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MOVIE REVIEW: Tron Legacy (2010)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Dull, lifeless sequel to the groundbreaking 1982 cult classic holds little visual interest and no soul.


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.

14 Comments on MOVIE REVIEW: Tron Legacy (2010)

  1. I didn’t see the original Tron until I was an adult and when I did finally watch it, I thought it was alow, boring, and visually disappointing (ven taking into account when it was made). Is this generally the case for those late to the Tron party?

  2. Jeff VanderMeer // December 17, 2010 at 12:11 pm //

    Wow. And after all of those days of Tron x-mas. Why did we have to suffer through those if this movie sucks so bad?


  3. This is the third negative review I’ve read about this movie. Oh well. I’ll rent it, just b/c.

  4. I have to ask the same question as JeffV above.

    Tron was ahead of it’s time in conception and computer graphics but the story and characters were as flat as a pancake (to coin a cliche).  It seems that the new movie follows in it’s footsteps and then some.


  5. I’m not much of an original Tron fan-boy.  I thought the 1982 movie was striking to look but didn’t have the strongest story so I skipped over all the TRONmas posts.  But props to you guys for posting an honest review about the new movie.

  6. Well-reasoned review of what is going to be a big disappointment for a lot of people. Personally, I never thought the original Tron was strong enough to be considered a “franchise” for Disney — although I remember the arcade games being pretty popular. But then again, I was 25 years old when it came out. I’m sure a lot of eight or nine or ten-year-olds at the time had their young minds sufficiently blown to have been anticipating the sequel.

    Good connection to the contemporary publication of William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome.” I’m not sure if it was the same issue, or one issue previous quarter after, but Omni magazine ran, in quick succession, that seminal short story, and an article about Tron, and an article about Blade Runner. Like you, the images first seen in that magazine were like illustrations to Gibson’s prose for me. I remember, after reading his Neuromancer, thinking that there would be no point in adapting it for film, because it would be popularly seen as ripping off those two movies.  (Much the same, I’m afraid, as Avatar having already drunk A Princess of Mars‘ milkshake. But that’s another post.)

  7. Going tonight, IMAX 3D.  Re-watched the original DVD last night.  I’m pretty certain I’ll have a good time as I have the ability to rationalize the difference between a popcorn flick (such as Avatar) and highbrow drama.

  8. JeffV: How on Earth would he know that the movie deserved one star (in his opinion) before he saw it? And does the one star make the Tron gear any less interesting?

  9. Well, I just got back, and had an excellent time! 
    (Of course, I’d had a nap and taken an extra dose of Ritalin before heading out…)
    Had no problem following the plot (funny how not a single review I’ve read has mentioned the word “Iso”).

  10. Forrest X Leeson // December 18, 2010 at 7:18 pm //

    This is not the kind of movie to see at home unless you’ve got a really good sound system. (In fact it’s not a movie, really, it’s a two hour music video, and would be improved by editing all the dialog out of it.)

  11. Not sure that all the review snobbery (here and other places) is all that warranted. Saw the movie over the weekend, and while it has it’s flaws, it’s certainly not as bad as it’s made out to be. 

  12. I watched Tron(original)a few days ago (luckily a friend of a friend had it). It seemed a little silly and dated, but got me excited for Legacy.

    Last night I really enjoyed Tron:Legacy and the fact that it kept a lot of things from Tron. Though, I felt like the old Tron had a magic to it that Legacy dropped. Legacy felt more emo or something like Matrix reloaded than a hacker/gamer adventure. I also thought Legacy was inconsistant with itself and with the original Tron both tech wise and character wise. I don’t think it was a bad movie, but it could have been much better.

    What about Tron himself? He just goes for a swim and that’s it?.

  13. I hadn’t had the chance to watch Tron: Legacy until this afternoon, but I had read this negative review and several others prior to today.  Let me be perfectly blunt here:  those people who claim the plot is weak or don’t understand the plot at all are f***ing stupid.  While the plot is simple (I could describe it in a sentence or two), it’s understandable and easy to follow.  To be honest, I rather enjoyed the movie; I’d give it four of five stars.

    My wife and I have a fairly simple rule regarding movie reviews:  we take them with a grain of salt, and make our own judgments as to whether a movie is good or not.  This is the second review here in which I felt the review was very much off the mark (the other movie was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).  I’ll continue to read the reviews here, but I don’t think I will be able to trust them in the future.


  14. JDsq,

    I think calling people who think TRON‘s plot is weak ‘#^&!@# stupid’ is beyond the pale. Derek did a good job outlining his objections and I, too, think the plot was weak. I still enjoyed the movie well enough, I’d say maybe 3/5, but calling someone whose opinion is different from you ‘stupid’ is wrong.

    As far as the reviews in general go, there isn’t a single person who writes them for SF Signal, we have a group of people who write them when they feel like it. It just so happens that Derek also wrote the Potter review you disagreed with so it seems to me that you and Derek are looking for different things from you movies. Might I suggest that looking at who wrote a review on our site might help you make a better decision on whether to disregard a particular review or not? And since enjoyment of movies is a matter of personal tast an opinion, differences don’t make people stupid, just different.

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