Sunday, December 19, 2010

Was "TRON Legacy" Worth the Wait?

28 years, millions of dollars in production and marketing, and over three years of building hype after the sequel to "TRON" was initially greenlit, was all the fuss worth it? Is the long-awaited sequel a success? That depends on how you want to quantify it.

I came into "TRON Legacy" well prepared. I rewatched the original 1982 film the night before, and I significantly lowered my expectations after the wave of negative reviews and disappointed fanboy reports flooded in last week. And I liked the film. I was surprised at how much I liked the film, since I was fully expecting a disaster from some of the responses I'd been hearing. "Legacy" isn't a great movie by any means, but it is a perfectly serviceable action film with a killer production design, gorgeous effects, and a Daft Punk score that will be reverberating around in my skull for the rest of the year. Yes, the script could have used some more passes, and yes, some of the effects didn't quite come off as well as the filmmakers were probably hoping, but the fundamentals were there. "TRON Legacy" isn't revolutionary, or groundbreaking, or even very original, but I had fun with it.

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is the president of a computer company called Encom in the '80s, but one day he disappears off the face of the earth, leaving a troubled young son named Sam behind. Twenty-odd years later, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) technically still owns the controlling stake in the company, but has no interest in running it. When he disagrees with how the board is behaving, he engages in a little corporate terrorism, to the head-shaking exasperation of his father's old colleague Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner). Alan remains on Encom's board, apparently just to be the oft ignored voice of principles and altruism. One night he gets a page from Flynn's Arcade, the long-closed video arcade that Kevin used to run. Sam goes to investigate, finds a secret underground lab, and gets himself zapped into the computer to find out what really happened to his father.

Up to this point, I though the film was doing very well. The characters are all set up nicely, the action and humor were good, and there were lots of little in-jokes and references for "TRON" fans to pick up on. Once Sam gets to the "Grid," the fluorescent fantasy world that exists inside the computer, where programs are anthropomorphized beings with wacky acronym names, the plot goes off in a completely different direction. Cillian Murphy plays an Encom programmer named Dillinger who has villain written all over him, but we never see him again after a single scene. There are a lot of little loose ends and odd pieces like this in "TRON Legacy," where you can see where the filmmakers ran into trouble with the story. However, I don't think any of the mistakes are fatal. Sam's goal once he enters the Grid is simple: find his father and come home again. There are twists and digressions, but that simple driving goal doesn't change.

And boy are there digressions. The real villain of "TRON" turns out to be CLU, a program that Kevin Flynn wrote to help him build and run the Grid, who looks like a young, thirty-something Jeff Bridges. The effect is uncanny when he doesn't move, but the second he does, CLU is smack in the middle of Uncanny Valley, and looks exactly like a character from one of Robert Zemeckis's unfortunate motion capture films. Sam has his first run-in with him when he's picked up for being a "stray" program and sent off to compete in the gladiatorial Games. This is where the best action scenes of the film take place, namely updates of the Ring Game and Light Cycle bouts of the original "TRON." Unfortunately, at this point we're only about halfway through the film.

Sam is rescued by Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a program who has become a companion and apprentice of sorts to Flynn, who is played with an appealing elderly Zen master cum surfer dude vibe by Jeff Bridges, sans any digital enhancements. As appealing as the character is, his entrance marks the beginning of the film's rockiest stretch. There are several segments where the momentum just evaporates, and the audience is stuck listening to the characters trade awkward dialogue and dull exposition. None of the material is all that bad, but it's just not handled very well by first-time director Joseph Kosinski. The pace picks up again as Sam, Flynn, and Quorra race to reach an open portal back to the real world, but every time the action slows down or the spectacle dims, the tedium sets in.

There were some concepts and ideas that just didn’t work, like the brief appearances of Castor (Michael Sheen) an entertainment program who runs the End of the Line Club. We hear mentions of resistances and revolutions against the tyranny of CLU, but this is never explored in any detail. The differing attitudes of the programs to the Users would seem to hold good dramatic potential, but we never get any decent explanation or discussion of these concepts either. There's a messy subplot about the "TRON" program of the title that seems to have being tossed in as an afterthought, maybe when someone pointed out that a film called "TRON" should probably have the character TRON appear in it. If I hadn't been familiar with the original film, I'm not sure I would have understood what they were trying to do.

The film does get plenty right. The father-son relationship between Kevin and Sam is there, Quorra and CLU are good characters, and Kevin Flynn's whole arc about being an imperfect creator taking responsibility for his creation worked for me. I found more emotional resonance in "Legacy" than I did with the original "TRON," and I would love to see this turned into the franchise Disney has been gunning for. I expect that much of the critical disappointment over "TRON Legacy" comes from the film failing to really be as risky and innovative as the original "TRON." We don't get to see what a modern computing system looks like in "TRON" terms, but rather we get essentially the same universe we knew from the 1982 film with bigger and bolder effects. It revamps concepts from the original film, but doesn't really add much to them. In that sense, "TRON Legacy" fails to live up to its predecessor. But as a souped-up light show with a great soundtrack - which was what "TRON" was always meant to be as a movie - it'll do. It could be better, no doubt, but it'll do.

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