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Josh Reviews Tron: Legacy

December 27th, 2010
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The original Tron (read my review here), released in 1982, boasted incredibly stunning special effects but was hamstrung by a pretty simplistic story.

The new Tron: Legacy, released last week, boasts incredibly stunning special effects but is hamstrung by a pretty simplistic story.

I’ve got a lot more to say about Tron: Legacy, but really, it all boils down to that.

At the end of the original Tron, Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and his friends (Alan and Lora in the real world, and their digital counterparts Tron and Yori in the digital realm inside of computers) had defeated Ed Dillinger and his Master Control Program.  The programs residing in the digital realm had been freed, and Flynn had seized control of his company Encom back from Dillinger.  All was well.  But, as we learn in Tron: Legacy, he mysteriously vanished several years later, leaving his son, Sam, an orphan.  Though Alan tried his best to mentor his lost friend’s son, Sam has grown into an angry young man whose only association with his father’s company is his repeated attempts to prank and sabotage Encom’s initiatives.  He’s grown to disbelieve his father’s wild stories of “the grid” that he heard as a child — but, of course, we know it won’t be long until Sam finds himself sucked into that computerized world himself.  There he will encounter the father who he thought abandoned him as a youth, and do battle with the dictatorial program, Clu, that wears his father’s face and has taken control over the grid.

If I were only to judge Tron: Legacy by the visuals and the music, then this would be a fine film indeed.  The visual effects are, quite simply, astounding.  (With one notable exception, which I’ll get to in a few moments.)  The whole look of the original Tron, which was so ground-breaking back in 1982, has become quite dated when viewed in 2010.  Director Joseph Kosinski and his team had an enormous challenge before them of capturing the “feel” of the digital world created in Tron, but updating that for modern audiences and expanding it using the most cutting-edge tools available to them.  They succeeded admirably.  The thirty-minutes after Sam is sucked into the grid represent the high-point of the movie, as we find ourselves stunned, along with Sam, at this astonishing world we have entered.  It’s a blast seeing several classic images from the original Tron — the interceptors, and of course the light-cycles — brought to a whole new level of life.  In short-order, Sam finds himself captured and forced to compete in a series of disc-wars and, finally, a light-cycle chase.  These sequences are astounding — visceral and fast-paced and dazzling.

As for the music, much praise has already been heaped on Daft Punk’s score, but let me add to the chorus to say that it is magnificent.  Big and bombastic and weird and wonderful.  It’s a pretty perfectly pulse-pounding accompaniment to the imagery of the film, particularly during the action sequences.

Unfortunately — as has sadly been the case with so many recent big-budget blockbusters — all of that (staggeringly well-made) razzle-dazzle has been wrapped around a story that is, frankly, pretty weak.  For a sequel that took 28 years to get made, I was hoping for a lot more.

The emotional core of the film is supposed to be the strained father-son relationship between Flynn and Sam, but there’s just not a heck of a lot there.  Sam has grown up pissed that his father abandoned him.  Then he meets his father and it’s sort of like, oh, hi there.  There’s a tense moment or two, but that seems to dissipate quickly.  Then things shift to Flynn being pissed that Sam does something reckless in an attempt to get back home, but that too dissipates quickly once they’re reunited again.   Aaand… that’s pretty much it in terms of the emotional arcs of those characters.  Does either one really learn anything about himself or about the other?  No, not really.  When Sam returns to the real world he of course seems happier, and suddenly ready to take control of his father’s company, but it doesn’t feel earned in any significant way.

The action in the digital realm is fun, but it’s not enough to distract me from the myriad of questions I have about the story.  Most problematic is all the mumbo-jumbo about the “isos.”  I don’t really have any idea about what the heck they are.  That’s extremely problematic since much of the plot of the film hinges on those beings.  Somehow their discovery (or creation, I’m not sure which) was the event that Flynn deemed a “miracle” and that Clu saw as a disaster that led to his betrayal of Flynn.  How or why any of that happened is a mystery to me.

I also have a vast number of questions about the grid itself, where much of the film takes place.  In the original Tron, I thought the grid was a visual manifestation of the programming interiors of computers — basically, cyberspace, though that word was never used in the original film.  So the whole computer world was the grid.  But I’m unclear as to whether the grid seen in this film was the same grid seen in Tron, or something new created by Flynn, Tron, and Clu after the events of that film.  I also didn’t understand how that digital world seemed to have rocks and sky and other naturalistic things — shouldn’t the entire domain be the geometrically-shaped constructs of the grid?  Furthermore, the grid in Tron: Legacy seems to be confusingly self-contained.  It’s basically a city.  But the original Tron hinted at the possibility of the interconnectedness of computers.  (We learn that the Master Program computer was hacking into other computer systems to take them over.)  In the world of 2010, the interconnectedness of the world’s computers via the internet is a fact of life.  I would have expected that to have played into the digital realm seen in Tron: Legacy.  The grid now should be inconceivably vast — not one relatively small city.  It just doesn’t make sense to me.

Also, for a film that is unabashedly a sequel to the original Tron (rather than a reboot/remake — and, by the way, I’m impressed at the fearlessness of the filmmakers in making a sequel to a film three decades old), the film drops the ball in several significant ways in terms of following up on the narrative threads of the first film.  Most problematically is the treatment (or non-treatment) of Tron.  I realize that the first film was basically Flynn’s story, as opposed to that of Alan/Tron — but Tron was still a major character in the story!  How can you have a new movie called Tron in which Tron basically doesn’t appear at all??  (He’s basically Sir Not Appearing in This Film.)  It’s disappointing both because I love Bruce Boxleitner and would have loved to have seen more of him in the film (his few scenes as Alan are terrific), and also because the end of the original Tron frankly left me far more interested in what would happen next for the character of Tron than the character of Flynn.  It seemed to me that Flynn had completed his journey, finding himself and his purpose, whereas Tron was only just beginning to discover himself.

The film also completely ignores Lora/Yori.  There’s a quick reference to Flynn’s wife (Sam’s mother) who died years ago.  Is that Lora?  (When watching the film I assumed it was, but upon further reflection I’m not so sure.)  If it was, I would have loved to have known more about what went down, since Lora was dating Alan at the end of Tron.  (It’s hard to imagine that Alan would have remained friends with Flynn if Lora left him for Flynn!)  But if Flynn’s wife WAS Lora, then the film misses a WHOPPER of an opportunity in failing to address what happened to her digital counterpart, Yori.  Wouldn’t it have been interesting if Flynn had found some solace in the digital realm with a woman who was basically an avatar of his lost wife?  What if THAT was the reason why Flynn vanished into the grid?  To me, that would have been a fascinating twist to the story, but the film never goes there.

Basically we learn that Flynn was trapped in the grid.  But here again narrative confusion rears its ugly head.  Because about a minute after Flynn tells Sam that he had no way of leaving the grid once the “portal” was closed, he says that the reason Clu is so desperate the capture him is because of the memory disc that he carries that contains the secret of leaving the grid and entering the real world.  Well, pardon me, but if that’s the case, then just how was Flynn trapped??  Couldn’t he have used his disc the way Clu planned to, to escape the grid?  I don’t get it.

This, at last, brings us to Clu.  I absolutely love the idea that the villain of the film is basically Jeff Bridges circa 1982.  It’s a neat hook for the film, and I respect the filmmakers’ daring in having one of the film’s major players be a computer-enhanced creation.  (I say computer-enhanced because it’s my understanding that Jeff Bridges played the character, and then computer-effects were applied to de-age him.)  There are moments when the character really works, but also far too many moments when Clu looks stiff and fake.  There was something, in particular, not-quite naturalistic about his mouth movements when he speaks.  I’ve read that some of the same craftsmen responsible for the aging/de-aging visual effects of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button were involved in creating Clu, but if that’s so then they failed to recapture the miraculously convincing effects of that film.  I give their team an A for effort, but ultimately the effect does not succeed.

I’ve now spent probably way more time discussing this film that it deserves.  It’s certainly a fun ride, and it was particularly a blast to see in 3-D.  The 3-D effects were terrific — immersive and smooth without becoming distracting or subjecting the image to annoying warping effects.  It’s well-done, and I also love the device of when exactly the 3-D effects click in.  It’s clever.  But ultimately, Tron: Legacy is much ado about nothing.  The plot of the film doesn’t really make a lick of sense, and the character arcs are disappointingly simplistic.  The filmmakers and studio are clearly hoping that this is the re-launching of a movie franchise (as evidenced by things like the casting of a very famous actor as the son of the villain from the original Tron who, nevertheless, is only in the film for 2 minutes), but the only reason this film leaves me wanting further installments is because it failed to deliver what I was hoping for in this sequel.  That’s not really the basis of a strong franchise.  I do believe there is a lot of life left in Tron, and a lot of story left to be told.  But Tron: Legacy isn’t really it.  After 28 years, I was hoping for more.

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