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Tron: Legacy
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Screenplay: Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz (story by Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz and Brian Klugman & Lee Sternthal; based on characters created by Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird)
Stars: Jeff Bridges (Kevin Flynn / Clu), Garrett Hedlund (Sam Flynn), Olivia Wilde (Quorra), Bruce Boxleitner (Alan Bradley / Tron), James Frain (Jarvis), Beau Garrett (Gem), Michael Sheen (Castor / Zuse), Anis Cheurfa (Rinzler), Conrad Coates (Bartik), Steven Lisberger (Shaddix), Donnelly Rhodes (Grandpa Flynn), Belinda Montgomery (Grandma Flynn), Owen Best (7-Year-Old Sam Flynn)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 2010
Country: U.S.
Tron: Legacy
Tron: Legacy Released in the summer of 1982 with much fanfare and disappointing box-office returns, Disney’s Tron has become, in the intervening three decades, an object of cult adoration among computer enthusiasts and special effects aficionados, both of whom recognize it clearly for what it was: a technological experiment masquerading as a film, which is likely why it failed to catch on with mainstream audiences despite all the hoopla surrounding its cutting-edge mixture of computer-generated imagery and back-lit animation. Audiences at the time were distracted by the more emotionally involving science fiction of Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) and were not in a position to fully appreciate what director Steven Lisberger had accomplished, not just in terms of melding live action and computer animation on a scale never before attempted, but also in being the first Hollywood movie to visualize the otherwise abstract concept of human-computer interaction.

At the time, video arcades were all the rage, but very few people had a home computer, thus Tron’s attempt to map out computer space and time went over most viewers’ heads (or under their attention). Giving life to pixels was more than most were willing to imagine. It didn’t help that, in many ways, Tron was a not a particularly good film by traditional measures (story, emotional involvement, acting, etc.) because Lisberger and his team of technicians and designers were more involved in image making than storytelling. Although viewed as “cheesy” by today’s jaded viewers (who, to steal a line from Cee-Lo, are more Xbox than Atari), the simple, two-dimensional computer-generated imagery in Tron marked a major breakthrough, and from a historical standpoint, there is perhaps no more important movie in foretelling what was to come. As Stanley Kauffman wrote in his review in The New Republic, “Tron doesn’t take place in the future, but the way that it’s made may perhaps (repeat: perhaps) foretell methods that will be used in future filmmaking.” Kauffman didn’t need to be so tentative in his forecast, since his evaluation of Tron was dead-on, not just about the use of CGI, but also its valuation over all other cinematic devices, particularly those related to storytelling and character involvement. One could easily draw a straight line from the original Tron to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009).

From this perspective, Tron: Legacy, the much-belated sequel you might say was three decades in the making, is a particularly intriguing film: Will it continue what the original Tron began in terms of elevating the visual imagination to the detriment of all else, or will it mark a shift away from blockbuster emptiness and forge a new union of story and spectacle? The answer is a muddled and compelling “both.” As a product of post-Matrix Hollywood, Tron: Legacy is even more enmeshed than its predecessor with questions of human-computer interaction and the philosophical conundrums of space and time and the future of the human condition. However, like The Matrix trilogy, these questions become so dense and filled with shorthand mumbo-jumbo that they cease to capture the imagination by the third reel. But, it looks amazing.

Once again the story unfolds primarily inside computer space, which is imagined as a three-dimensional, futuristic reflection of our own world, which makes sense given that computers are human-created, even if they don’t always play by human governance (anyone who has had their laptop refuse to execute a command knows this). The stakes are higher this time, not only because 30 years of advancement in CGI technology has allowed the filmmakers to give new depth, breadth, and, most importantly, weight to their neon-tinged digital domain (heightened by the propulsive, mesmerizing score by the French electronica duo Daft Punk), but because the computers within the story are also more powerful and, therefore, dangerous.

The first movie’s hero, a computer hacker and video game designer named Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), has designed a new system called “The Grid,” which is envisions as a “perfect” environment in which humans and computers will be fully interactive. In 1989 (seven years after the events in the first movie), he disappears mysteriously, leaving his young son Sam alone, albeit with ownership of a majority of shares in his massive corporation Encom. Jump to the present, and Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is a rebellious twentysomething who likes to prank his father’s company, which has fallen into the hands of soulless capitalists who want to make money, rather than advance technology for the greater good of humanity. At the behest of Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), Flynn’s friend from the first movie, Sam discovers his father’s secret computer lab in the basement of his old video arcade, and soon finds himself zapped into the computer space where he discovers his father has been trapped for more than 20 years. Flynn, now a bearded sage who is part Obi-Wan Kenobi and part Big Lebowski, lives “off-Grid,” which keeps him safe from his digital double, a computer program named Clu (who is played by a digitally de-aged Jeff Bridges) who has taken over the Grid and is threatening to find a way to break through into the “real world.”

First-time director Jospeh Kosinski, working from a script by Lost scribes Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, does his best to forge a union between the heady philosophical head-scratchers at the story’s heart while also using all the technology at his disposal to do what Lisberger and his team couldn’t 30 years ago. Many of the familiar sights and sounds are back, including the light cycles, the flying ?????, and the disc battles, but it is envisioned with the kind of computing power that was science fiction in the Reagan era (although I imagine that the uneven de-aging of Bridges, which at times makes him seem decidedly fake, will be as laughable 10 years from now as the original’s imagery is today). The various designers who worked on Tron: Legacy should be commended for finding ways to stay true to the original film’s visuals (which were largely the work of famed industrial designer Syd Mead, who also worked on Blade Runner) while also building on them and bringing them into a new age. In terms of continuity, it makes sense that the world of Tron would be so much more robust and detailed in 2010 than it was in 1982 because the technology within the world of the story has advanced in tandem with the technology used to create it; you can’t say where one ends and the other begins.

Unfortunately, for all its visual prowess, heightened by the use of James Cameron’s proprietary 3-D technology, Tron: Legacy lags in the story department. Kirsis and Horowitz make a genuine effort to develop a father-son dynamic between Flynn and Sam, but the emotional connection never takes hold. Late in the film when Sam is risking all to save Flynn, it feels like a narrative excuse to generate suspense and draw out the action, rather than the desperate decision of a son trying not to lose his father again. The same could be said of Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a mysterious program in the guise of a beautiful woman who is completely dedicated to Kevin, but also seems tailor-made for romantic involvement with Sam (it doesn’t help that she is anthropomorphized computer code). Everyone fights the good fight, with Sam becoming a man in the process and Kevin coming to terms with his own short-sightedness in trying to achieve “perfection,” which provides some element of a human dimension, albeit one that is never able to meet, much less exceed, the overall visual impact of the film’s astonishing light show. In short, technology wins again.

Overall Rating: (2.5)

Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

All images copyright © Walt Disney Pictures

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