When Tron came out in 1982, it seemed like a cinematic revolution, being the first movie to place actors inside computer-generated environments. It told the story of a video-game designer who was sucked into a digital realm and had to defeat an evil computer program that wanted to take over the world. It boasted amazing, brightly colored graphics that looked astonishing then and are still impressive today, but featured storytelling that could charitably be called clunky. The movie flopped back then, during a ridiculously deep summer that included E.T., Poltergeist, Blade Runner and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but 28 years later, the film has become a cult classic. The belated sequel, Tron: Legacy, is truly an appropriate continuation of the first film, featuring both gorgeous, state-of-the-art visuals (in 3-D this time) and a lazy, disappointing script.
The film opens in 1989, with Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, reprising his role from the first film), CEO of computer giant Encom, telling his young son, Sam, how he was transported into the world of computers, and how he now hopes to use the digital landscape to make life better for all mankind. But Kevin soon disappears, leaving Sam an orphan with a chip on his shoulder.
Twenty years later, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is an adult, if not completely grown up. He drives motorcycles really fast. He lives in a rundown apartment on the waterfront. And he breaks into Encom every once in a while for a prank, because the company has abandoned his father’s ideals in favor of actually making money.
When Kevin’s old friend Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) receives a page from Kevin’s old arcade, Sam goes down there and falls down the same digital rabbit hole as his father. Sam finds out that the Grid is ruled by Clu, a program who was created by Kevin in his 30s and still looks like the younger version of Bridges. Clu was tasked with creating the “perfect system,” but decided to go about it in a way that would make HAL 9000 proud, purging any programs that didn’t fit his worldview of what comprises “perfection.”
Sam is soon rescued by Quorra (Olivia Wilde), an astonishingly beautiful program with giant cat eyes and a slanty Louise Brooks haircut who serves as the real Kevin’s confidant/apprentice/possible concubine.
The real Kevin has been in the computer world so long that he’s gone a little weird and distant, trying to be Zen after his creation turned on him. Bridges plays both parts, through the use of some amazing special effects that take the actors performance and makes it look like it’s coming from Bridges in his 30s. The effect is uncanny, although it only looks realistic from a distance. Up close, it’s rather creepy.
Director Joseph Kosinski, along with production designer Darren Gilford and cinematographer Claudio Miranda, succeed in creating beautiful images. The graphics from the original film were distinguished mostly by day-glow primary colors, but everything here is sleek and black or transparent, with beams of light wind ing their way through all the structures and vehicles, even the actors’ costumes. It’s a nice shorthand way to establish the way everything in the Grid is interconnected, sprung from the mind of one man. Kosinski also includes the nice trick, lifted from The Wizard of Oz, of course, of shooting everything in the real world in 2-D, and switching to 3-D once Sam enters the computer world.
Kosinski fares rather poorer as a director of drama, however. He knows how to pose his actors, but not how to create conflict between them, leaving the film much more inert than it should be. But Kosinski did make the excellent decision to hire Daft Punk to do the film’s score. The duo’s throbbing electronic score is absolutely terrific and gives the film a pulse in some places where it badly needs it.
The original film could be cheesy and clunky at times, but it was also a lot of fun, filled with a sense of enthusiasm and adventure and buoyed by a lively Jeff Bridges performance in the lead. Tron: Legacy is much darker than the first film—literally as well as figuratively; dig the constant storm clouds and lightning in the digital sky.
The script, by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, is a little narratively lazy, particularly toward the end, and there are quite a few questions that the film never broaches. The characters are mostly surface only, the story beats are predictable and the film lifts ideas from Star Wars, The Matrix and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
While re-watching the original Tron recently, I was reminded of the half-baked religious metaphors in the film, which had the programs arguing over whether the “users” were real, and what their plans for the programs were. These metaphors may have been a little hokey, but they at least had the programs finding out that we users are pretty much doing the same thing they are, trying to do what they think is expected of them and hoping that their creator has some sort of reason for everything. Tron: Legacy also attempts some deeper ideas, but they’re mostly left unexplored. Clu as a creation unwillingly turned monster by his master. Kevin as a sort of digital deity, and his responsibilities as creator of the Grid. The idea that information should be free and available to everyone. These notions are all introduced, but all fall flat.
How much you like Tron: Legacy will depend mostly on how long the film’s astounding visuals and music keep your interest, since the script usually won’t. And for the most part, the movie coasts by on its visual charms. Of course, these films are really made for our inner adolescents, who can just marvel at the effects, and looking for depth in a movie about computer programs is probably setting yourself up for a fall. If Tron: Legacy was more fun, then that would be plenty, but it’s a surprisingly grim affair much of the time, trying and failing to be deep, and it proves that this series’ true legacy is in creating beautiful pictures, and little else.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to e firstname.lastname@example.org.