Film Reviews

TRON: LEGACY

By • Jan 12th, 2011 •

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Usually when a franchise lies dormant for a decade or two and a new installment crops up, it’s a sign that you should run far, far away from any theater showing it, lest your beloved childhood memories be forever tainted with the likes of Jar Jar Binks and Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear blast at ground-zero. So what on earth to make of TRON: LEGACY? It’s been twenty-eight years since the original came out to middling reviews and a disappointing box office intake. TRON was one of those movies that found a steady after-market, with several hit arcade games based off the film that generated tens of millions in revenue, a bestselling special edition DVD release (now out of print for some reason), and collectable merchandise. It’s a guilty pleasure for just about anyone who saw it as a kid (myself included), and in 1982 there was nothing else out there that looked even remotely like it. TRON ushered in the era of computer animation as a visual effects tool nine years before TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY and eleven years before JURASSIC PARK made it viable.

The original TRON had a simple but intriguing premise. Jeff Bridges played Kevin Flynn, a computer genius who gets transported (via an experimental laser bay) into the computer world and had to fight his way out. At the end of that film, Flynn became CEO of Encom, a computer company with vast resources at its disposal (including that laser bay).

TRON: LEGACY begins with an inadvertently creepy-looking, digitally de-aged Bridges, telling his seven-year-old son Sam about the computer world and all of it’s wonders as a bedtime story. Flynn vanishes that very night, leaving his son an orphan and his company in shambles. The movie jumps ahead 20 years, and after some clunky scenes of the now coldly-corporate Encom getting hacked into by the understandably rebellious and angry Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), the movie gets to it’s main plot.

***Be Warned… The Next Two Paragraphs Spoil The First Half of the Movie***

An old friend of Kevin Flynn’s, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, reprising his role from the original movie), tells Sam that he received a message from the office at Flynn’s long-abandoned arcade. Sam investigates, and after discovering a hidden room at the back of the arcade with the experimental laser bay from the original movie, gets transported into the computer world. Once there, he discovers that an evil ‘program’ doppleganger of his father named Clu (Bridges, digitally de-aged) rules the computer world with an iron fist, and sent the message that brought Sam to the arcade. Clu immediately puts Sam on ‘The Grid’, a sort of gladiatorial arena of deadly futuristic sports. During a scene with the famed ‘lightcycles’ (wouldn’t be TRON without ’em), Sam is rescued by a program named Quorra, who takes him to where his father is hiding. The basic conflict of the movie is that Clu is cultivating an army of programs, and has found a way to beam said programs out into the real world to take it over, but needs Kevin Flynn’s ‘identity disc’ to do so. It’s up to Kevin, Sam, and Quorra to save the day.

But wait… why does Clu need Sam at all for this? Couldn’t he just confront Flynn? For that matter, how was Clu able to send Alan a message that would lead Sam to the arcade if he can’t send things back to the real world? There’re three possible explanations for this: (1) The plot holes were a necessary evil to keep the story the filmmakers wanted intact, logic be damned; (2) I missed something; or (3) It’s the same case as the STAR TREK reboot last year where all the scenes filling in the plot holes were scrapped and ended up as DVD extras so that the movie had a manageable pace and running time. Whatever the case may be, these are distracting flaws that you’ll be going over in your head as the end credits roll.

***End Spoilers***

Sadly, the flaws don’t end there, as the first section of the film is poorly-paced, and the plot takes forever to get going. Although the pre-computer world segment was destined to be a “Can we just get to the action?”-kind-of-affair, it didn’t need to be this plodding and reliant on cliche (rebellious twenty-something recklessly driving a motorcycle!). The pacing problems carry over somewhat into later parts of the film, and I couldn’t help but think that the movie would have been improved with just one more trip to the cutting room.

I’m delighted to report however, that the positives outweigh the negatives. Jeff Bridges is fantastic in his dual roles, and has a few moments where he gets to channel his now-immortalized role as The Dude from THE BIG LECOWSKI (during a particularly tense moment he tells his son, “You’re kinda ruining my zen, man!”). This is also a movie that requires him to do a lot of narration and voice-over work, something which, given how suited his voice is for it, I’m surprised I haven’t seen him do much of earlier. Garrett Hedlund, playing Bridges’ son, is perfectly-suited for his role, and brings life to what could have been a very uninvolving character, even during those aforementioned clunky opening scenes. Oliva Wilde similarly makes her role come to life by playing Quorra not as ‘the chick’, but as a surprisingly emotionally-nuanced character. The cast deserves a lot of kudos for being able to shine in a movie you’d expect to leave only talking about how cool the visual effects were.

That being said, the visual effects are remarkable, and there was a lot to live up to given how groundbreaking the original TRON was in that department. Back in 1982, it was highly unusual to have a movie so driven by visual effects, to the point where over an hour of that 96-minute film had some kind of after-the-fact effects work done to it. Nowadays, that’s a dime-a-dozen. We’re jaded. We need something really substantial and epic to live up to the likes of WALL*E, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, and AVATAR. Thankfully, this movie delivers that. The computer world is a dark, somewhat eerie open space, full of futuristic buildings and physics-defying airships. The light-cycles and gladiator games I mentioned earlier are vivid, impressively staged action set-pieces that actually use computer animation as a way of showing us something that would otherwise be impossible to visualize. Once you see a hapless program get derezzed, exploding into a storm of illuminated cubes that shatter on the ground like glass, you’ll be staring in slack-jawed awe, waiting anxiously for the next cool effect, which the movie has in spades.

Even with all the special effects, the movie still has some absolutely gorgeous set design. The director, Joseph Kosinski, is a former architect, and his previous occupation has served him as well as you could possibly imagine when it comes to putting together all of the sets. It’s the most impressive aspect of the whole show, and in years to come will certainly be mentioned alongside BLADE RUNNER, METROPOLIS, and DARK CITY. It helps that most of the sets are standing, physical creations, not just something filled in later by a computer. This undoubtedly helped the performers, and you can certainly see a difference between something like this, and a project where the actors have nothing there to work with, and are just parading around in front of a blank green wall.

French electronic duo Daft Punk’s music score is yet another plus, and easily rivals Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for THE SOCIAL NETWORK as one of the best soundtracks this year. I read a comment recently, “Daft Punk isn’t in TRON. TRON is in Daft Punk.” They’ve created a perfect mix of the standard booming orchestral score that all event movies are required by law to have, with their own trademark sound. They also cameo in the film, and anyone who knows what they look like on stage should recognize them immediately. What’s really worth mentioning about the score, however, is that according to director Kosinski, it was completed while the film was shooting, and played on-set for key scenes. Apart from AKIRA, HOUSE and Sergio Leone’s films, I’m hard-pressed to think of another instance where this has happened.

Finally, it’s time to talk about the 3D. This year has been very testing on the format. 2D-to-3D conversions have been universally reviled, and even some films shot in the format have gotten the general consensus of “Why was this even made in 3D if they didn’t use it?” (case in point, TOY STORY 3). Once again, TRON: LEGACY exceeds expectations in this department. In a surprising way, its use is somewhat limited. The first 24 minutes play almost entirely in 2D, as do the concluding scenes. A disclaimer before even the Disney logo tells us that these 2D scenes are presented as originally shot but that we should still wear the 3D glasses for the full duration of the movie. I’d actually suggest taking the 3D glasses off after the opening sequence, and then putting them back on once Sam Flynn gets beamed into the computer world. That way, those of you who find the glasses uncomfortable won’t have to endure the whole two-hour length with them.

Even if it’s not present throughout the entire film, the 3D is a necessary part of the experience. If it’s presented in 3D, then it was shot in the format (with the same camera system as AVATAR). It never feels forced, and it never overstays it’s welcome. The 3D is used more to convey depth than to have something akin to say, the paddle-ball guy in HOUSE OF WAX. There’s even a scene where Michael Sheen, as a delightfully camp nightclub owner, gestures with a cane, and that cane never goes past the normal perspective of a 2D screen.

TRON: LEGACY, in spite of it’s narrative hiccups, is a very enjoyable, engaging bit of spectacle. Fans of the original won’t be disappointed, and even if you’re going in cold, you’d be hard-pressed not to have a good time.

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2 Responses »

  1. This is a fantastic review. I like the part about not knowing why Sam was needed. I never thought of it that way when I went to see it. I always just assumed Kevin Flynn couldn’t leave the cyber world because getting too close to the portal would give CLU the chance to escape, though his intentions were not yet clear to Kevin at the time. But CLU knew if Kevin’s son were to come, there would be a greater incentive for Kevin to try to leave, and that would be CLU’s chance to escape.

  2. I’m also glad someone has took the time to notice the amazing architecture in this movie, it really made the movie as much as Daft Punk’s soundtrack did. That’s an interesting fact that the director was once an architect, very cool.

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