It still boggles my mind that after nearly 30 years anyone would want to go back to a film that has the dual notoriety of being a flop* as well as a cult classic. Something of a black sheep in the Disney family of films Tron, before now, was relatively unknown to most modern audiences. Yet while the original film was ahead of its time but still lacked much of the technology to really do it right, Disney still thought they had something worth exploring. Enter Joseph Kosinski and a budget of over 300 million (production and marketing) and Disney sought out to make a dazzling film for the ages. Not sure they succeeded as the story is just about as slim and confusing as it was in the previous film but once thing is certain, the gorgeous effects should stand up a lot better over time than those in the original.
For those of you yet to see 1982’s Tron, or even know what it is, don’t worry. This film doesn’t deal with much that would make the original a required viewing. While chronologically a sequel, TRON: Legacy plays out more like reboot (a kin to last year’s Predators; also just as hit and miss among fans of the orginal). He we find a retread of fairly familiar themes/elements from the original Tron, e.g. greedy and unethical corporate tycoons, a fairy tale quest through a foreign land, rise of the reluctant hero, and finally escaping as a new and bettered person. Oh did I spoil anything? Anyone looking at the poster to the right will know someone in the marketing department already beat me to it.
So while Encom is again in the hands of corporate slimeballs and in a nice bit of continuity the son of Dillinger (Sark) is on the Board of Directors. Sam Flynn, like his father before him, is looking for justice. Yet in this film Sam controls most of the company’s stock but he’s too rebellious to take any real responsibility or rectify things. Although he does have enough motivation to toy with and ruffle the feathers of Encom’s CEOs (who look like caricatures of Apple executives). After a mysterious “page” to Kevin’s colleague Alan (Tron himself), some inspiring words cause Sam to investigate its origin. Again like his father before him, Sam is digitized and thrown into a world he had heard about but never thought was real. Now it’s a race to come to grips with where he is and find his long lost father. This is where the story begins to tread new ground but but this is also where the film falls apart.
So here are the problems I see: A human being is digitized and transported to “The Grid” but still retains his physical make-up (read: his flesh and blood). OK I’ll let that pass. But for a world that is supposed to have existed before any “user” ever made it here, there sure are a lot of real world contrivances. OK fine, programs are created in the likeness of their user yadda yadda yadda. This is further explained in the flashbacks where we learn that Flynn, after the events of the first film, had been going to The Grid regularly. He began building/rebuilding more of this world and making his visits more than just a vacation in a digital playground. He hoped to better the real world with his discoveries on The Grid. To do so he created his own digital clone (C.L.U.) to work while he was away. I guess that ultimately makes Flynn a God, a digital savior, or a Jedi perhaps? So C.L.U. then is Flynn 2.0 or ‘Lite’ rather? The negative to his Flynn’s positive? The Morning Star to his Jehovah? I don’t know. Then you have the fact that every program carries a disc that is basically…their soul? If they lose it, they’re better off dead…or derezzed. But with all the trappings of a digital universe, how can a collection of bytes use things like umbrellas or elevators, eat and drink (that was a roasted pig wasn’t it?), and have two faced personalities just like in real life? Its things like that which start to take you out of the story pretty quickly.
But let’s not dwell on the how and why and instead focus on the real draw of the film as people didn’t come for story.. No denying it, the CG was impressively slick, sexy and stylized. While not “in your face” (ha! 3D jokes, get it?), director Joseph Kosinski went for a more sophisticated film that came across elegant almost graceful. The Disc War games were intense (although all the blue/black made deciphering Sam from his opponent a little tough) and the Light Cycles delivered as promised. A one-up with Legacy is that the Cycles weren’t confined to 90 degree turns or even level ground. That was quite impressive and yielded some innovative crash sequences. Also there’s a flying chase scene that really is bound to get a good number of oohs and ahhs from the crowd. The world of The Grid was amazing looking but it wasn’t immersive in the way Avatar really put you in another world. That said, the 3D draw really only proved to give minimal amounts of depth to things, not really give you a real 3D environment and that made me sad.
So unfortunately, all the CG which caused jaws for me was more like a yawn. Despite the build up the visuals failed to deliver the real punch the Tron: Legacy needed to really impress audiences (at least the audience in my theater) as a total package. Take a lesson from Lucas – great CG alone does not a great movie make. The events just felt unimportant and forgive the pun but every character was written very 2 dimensionally. Even Jeff Bridges seemed like he was improvising some lines via The Dude to add some depth to his Zen-like Flynn. Garrett Hedlund on the other hand, seemed to try just a little bit harder but still never felt endearing. Although for a film about a digital world (ignoring the human inhabitants) maybe soulless performances are to be expected. Although if The Grid is designed to resemble the world of the user, wouldn’t 20 years be enough time to give programs a less robotic demeanor?
So in the end, the ho-hum story and characters produce an underwhelming though glitzy film and that’s the real deflating part. Not that the first Tron was a tough act to follow but after 28 years, this is the best anyone could come up with? Now it’s not that I didn’t like Legacy, not the case at all. Sure there were expanded/improve upon but I rather enjoyed it, although it was mostly on a visual level. I mean let’s be honest, that’s all we really came for anyway right? Yet aside from dazzling effects, there one element really tied the film together and kept me glued to the screen…aside from Olivia Wilde. Daft Punk. Aside from their goofy cameo they gave a real weight and life to the film. Despite Punk’s techno background the Tron Legacy soundtrack has more orchestral leanings (probably due to collaboration with Bruce Broughton). While it features a prominent electronic tone it evolves to exhibit the quality and presence of Zimmer’s Inception. It’s almost like they were going for a blend of Zimmer and Vangelis and the good news is that it works, really well in fact. As a bonus, this soundtrack can be enjoyed completely on its own.
Tron Legacy wasn’t really made for fans of the original because, let’s face it, there aren’t that many. If there were we probably would have seen a sequel waaay before now. My guess is that this was made to bring in a whole new generation of fans. The only question is: In this age of technological opulence and abundance, is this a relevant film that speaks to today’s tech hungry masses or is it just an esoteric face-lift to a cult classic. Only time will tell. One thing is certain, those light cycles will always have a fan base on par with, if not greater than, those of lightsabers…but now they’re a lot cooler.
*(during its theatrical run; Over the years Tron eventually made its money back)