BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Twenty years after the disappearance of ENCOM CEO Kevin Flynn, his son Sam sets out on a quest to locate him, finding him, and his evil counterpart Clu, in the digital world of The Grid.
PROS: Good soundtrack from Daft Punk; Olivia Wilde, who looks incredible in Quorra’s costuming; digitally transforming Jeff Bridges into a younger version of himself; excellent sound effects…
CONS: …but you don’t go to a movie like this for sound effects; visually flat; aggressively dull action and direction; inconsistent in construction and character; listless dialogue; incomprehensible storyline; way too long.
Context is important, especially in movies. Tron was released in 1982, during a summer effulgent with what would become geek classics: ET: the Extraterrestrial, The Road Warrior, John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing (from Another World), Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan, and of course Ridley Scott’s seminal Bladerunner. And of all these major genre works, audiences viewed Tron as the daftest. After all, the concept of a world behind of a computer simply didn’t exist in the public’s eye; even though William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome” appeared in Omni magazine at roughly the same time as the movie’s release, many people simply couldn’t get their heads around the concept of cyberspace. (Oddly enough, the movies I thought of when I first read the story were Tron and Bladerunner.) John Clute, in his Science Fiction: the Illustrated Encyclopedia, once described it as “too much, too soon,” a description that seem apt. Forget its core subject matter: even its peripheral trappings – hacker culture and its slang, video arcades – were something truly different, its locus at the cultural edge of contemporary civilization. As Adam Rogers states in the current issue of Wired, it was the future, providing us with “both a window and mirror” of “where we’re going and who we are.”
Well, sort of. For all of Tron‘s technical and conceptual achievements, for all of its stunning visuals, light cycle chases and deadly jai alai tournaments, it was then, and is now, a pretty flawed work, coming to life only in fits and starts. Interesting religious digressions on the nature of “programs” vs. “users” never really got anywhere. But it was internally consistent, and, once the viewer got into its core world and parsed its visual language, made a certain degree of sense.
And that is one of the sequel’s many big problems: so much of Tron: Legacy is incoherent and illogical that it’s almost impossible to believe that it takes place within the logical boundaries of cyberspace. A single example: Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) finally locates his father Kevin (Jeff Bridges) in The Grid after a twenty-year search, finding him living a life of luxurious exile in an apartment that appears borrowed from the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, complete with Louis XVI-style décor, glowing white floors and several leather bound volumes of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Jules Verne. Kevin Flynn explains the backstory of the Grid (and there’s a lot of backstory, none of it very interesting) over a dinner of what appears to be a very scarlet roast pig. Flynn, it seems, came to the Grid to build a utopia that, somehow, is supposed to bring utopian principles to the world, but was forced into exile when his digital copy Clu (also Bridges, who seems to have drunk deeply from the electronic Fountain of Youth thanks to the latest CGI technology) developed his own ideas for what their brave CPU world should look like.
The questions of how the Flynns came to the Grid are almost secondary to what they and the warrior Quorra (Olivia Wilde, who would be reason enough to go to the Grid) were doing at a dinner table. Why do programs need to eat? Why would they want to, or need to, read Verne (or Tolstoy, for that matter?) Why would an apartment even need to be built? In the world of the Wachowsky brothers’ The Matrix it almost makes sense (if the viewer is willing to forego other inconsistencies), but in Tron: Legacy it raises far more question than it ever tries to answer, and almost always avoids asking questions in the first place.
The questions aren’t exclusive to the world of the Grid. The movie opens (in a tracking shot right out of Filmmaking 101, which makes it all the more obvious that this is director Joseph Kosinski’s debut) with Flynn explaining the world of the Grid to ten-year-old Sam (using some very cool action figures; if nothing else, I admit that I’ll be purchasing one) before disappearing on his motorcycle for twenty years. Where does Flynn go? Nobody but the audience knows, and it leaves the future of ENCOM, the computer company where he serves as CEO, in doubt.
On the eve of the launch of their new operating system, Sam sneaks into ENCOM’s mainframe (outwitting cameras very smartly at first before being caught very dumbly walking through a laser alarm) to launch a virus, making his getaway by performang a HALO jump from ENCOM’s roof. It’s competently done, but devoid of energy or excitement (much like the rest of the movie), and one wonders why Sam had to do so in the first place. (Its aftermath is more lively; after he’s released by the police, he says hello to the attendant at impound lot to pick up his motorcycle, making it obvious that they’ve performed this exchange before. A shame that the rest of the movie doesn’t have moments like this.)
When he gets home, he finds Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, thanklessly reprising his role, and looking like he wishes he were back in bed with Kate Jackson) waiting for Sam to tell him that somebody tried to page him at Sam’s father’s old arcade. Sam investigates to find a very old computer console which uses UNIX coding (amusing, here, to see some of the language) hooked to the very laser that transported the elder Flynn to the Grid, and through a plot contrivance that shows Flynn the younger to be as bright as a bulb with negative wattage, transports himself to the other side.
Tron: Legacy should kick itself into visual overdrive by this point, but its dark settings (illuminated by piping in the programs’ tight-fitting costumes) and clean interiors resemble the negative images of a 1970s science fiction movie, devoid of detail and allowing the eye nothing to grasp. It should provide hyperkinetic excitement, exemplifying the dangers of a user (Tron-speak for programmer), devoid of his godlike powers, finding himself in the land of programs, but by twisting the laws of physical space into meaninglessness and overcranking the camera (can somebody please tell anybody who wants to film an action sequence that it is an overused technique?!) director Kosinski bleeds energy from every possible action sequence. The Grid, as presented in Tron: Legacy, is a very dull place indeed.
And inconsistent. At one point, Quorra tells Sam that the only program who can help Flynn escape the Grid is Zuse (Michael Sheen, who chews what scenery he can), owner of the End of the Line Club. Why do programs need to have a club? It’s never said. And even though the characters are given places to go, they’re given nothing to do. Hedlund, Wilde and Sheen are not given any real motivations for their actions; even Bridges, who has had several movies where he’s given nothing to do (The Big Lebowsky, anyone?), when not glowering as an avatar, looks like he’d be more comfortable in a porn version of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Call him Qui-Gon Tron.
Tron: Legacy does have its rays (or is it beams) of light. The French duo Daft Punk provided the soundtrack, and that is a spectacular thing indeed, providing aural cues to what should have been an epic movie. Indeed, listening to this movie is a delight to the ears; the sound effects team let light cycles roar and electronics hum. They outmatch the visuals in practically every respect.
Mostly, and finally, Tron: Legacy suffers from being outmatched and outclassed by its recent predecessors. The Matrix, Dark City, Avalon, and The Ghost in the Shell have built impressive structures since Tron first staked out cinematic territory, and their towering skyscrapers and snazzy condos now dwarf Tron‘s once daring outpost. Its concerns, once cutting edge, now seem quaint. If Tron lived on the edge of the future, then Tron: Legacy, like most nostalgia objects, keeps its focus firmly on the past. In the context of modern cinema, that’s not surprising, but it makes the movie all the more disappointing. Where we want to go, it seems, is yesterday, because we ourselves are relics.