Dir: Joseph Kosinski
Walt Disney Pictures
Let’s get one thing straight: Tron is a children’s movie. Tron: Legacy is not. The 28-year-later sequel to classic sci-fi film Tron (in which non-titular protagonist Jeff Bridges is swept into a strange computer world of gladiatorial jai alai) is dark and gloomy where the original largely kept a bantering, kid-friendly tone, while simultaneously updating the visuals and action for an audience for whom video games have advanced past Pong. While Tron: Legacy undoubtedly succeeds in the latter goal, its ambitions to deepen the story and emotional heft remain a little wobbly.
But it’s not through lack of trying: preceded by a tsunami of teasers, viral marketing and outright bombardment (both Disney World and Disneyland have modified their theme parks to incorporate new Tron elements), Tron: Legacy has been promoted as the opening to a new/resurgent Disney franchise, which would require a little more solid background than the original blue programs vs. red programs. First-time director Joseph Kosinski seems consistently aware that gorgeous visuals (and we’ll get to that), but can’t entirely make up for a banal story, and, of course, there’s the heavyweight status of newly-minted Oscar winner Bridges to pick up the slack.
As Tron: Legacy opens, Bridges is once again a young Kevin Flynn, the hotshot computer programmer who survived the gauntlet of the Master Control Program and escaped back to the real world. He tells his young son Sam how the virtual world fascinated him, and how he designed a new, different one with the help of Tron (Bruce Boxleitner, who also returns as programmer Alan Bradley) and a program named Clu. And then he disappears, leaving a corporation in chaos and Sam to grow up into Garrett Hedlund, the kind of boyishly handsome Trust Fund Baby who lives in a garage and pulls an annual prank on his own company. But soon enough, Sam disappears down the same rabbit hole as his father and ends up on “The Grid,” a world composed of anthropomorphic programs, gaming arenas and a healthy dose of glowing red fascism.
Tron: Legacy takes the almost ludicrously simple good vs. evil of the original and actually searches for what moral ambiguity might be found there, occasionally to interesting effect. The Grid has been taken over by the renegade program Clu (played by Bridges with surprisingly realistic CGI to de-age by 20 years), who views any deviation from the pure symmetry and design of the virtual world as an imperfection to be destroyed. Flynn, meanwhile, is trapped outside the grid along with a young apprentice named Quorra (Olivia Wilde, playing wide-eyed naiveté well); if you think that’s not taking a page from Star Wars, wait till you see the unmistakably Jedi-like robes worn by Bridges. The balance between Clu’s aggressive pursuit of perfection against Flynn’s Zen-like philosophy of passivity and remaining “out of the game” is generally interesting (if not as profound as it’s presented), as is the burden of guilt that lays on Flynn for instilling Clu with that programming to begin with. Similarly, Flynn’s purportedly benevolent idea of shared free software is explored to a degree, with an early scene of corporate fat cats (including an uncredited Cillian Murphy) reveling in price-gouging consumers unexpectedly being invoked in a Triumph of the Will-style rally of programs demanding shared access to the real world.
But the film’s deepest flaw is not that it mishandles the issues it raises, but that it doesn’t explore them enough. One can’t reasonably expect a film that bases a huge portion of its appeal on light-cycle races to spend its entire runtime philosophizing, but most of the questions raised end in moral platitudes and apologizing that seem far too simple. It’s as though the filmmakers knew that they couldn’t just pander to the kids anymore and couldn’t ignore the kids by going for completely mature themes, and shot for something in the middle. The other two missteps of the movie (and going spoiler-free here) involve a main character whose fate is terribly telegraphed and then curtly dismissed, while the other involves Wilde’s character and a MacGuffin that promises to “change the world” but never really explains how or why it would do that.
None of this is to say that Tron: Legacy is not a thrilling film: the gaming scenes are incredibly fast paced and brilliant timed, particularly a multitiered light cycle race between 10 competitors. The disc battles have been similarly upgraded, and the aerobatic fight sequences are choreographed to a dizzying degree. House music icons/human robots Daft Punk’s hotly anticipated score is beautifully ominous, invoking their own dancefloor origins (notably in an amusing cameo as MP3 programs) as well as Vangelis’ work for Blade Runner. The much-ballyhooed 3D effects are pervasive, but never noticeably for their own sake; in such a kinetic film, it grows difficult not to be immersed in the shimmering lights and rush of speed. It’s a magnificently beautiful film, with shots of immense floating airships and roaring crowds articulated and presented meticulously.
Part of the appeal of the film is in mentally checking off references to the first movie, whether it be the furniture in Flynn’s video arcade or pointing out the immense size of a particular door. On the human side of that, Bridges is predictably the star, his undeniable charm manifesting in quips that stop just short of smarm and bring much needed levity to the earlier parts of the film. He plays Flynn with just enough resignation to indicate that underneath the silver beard and the jokes there’s a man who created a world and then lost it, a deep sadness beneath his scenes. On the opposite end, he plays Clu as a near inversion – frustrated, yet reveling in his power, his natural charm something programmed and heartless. Hedlund and Wilde were undoubtedly chosen in part because of their preternatural good looks and chemistry, but manage to pull their weight most of the time (though Hedlund’s own quips begin to grate by the climax).
Tron: Legacy is an ambitious film, which is refreshing coming from the House of Mouse, not to mention what could have potentially been cinematic gravedigging. Its central fallbacks are not that it is ever dull or poorly performed or anything less than gloriously envisioned, only that it doesn’t quite push hard enough for what it seems to aim for. For a movie so concerned with the impossible nature of perfection, it didn’t seem to put in as much thought as it could have.
by Nathan Kamal