Tron: Legacy (2010) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA Rated: PG for violence and mild language
Running time: 127 min.
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Jeff Bridges, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, James Frain, Michael Sheen, Beau Garrett
Cameo: Cillian Murphy, Daft Punk
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Screenplay: Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz
Surprisingly to many, Disney did not re-release its dormant, visually groundbreaking Tron on DVD or Blu-Ray prior to the release of Tron Legacy to theaters. Having seen the original film, and having re-watched it the day prior to seeing its sequel, I can tell you with reasonable assuredness that this was a calculated move. The nostalgia for Tron far exceeds the film's actual entertainment value. Viewing the original is the biggest-buzz kill one a ravenously interested public could experience.
Although technically a sequel, Tron Legacy can be viewed standalone, and probably makes more sense this way, as it contains many additions that might be confusing to those intimately familiar with its predecessor. For instance, why are there nightclubs or drunken, homeless bums in this version of cyberspace? And why do its inhabitants, programs who are virtual representations of the people who created them (as if most programs are written by one person these days), need to eat, sleep, dress stylishly, or perform most other "real world" human functions?
The basics of the Tron world are still the same, with its highly stylized, minimalist colored world, light cycle destruction derbies, and powered disc throwing. But as advanced as the special effects were in 1982, they are only quaintly interesting when viewed with today's eyes. Its sequel's biggest selling point is the promise that such things will now be rendered in the vastly technologically advanced CGI of 2010, and, if seen in some theaters, in 3D, or even IMAX 3D. The "real world" is rendered in traditional 2D, while cyberspace is shot in 3D, akin to the Wizard of Oz's use of color for its dream world. The potential "wow factor" is hard to deny.
But the original had something that this sequel doesn't, and that is its uniqueness. In 1982, there wasn't really another "virtual universe of cyberspace" flick to compare to, and even to this day, with the exception of its sequel somewhat, there isn't another film that quite looks like Tron. It's the kind of movie you could identify with just one frame of film. Tron Legacy, on the other hand, has the same sleekly dark look and black leather-fetish garb of a plethora of films, from The Matrix, to Ultraviolet, to Equilibrium. The conceptual design of the film borrows far more than it breaks any new ground, so without something more to bring to the table, there wouldn't be much attraction.
Where the film becomes unique, although to a limited extent, is in its script's story and philosophical elements. We start off with Sam Flynn (Hedlund, Death Sentence), the well-to-do (the largest shareholder of mega-corporation Encom) but rebellious orphaned son of big-time video game designer Kevin Flynn (Bridges, The Men Who Stare at Goats). Widower Kevin disappeared from the face of the Earth in 1989 and hasn't been heard from since, at least until old friend and business colleague Alan (Boxleitner, "Babylon 5") receives a page from the number Kevin said he'd contact from (at the old arcade joint, Flynn's) alerting him that he might indeed still be alive. Sam investigates and replicates the sequence of events that saw his father get sucked into cyberspace, a dangerous, militaristically oppressive place called The Grid, where people are enslaved on the whim of a grand force of some sort.
This time that source is Clu, the virtual alter ego of Kevin Flynn, who immediately challenges Sam to the dangerous arena games that his father once experienced. His bacon is saved by the mysterious Quorra (Wilde, Year One), an assistant to Sam's now reclusive father, who is noticeably older than Clu because he is a "user", or the actual person, rather than a program. Kevin has been living a Zen-like existence in hiding off the Grid, a hermit avoiding the actively prying eye of Clu. But he must come out of hiding to help Sam, as the portal that allows for a return back to the "real world" will close in mere hours, forcing a race against time with an army of tyrannical programs in the virtual plane on the prowl for their demise.
As impressive as special effects are nowadays, one of the film's hurdles is in its utilization of CGI to render the head of Clu and the 1989 version of Kevin Flynn, and try to make it believable. Suspension of disbelief is a must, as this special effect is close-but-no-cigar in its effectiveness, looking like he stepped out of Zemeckis' Beowulf. It looks realistic, but it doesn't look real, and this distraction leads to being taken out of the film to reflect on the character(s) as a special effect rather than a real person, and it's especially evident during flashbacks where Clu and Flynn, both rendered the exact same way, are approximately the same age in appearance.
One thing that has improved is some of the dialogue, which is a major detraction from the original film's appeal. Not that anyone would call it above average, as it is still feeble in most respects, but for the kind of film that it is, it's at least passable. Or perhaps it just seems that way thanks to a nice performance by Jeff Bridges as the elder Flynn, actually sinking into the role to make it more than what's written on the page. He expounds his pseudo-philosophy as if it really means something (though it is a lot of mumbo-jumbo), and it's a testament to his acting skills that he's able to even make his character and his plight touching, which does lend a semblance of gravitas to the film's climax -- something the original film sorely lacks.
If only the casting of Sam Flynn could have given equal depth, perhaps we might even be looking at a good movie, rather than just a good-looking one with a few good moments amid a plethora of mediocre ones. And speaking of being cast based on looks, are we really to believe that the hunks and babes that permeate many of the secondary characters are really programs modeled in the image of their creators? Not that computer programmers can't be attractive, but as presented here, they mostly appear to be swimsuit model hot.
I'll give a small amount of credit to first-time feature film director Kosinski for dishing out a slick film that also balances out the adrenaline-filled confrontations with more contemplative moments, and "Lost" screenwriters Kitsis and Horowitz for at least trying to make the film about something more than an effects showcase, even though it obviously is. A terrific score by Daft Punk is a major asset, which is definitely an improvement from dreadful one that saturates the 1982 version. Some may be amused, but I feel that the film jumps the proverbial shark when Michael Sheen (Alice in Wonderland, Frost/Nixon) appears on screen as a rascally club owner named Zuse, riffing on David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and Malcolm McDowell's Alex characters in nearly equal proportions, presumably to offer up some comic relief.
As with the original Tron, special effects junkies will relish it more than most, and there is undoubtedly a nostalgia factor that will kick this up a notch or two in the mind of those who fondly remember seeing the original in their youth. Perhaps in 28 years, as the effects go from stunning in 2010 to dated, people will look back and wonder why anyone would be entertained by a such a film, but for today, it delivers on action, effects, solid choreography, art design, and should hold the interest of the genre fans for which it is intended. Hopefully, next time, we'll see a little more delving into a deeper story to go along with the sumptuous aesthetics.
©2010 Vince Leo