply grateful that there are people like Ben and Jean in the world. It was also a delight to meet Ben's boy Marcus this year.

Also this year, Leo's older brother Jimmy did a screen production and performance certificate (Pacific Institute of Performing Arts at Unitec -- one of only two palagi in the course!) which we think has set him up for a more challenging course in 2011. We have a project for next year that will let Leo use his undoubted skills to earn money. But we still don't really know what's going to happen to them. That's the reality of having Aspie kids.

We've just extended the house (and our household debt) to make it more suitable for what will soon be four adults ranging around. The boys will stay with us for a while yet (and why not, with Cat 6 through the place?). But that's okay. Because, you know, we actually like each other.

Now, that first Red Bulletin column …


We asked our son what he'd like to do for his fifteenth birthday. He didn't think for long.

"Let's all get pizza and sit down in the lounge and watch Tron," he said.

My heart sang.

Tron, released by Disney to mixed reviews in 1982, isn't just any movie. It was one of the first from a major studio to use digital special effects, yet (compare and contrast to Avatar) the heart of the film is in its script.

Writer-director Steven Lisberger, was not a computer programmer. But he somehow crafted a script that reads as a virtual manifesto, whose core struggle is that between the coders (honest and moral) and the businessmen (greedy and immoral).

When the hero, Flynn, complains to his ambitious, controlling superior, Dillinger, about the way their computer system has been locked down so that users cannot even get access to their own programs, Dillinger snaps that he "can't sit and worry about every little user request."

"User requests are what computers are for!" gasps Flynn.

"Doing our business is what computers are for," says Dillinger.

And there you have it: geeks versus suits, for the ages.

But that's not why I was so happy about our birthday screening. That was the birthday when we were able to move past birthday conventions for which our family has never been well equipped. We've never had hordes of schoolmates turning up for cake and cola. My son has only a couple of mates in his peer group, and he hasn't been to conventional school for three years. He and his older brother are both Asperger Syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum.

Even if you haven't heard of Aspergers, you've at least seen it depicted. It's a way of being that has become a modern TV trope: the socially awkward, brilliant oddball. Think Temperance Brennan in Bones, or Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon's lines are, to the initiated, a stream of Aspie in-jokes: his insensibility to irony and social nuance, his adherence to habit (see what happens when someone takes Sheldon's regular spot on the sofa), even his slightly-off neologisms ("Bazinga!").

Until recently, Shortland Street had Gabrielle, a character who, creditably, actually struggled to navigate the world, and who was specifically identified as Asperger. On American TV, the A-word is rarely mentioned. We're just invited to enjoy these fashionable clusters of behaviours without ever really knowing why.

Real life on the autism spectrum isn't always so cute. Kim Peek, a rare genuine savant, and the model for Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man character, couldn't even dress himself in the morning. People with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are over-represented in statistics for imprisonment, mental illness and marriage failure. In many respects, ours is not a world made for them, and their failure to anticipate its quirks can have painful consequences.

The push back has come from the nascent autism rights community, which has reframed the idea of neurological disability, referring to ASD in terms of "neurodiversity", while the rest of us are "neurotypical".

I also tend to think in terms of "difference" rather than diagnosis. My son and his brother are strikingly different from each other, but share in common their difference from most other people. They are differently wired, and living with them has taught me how people are different. That sounds airy-fairy, but it's not: it's useful in a nitty-gritty way for a journalist to grasp that somebody else might have another experience of the world.

The remarkable thing is this is a good age in which to be different in this way. Aspies have tools to communicate and network, and the giant space of the internet and the gaming sphere in which to meet and play.

They help make this space. Programming and computer security are littered with people who may or may not be diagnosable, but are clearly wired a certain way. We're still getting to grips with the way our son learns, but when he does it, he does it fast – and he seems to have some abilities (reading a whole screen of code at once) that most people don't.

My kids have a stake in this. And, crucially, they have a rightful stake in its surrounding culture: geek culture. This has, in turn become our family culture. We convene over Doctor Who, lolcats, computers and movies. It's a signal of the contemporary heft of that culture that, 28 years on, Stephen Lisberger has returned to produce a sequel: Tron Legacy. When that movie finally hits the screens this Christmas, you can bet that we'll be booking the best seats. And, yup, we might just be having pizza afterwards.

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