Tron: Legacy is, if nothing else, exactly the kind of production we’ve been asking Hollywood to make for a very long time. It takes a pretty cool intellectual property, a cult film from the early eighties, and rather than trying to remake or reboot it they simply decided to make a straight up sequel and to do it with respect. They went so far as to get the first film’s original stars, fill the trailer with images from the original movie, and they did all of this with a large blockbuster budget. It was a pretty risky move given that the original film is probably best known to the youth of America as “that movie that inspired that guy to wear a dorky costume on the internet,” and any further research into the film would have led them to some really primitive effects work. But the people working on this high profile sequel kept making some really good choices that greatly upped the movie’s cool factor, like the decision to bring the Parisian house duo Daft Punk to provide the score. Because of this, the movie is hitting theaters with more buzz than the sequel to a semi-obscure movie has any right to.
The film is set twenty-some years after the events of the first Tron and follows Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), the son of the first film’s protagonist: Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges). Twenty years before the start of the film Kevin Flynn disappeared, leaving his multi-billion dollar software company to be inherited by his son once he reaches an appropriate age. This day doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon, as Sam is sort of coasting through life and pulling the occasional prank on the now evil company he should one day inherit. One day an old friend of his father (Bruce Boxleitner) comes to him and tells him that before his father left, he had given him a pager and told him to keep it at all times, and that this pager had finally been paged and that this page came from the phone at an old arcade that Flynn had owned. Sam decides to inspect this arcade and finds an old computer which transports him into The Grid, a personified version of a computer complete with “programs” walking around and interacting with one another.
The original Tron is, if nothing else, a pretty interesting pop culture artifact that’s notable for its pioneering visual effects and for its focus on computers in a time when they still weren’t really mainstream devices. To put that movie in perspective, consider that it came out a full three years before that Dire Straits “Money for Nothing” music video and you realize just how pioneering the effects were. It was also a slow paced movie with some corny acting and a story that was sort of an inferior riff on George Lucas’ THX-1138. It was only a moderate box office success and was sort of forgotten for a while after its release, but as its pioneering status became clear a cult began to form around it.
Part of the appeal of the original film, and the element that most clearly made it a Disney movie, was its childlike wonder at the concept of computers. If you ever imagined that little gremlins lived inside your computer and made all the programs do their thing you’d pick up on that. In the film there were literal programs walking around and playing games when that’s what the user wanted them to do. That was certainly a strength if you were a child, but it was also kind of ridiculous; I mean, why are these programs doing anything if no one is operating the computer and how does the computer work if all the programs are running off on all their various escapades? It doesn’t really make sense and you could get away with that when you’re making a children’s movie in 1982 but not when you’re making a blockbuster in 2010. So, for this new movie “The Grid” has been turned from being a functioning computer into being something that was seemingly designed to be a computer world from the ground up.
Of course this world has also been redesigned with top of the line technology in order to reflect a more modern conception of what technology can and should look and work like. For example, the lightcycles (which still function more or less the way they used to) can now move in curved lines rather than at robotic angles. The world and costumes have also been given a new sexier makeover and most of the aspects of the world have a cool neon orange teal look to them. In fact, as far as the visuals of The Grid go I don’t think there’s anything to complain about at all, the movie looks interesting as hell. One effect that does not look so good is an effect used to bring the film’s main villain to life. This villain is a program that’s been created to look exactly like Jeff Bridge’s character looked when he created it in the late eighties. So what we have here is another example of the anti-aging effect that was first seen in the opening scene of X-Men: The Last Stand, and the results are inconsistent. In some shots the effect seems to really work and in other shots it looks freaky in that Uncanny Valley way. The fact that the character is a computer program sort of justifies the unusual look when we’re talking about the villain, but they also use the effect for the film’s opening scene which is a flashback that’s supposed to depict the real Jeff Bridges character and it doesn’t work at all in that context. I should also probably mention that, aside from some early scenes in the real world, the film is entirely filmed in 3D. I would call this the best 3D I’d seen since Avatar… but it’s also the only 3D movie I’ve gone to since Avatar, so maybe I’m not an authority on the subject. The film also sounds really good, both in the form of its theater shaking sound effects mix and from its awesome techno score by Daft Punk.
Many have criticized the acting in the film, but I don’t know that I agree with this so much. Jeff Bridges is basically his good old self; you can sort of see The Dude slipping through in his performance, but that makes sense, SoCal surfer type isn’t exactly an inappropriate take on a character that’s a former hacker. Bruce Boxleitner is another cast member from the original film, and I probably prefer his work here a lot more than his cold performance in the original film. Michael Sheen also has an interesting little role where he seems to be channeling a Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie and Olivia Wilde I think does a pretty good job playing a naïve computer program with Amazonian fighting skills. The cast member here who’s received most of the flack for his work is Garrett Hedlund, but I can’t really say I see what people are so up in arms about. Hedlund seems to do exactly what I’d expect someone to do when playing a pretty generic young protagonist. He is decidedly a post-millennial young movie star in the vein of a Shia LeBeouf or an Andrew Garfield, and I can see why people would be put off by his sort of demasculinized good looks, but that doesn’t have anything to do with his performance. Yeah, he’s a pretty boy and he was probably chosen by a marketing committee, but I think he does well enough with the material he has been given.
The real problem here is in the script, and by that I don’t necessarily mean that the story or dialogue don’t work (both are at least adequate) so much as I don’t really think the film works very well as science fiction, particularly in the way that the world has been built. Take the discs for example, these are things that are seemingly very important but it’s never exactly explained what they are needed for and capable of and if they are so important why are they so cavalierly throwing them around as weapons? There’s also a fairly important part of The Grid’s history where a series of programs called “ISOs,” but the movie never really explains what these things are or why they’re so important. Later, the movie discusses the possibility of the programs escaping The Grid much the way humans are able to enter it, but never really explores how this could possibly be possible or what the implications of that are. They also reintroduce the character of Tron, who I’d forgotten was even an actual character from the original film, but turn him into a faceless and lifeless robotic henchman who does little except look badass and have a completely unearned shift of allegiance late in the film.
On a more generally level I see this as sort of a wasted opportunity. This was something that really could have been a transcendent exploration of technology and how it has evolved since 1982, and instead it settles on being a kind of neat looking adventure movie. There are definitely some cool action scenes here and it’s generally a pretty fun ride, but it certainly doesn’t have the spark of inspiration that the first movie had which allowed it to transcend its weaknesses. Still this has everything I’d want from an action movie in 2010 and it’s worth seeing for its production values alone.
*** out of Four