Disney’s 1982 film “TRON” occupies a slightly bizarre and ever-shifting position in pop culture history. Way ahead of its time in concept, reliance on computer-generated imagery and shameless pandering to video game geeks, “TRON” for years enjoyed cult classic status, overwhelmingly adored by a few and completely ignored by most. At the time, the film was one of Disney’s biggest flops ever, but by the late 1990’s, the gradual rise of gaming culture beyond the tiny niche market of arcades led to speculation regarding a remake or sequel for “TRON.” Pixar even considered taking the project. But no one ever really bit, so “TR2N” (as it was often referred to) just waited…and waited…and waited…
By the time a teaser trailer was floated at Comic-Con in 2008 and a sequel finally put in motion, “TRON” had once again missed its moment of greatest potential relevance. The first film arrived too soon to be anything more than an oddity; “TRON: Legacy” has come far too late to become a true pillar of the techno-revolution that the franchise helped to inspire. Much of “TRON”‘s pseudo-spiritual computer sci-fi thunder was stolen by “The Matrix,”, and the CGI blockbuster movement was led, not by Disney, but by George Lucas, James Cameron, Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich, Steven Spielberg and the like. The sequel even arrives about a year too late in spearheading the cause for quality 3D (Cameron’s “Avatar” remains the model on that front).
But, while “TRON: Legacy” misses out once again on its greatest cultural aspirations, the film remains an admirable successor in many ways to the original. Ratcheting up the (non-ironic) entertainment value of the action set-pieces and the overall quality of production, “TRON: Legacy” remains a thrilling and spirited ride despite some gag-inducing dialogue and derivative plot elements. Those who haven’t seen the original shouldn’t worry about enjoying “Legacy;” while there are a number of little touches that will appeal to die-hard fans, crucial information from the first “TRON” is laid out here simply for newcomers, and like most similar studio blockbusters, the intricacies of plot probably shouldn’t be too closely scrutinized by anyone anyway.
The film starts out with a flashback to set things up: video game engineer-turned-hacker-turned-ENCOM executive Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) disappears, leaving his young son Sam as the primary shareholder of his father’s company. Flash forward about 20 years, where Sam (Garrett Hedlund) has become your stereotypical aimless-rebel-with-a-trust-fund, regularly pranking the ENCOM executive board, randomly sky-diving off of buildings and brooding in a man-cave down by the waterfront with his faithful dog. If this were summer, you’d be sure that Sam was about to don a mask and morph into TRON!!!: the super-powered defender of bratty rich nerds. Flynn’s old friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) tells Sam that he has received a mysterious page from the old Flynn arcade, which has been shut down for years. Investigating the page, Sam is inadvertently sucked into The Grid, the computer world which his father first encountered in his adventure years ago.
Flynn apparently returned to the Grid many times, hoping to discover useful secrets of human life by playing creator himself. At first, he had help in the form of a warrior security program called Tron (also Boxleitner; in the world of “TRON,” programs take on the likeness of their creator, and Bradley created Tron), and CLU 2.0 (also Bridges; CLU made a brief appearance in the first film, but this program is obviously a different, more advanced version). Unfortunately, CLU eventually goes all Absalom on Flynn’s ass, killing Tron and seizing control of the Grid for himself. Flynn, unable to return to the real world, remains in hiding, aided by the not-unappealing company of another warrior program, Quorra (Olivia Wilde).
But much of this is just background, and most of “TRON: Legacy” consists of Quorra, Sam and his father attempting to defeat CLU and escape the Grid, as Sam’s arrival has triggered the Portal home to open for the first time in years. This means navigating an incredibly well-crafted world of lush sounds and visuals that is every bit as thorough as the alien world of “Avatar,” even if the computer theme makes it far more stark and sleek.
Indeed, it is the care and meticulousness put into the mythology and iconography of “TRON: Legacy” that raises it slightly above your average popcorn fare (we’re not talking “Dark Knight” or “Inception” levels here or anything, but it’s certainly a leg up on “Iron Man 2”). Certain thematic elements of betrayal, human imperfection and self-sacrifice might feel stale or just underdeveloped in the context of “Star Wars,” “The Matrix” and Philip K. Dick, but the Grid itself is a fairly original, logical realm with enough florescent eye candy and well-choreographed fights to forgive some narrative superficiality.
The 3D unfortunately doesn’t do much to enhance the breathtaking visuals and production design – while it was a clever idea to make the real world scenes 2D and only add in the 3D for the Grid, I still felt myself longing to get a better look at the shiny world of “TRON” without the inherent muddiness of those damn glasses. Forget the $3-$5 surcharge and the general lack of creativity in application, my real sticking point with 3D may end up being the brightness factor. Cillian Murphy makes an unexpected appearance early on as the son of Ed Dillinger (one of the original movie’s primary villains), but I had to take off my glasses in order to recognize the usually distinctive Irish actor.
But, my feelings on 3D are hopefully well known by now. So I will stop whining and instead move on to praise the thumping, atmospheric score by Daft Punk (who have a cameo in the film as a pair of helmeted mp3 programs/DJs). Those hoping for some new dance floor-worthy tunes from the French techno duo will be mostly disappointed – this is a real film score, and a great one at that, combining a full 85-piece orchestra with some electronica to create a sound that can be as quietly moving as it can be suitably bombastic (Hans Zimmer unsurprisingly offered some production advice to the Frenchies).
Meanwhile, “TRON: Legacy” holds on to some of the original’s camp value through the all-too-brief, strutting performance of Michael Sheen as Castor, a program that owns a nightclub in the Grid (I have no idea why computer programs would need a nightclub, but there you are). Prancing across the frame (almost literally at times) and grinning maniacally through every syllable, Sheen adds the perfect spark of levity to keep the film energetic just when it’s in danger of bogging down. Then there’s CLU, whose world-domination schemes bring back fond memories of back when movie villains had Jupiter-sized egos and more nefarious plans than seizing 60% of Bolivia’s water supply (damn you, Marc Forster!). Bridges, for his part, bizarrely borrows some laid-back Zen vibes from his iconic role of the Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” giving “TRON: Legacy” a faithful little slice of the 80’s. And let me just say how awesome it is that Disney got both Bridges and Boxleitner to reprise their original roles in the first place; that kind of loyalty can elevate a franchise (though the absence of Cindy Morgan as Lora Baines/Yori is disappointing).
I’m already running long on my usual word count here, but allow me some final words on the de-aging technology used to make CLU (and Flynn, in the flashback scenes) look like the 30-year-old Jeff Bridges of the original film. The effect works in some scenes, and not in others, I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps when it’s just CLU, a computer program, I was more willing to accept the CGI, while the attempts to make Flynn himself look younger made the effect fall into the uncanny valley. But, I’ll give the makers major points for attempting such an innovative device in the first place, even if the execution wasn’t quite there; after all, it was exactly that kind of progressive thinking that keeps the original “TRON” at all relevant today.
It’s absolutely astounding that “TRON: Legacy” is the first feature film by director Joseph Kosinski. While the script has some true groaners and supposed leading man Hedlund is nothing to write home about, this is a director with a firm grasp on how the elements of film craft can come together to tell a story engagingly and entertainingly (if not terribly intellectually). The creators of the original “TRON” had a ballsy creative vision, and this sequel sat in pre-production purgatory for years because no one dared try to push that vision forward into the age of ubiquitous CGI, where it belonged all along. That kind of confidence is worth keeping an eye on.
Now in theaters.
Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars