Wow, been a while since I talked about a movie. Good thing it’s a movie about video games.
The original Tron was a slow, plodding sort of Star Wars rip-off with a few interesting concepts and a light performance from Jeff Bridges. Though it lacked in entertainment value, it provided the first foray into cyberspace on film, something that the sci-fi and cyberpunk subgenre would build upon for 27 odd years since. The Matrix, Ghost in the Shell and, if anyone remembers them, cartoons Reboot and The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest all used variations of the Grid, designs that relied on neon and skintight leather, and rogue hackers who changed the system and fought soulless corporations and/or machines. Tron helped pave the way for all that. It showed that past the monitor there’s a whole other universe inside the computer. Alice in Wonderland for the digital age — “a digital frontier.”
It was also among the first movies to portray video games in a positive, interesting way. Bridges’ character, Kevin Flynn, was an arcade hero who used his video game prowess to survive the disc and cycle games in the gladiatorial world of The Grid. And games have come a long, long way since Flynn’s Arcade. They’re the most innovative, lucrative entertainment medium there is today, and everyone plays them from Angry Birds to Plants vs. Zombies, to titles like Heavy Rain and Call of Duty that arguably push and blur the boundaries of what a game could be, making billions of dollars in the process.
Movies have responded in kind. Inception, Speed Racer, Avatar, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World — not to mention those unmentionables based on actual video game franchises — all emulate the kinetic imagery, rhythms and instant gratification video games provide, and most prominently, Tron‘s pioneering use of CG. Today, CG is so common that special effects are hardly special anymore. In a strange turnabout, practical effects like puppetry, prosthetics and — gasp — actual sets are novel once more.
So, with the history lesson out of the way, and a TRON: Legacy review to get into I have to reveal something first.
I saw TRON: Legacy in IMAX 3D, where I sat all the way on the right side of the massive theater, in the middle somewhere. It wasn’t really by choice, the place was so packed. So, a nice part of the right side of the screen was blurry and never in focus the entire time. Combine the frantic camera movements of an action scene and the movie’s overall dark palette and it was like watching a movie underwater. Aside from a few broad strokes, I couldn’t tell you what happened in these action scenes. TRON: Legacy is dark. Aside from blue or yellow neon, black is the primary shade on the screen, so wearing 3D glasses that add yet another layer of darkness made my viewing experience kind of dreary. When I see the commercials on TV I’m looking at a way better picture than what I got, which is supremely frustrating. I may see the movie again, but if the 3D doesn’t work on my obsolete eyeballs, then, well, I guess I’ll suck it up and wait for the Blu-ray in six months.
In any case, TRON: Legacy.
After we play catch up with a narration that neatly sums up the first movie from Jeff Bridges, who returns as Kevin Flynn, we’re introduced to his grown-up son, Sam, after his father mysteriously disappeared, leaving him and his hyper-successful company behind. Lock-breaking and camera-dodging his way up corporate headquarters to “free” his father’s information, the scene establishes Sam as a (cyber)punk, a kid who’s supposed to rule his dad’s kingdom, but it’s no longer the freedom-loving, innovative utopia his father built. It’s run by douchebags and ass-kissers (and potential future villains) who just care about stocks and news coverage, man, so, like, fuck ’em. It’s a crowd-pleasing, mischievous opening, and kind of a daring one on Disney’s part, making a hero out of a different kind of pirate.
Once Sam finishes his stunt he meets Alan Bradley, once again played by Bruce Boxleitner. He gruffly informs Sam of a page (as in pager!) he got from his father’s office at his old arcade. And what an arcade. When Sam turns the power back on and all those Donkey Kong and Pac-Man sound effects blare up, backed by Journey’s “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)”, I grinned ear to ear and found myself back in time. This scene can be a harsh one for those weaned on those extinct smokey, dark arcade rooms. To be honest, I did most of my arcade cabinet-playing at pizza parlors, a roller rink, and a hospital waiting room where I’m pretty sure Ms. Pac-Man popped my arcade cherry. That brazen hussy. Not much smokiness in any of those locations, though there was a place called Sportsworld in Paramus, NJ that was kind of filthy… But, yeah, your mileage may vary when it comes to TRON: Legacy‘s ruthless nostalgia-mining. I was smitten.
Then Sam unceremoniously enters the Grid. Which feels odd. Besides the hyped Wizard of Oz-esque switch from 2D to 3D (I barely noticed), there’s no introduction to the world at all, which may be because Sam already knows about it thanks to his father, but you’d think some kind of easing-in process would be necessary considering a large chunk of the population’s never seen or heard of Tron. He’s literally dropped in. Users, Programs, “derez”, “end of line”, all of these terms and conceits — the games! — get thrown at you without any preparation. There’s no Spielbergian shot of Sam in awe of what he’s seeing, no warm moment of discovery. It’s something Legacy could’ve used this early on. Rather, we’re swept into a long sequence of action scenes.
The discs and the lightcycles return, updated to include bullet-time, stuntwork and dual-wielding, and upgraded with the snazziest CG available today. It’s mostly expensive pizazz, working best when Sam realizes the danger he’s in (he bleeds real blood) and when he teams up with the other Programs stuck in the games to survive. There’s just something about reluctant leaders and team-based survival, isn’t there?
Eventually, Sam meets Clu. Kevin Flynn originally made Clu out of his own image to help create “the perfect system.” But Flynn also made his son, Sam right? So we have two of Flynn’s creations deciding the future of The Grid… One is amassing a giant army with the goal of pursuing “perfection” as he perceives it, while the other just wants dad back, who’s been trapped in this digital world for almost 30 years. This all sounds like some big stuff, and it is, but sometimes it doesn’t feels like it due to the odd pacing in the middle. It’s that typical second act curse. Gee, we got a rousing beginning and solid ending, what do we do between?
Well, stuff gets explained awkwardly, through flashbacks and too many CG versions of Jeff Bridges on screen at a time. One is good. Clu looks fine. Maybe his head is too big or something, and I did my best to ignore the Uncanny Valley (those dead-looking eyes, man) but I rolled with it. Clu looks better than Professor X and Magneto did in X-Men 3, and there’s still an angry, conflicted performance by Bridges underneath the CG. My favorite moment: Clu’s anguished exploration of the original Flynn’s Kubrick-esque hiding place. But when you have two CG Flynns talking to each other in flashbacks, it’s just … couldn’t there have been another way to tell that part of the story?
Legacy doesn’t do much to explore the the world of The Grid. It’s supposed to be a dystopia, where Flynn’s clone-creation Clu rules with an obsession for perfection. All that perfection makes for a sleek place to look at, but it’s too sleek! Everything looks too clean, too orderly for my tastes (Blade Runner, which came out the same year as Tron, still rules the dystopia roost) and aside from some jawing about Clu’s oppressive regime, there’s little sense that the “people” of The Grid, the Programs, are impoverished or in pain. Some of them are arrested to take part in the Games, but then there’s a whole ton of them that watch the carnage, enamored by all the derezzing. The Sirens, who equip Sam with his Tron suit, seem to be mindless automatons. Then we meet one of them later as if she just got off work, and she has revolutionary leanings to boot. And they’re named Sirens! Why?! We never know, and that’s TRON: Legacy‘s biggest problem: a lot of it is underdeveloped or just poorly defined.
Take Michael Sheen’s character, who succeeds David Warner as the campy British oddball. He stands out like a sore thumb, a preening, cartoon character among all these stern, serious people talking of change and revolution. He’s kind of a relief — comic even! — but at the same time kind of buffoonish because the script just up and does stuff to him without warning. Meet Zeus. Who’s Zeus? Oh, he’s this guy. No, he isn’t it. Oh wait, yes he is. Uh, action scene! At the same time, there are no twists in the plot that you can’t see coming from a parsec away. The minute you hear one explanation you’ll know the true nature of an important character. Now, let’s watch a few flashbacks and listen to a few speeches that set up the sentimental ending.
Worse of all, there’s a character who change sides at the drop of a hat. This happens near the end in a very cheap way in a finale that’s kind of limp to begin with. In what’s basically rip-off of Han and Luke’s escape from the first Death Star, Sam does little but sit in a chair and yell as he shoots things. Very hokey. For a climactic action scene in a huge event movie it feels we could’ve done better than a scene from the middle of another, even more influential movie from 30 years ago. But alas. At least that sentimental ending’s nice. And its implications, as Flynn mentions, are huge. The net is vast and infinite, indeed.
Don’t let the hokiness (“What does the sun feel like?”) ruin the movie for you, though. I’d say it adds to the film’s charm, and when TRON: Legacy works it really works. The whole first act is pretty great. Working together on the lightcycles is great. Quorra’s great. Olivia Wilde steals the movie with her giant Disney (Tezuka?) cartoon character eyes and lithe leathery form. In one unexpected twist, she’s desexualized, androgynous even. There’s no steamy make-out scene, but she’s cute and full of pep and you can’t help but love her. Jeff Bridges glides by effortlessly as this digital Obi-Wan Flynn has become, with a Zeus-like beard and talk of digital jazz and Zen. Some say he glides by too effortlessly, and I can see that. He’s basically himself, a more sober version of The Dude, but then you have moments like his reunion with Sam or the final confrontation with Clu, you can’t say he’s not putting any effort forth. You really can’t say that when he’s toying with a piece of digital code aboard the Solar Sailer, and you can tell in his eyes and in his voice he adores being back in this universe again.
Garret Hedlund, who plays Sam, appeals to us very early on in the movie. But when he meets characters more interesting than he is his role diminishes somewhat. He’s still important, of course; we’re following him the entire movie. It’s his journey. But eventually he feels more like an audience stand-in than a proper protagonist, especially with big-eyed Olivia and jazz-lovin’ Bridges around him constantly. The. It would’ve been nice if the script delved more into this person beyond his hobbies (motorcycles) and education (Caltech).
The best thing about it all: Daft Punk’s score. Driving, moody, atmospheric electronica mixed with classic swelling orchestras may be worth the price of admission alone. Each time a new piece starts, get ready to rock out. Or chill out! There’s enough variety in the music’s energy to do either, with mood pieces akin to Tangerine Dream’s sleepy pulses, and enough Halo-meets-Inception-meets-Vangelis to get adrenaline going. The movie almost plays like another Interstella 5555, so much of the movie is edited to the French duo’s phat beats.
So, I hope I got my feelings on TRON: Legacy across. Anymore would be delving into spoiler territory and even more tenuous connections, and I think I made enough of those. For now. I’ll just say there aren’t a lot of sci-fi/fantasy movies about God complexes and emergent A.I. with Daft Punk soundtracks out there. It’s a little uneven, and its action isn’t groundbreaking (from what I can tell, damn my eyes) and its story remains kind of thin despite the great ideas beneath, but I haven’t given this much thought or ink to something, film or game, in a long time.
Hm. I guess that means I like it.