In 2008, test footage for TRON: Legacy surprised audiences at San Diego Comic-Con and the enthusiastic reaction from fans helped greenlight the sequel to the 1982 original.* This footage prompted me to see TRON for the first time, and while I enjoyed the movie, more than anything it raised my anticipation for Legacy. This is one of those rare sequels that is totally justified due to drastic updates in filmmaking technology and a story that is served by exploring those technological possibilities.
I’ll come right out and say it: I was disappointed with the movie. There were aspects I really dug – I’ll get to those in a minute – but taking Disney’s overkill marketing approach out of the equation and looking directly at the trailer, I was half-expecting a transcendent experience. Unfortunately, what I ended up with is just a shell of a movie. The world of the Grid, strangely enough, is a good metaphor for the film itself: it’s sleek, sexy, gorgeous to look at, and unlike anything we’ve seen before – but it’s also cold, harsh, and unforgiving, a world made up solely of 1’s and 0’s incapable of convincing anyone that a heart beats inside its mechanical chest.
If you’re looking for eye candy, you’ve hit the jackpot. Director Joseph Kosinski makes his feature debut here, and his past experience as an architect is on glorious full display here, highlighting the expanse of the Grid with a wondrous originality and dynamic visual flair never before seen in movies. It’s easily the sexiest city I’ve ever seen, and with its dichotomy of dark glassy panes and bright LED light strips embedded everywhere, the movie serves as a shining beacon of what is possible with today’s technology. All the staples of the original are updated with pizazz: the disc war sequence is exciting enough, but the light cycle race was the highlight of the film for me. Watching Hedlund speed through Kosinski’s world really allowed us to bask in the glory of what the director and his production designers created.
Kosinski is capable of handling the action – as Zack Snyder will tell you, slickness and style will get you a long way in this industry – but when he has to settle down and actually tell a story, that’s when the problems begin. Based on the stunning visuals we’d seen over the years, I’d (perhaps unfairly) hoped the quality of the story would meet or exceed the quality of those images. Due to a lackluster script, it doesn’t quite play out like that. I can easily see two scenarios here: if Legacy fails to meet box office expectations and turns into a financial disaster, I can see Kosinski returning to the commercial world and never directing another feature. But if it does gangbusters over this holiday season, it’s easy to imagine Disney latching onto him for future franchises. (They’ve already got him signed for a remake of The Black Hole.) Enough speculation – let’s get back to the movie at hand.
Jeff Bridges reprises his dual roles as Kevin Flynn and Clu. Flynn, older and trapped in the Grid for years, has developed as one might expect for the character, but with one semi-distracting exception: his dialogue seems intent on reminding us that he was once The Dude. Drew McWeeny at HitFix brilliantly summed up the elder Flynn in TRON: Legacy: “he’s Obi-Wan Lebowski.” His affability works with this character (if you watch the original, you’ll essentially see a young hacker version of The Dude), but with lines like “it’s biodigital jazz, man,” and “you’re messing with my zen thing, man,” the writers are relying a bit too much on our outside knowledge of Jeff Bridges and not giving us enough Kevin Flynn. Those are direct quotes, too – no exaggeration, that’s exactly how they were stated in the film. My audience openly laughed at lines like that on more than one occasion.
With Clu, Flynn’s computer counterpart designed to help build a perfect system capable of shepherding the world into a new digital age, the filmmakers opted to take a motion-captured approach to the character, meaning that he appears as a younger version of Bridges in the final product. Unfortunately, this CG Bridges looks completely unconvincing (save for some brief moments) and took me out of the movie entirely. I can see why they’d need that version inside the world of the Grid, but in the film’s opening minutes (set in the “real world”) they choose to show that version of Bridges in a flashback sequence that absolutely does not fit into anything aiming for reality.
Early rumors warned of a terrible performance from Garrett Hedlund (an actor I’ve actually liked in a number of things), but I found no issue with his performance. He’s the “tech geek badass” prototype here, able to infiltrate a Fortune 500 company, base jump, and ride a motorcycle with equal ease. He does a fine job at all of the above, and while the writing may force some questionable dialogue out of him every few minutes, for the most part he sells and it and totally worked for me as the action hero of this movie.
Olivia Wilde looked stunning, and brought a kind of wide-eyed naivety to her character that was endearing but ultimately didn’t make a lot of sense. When the true nature of her character is revealed, some of her actions don’t hold up under scrutiny – again, a writing issue, nothing having to do with her acting. For my money, she was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the film, questionable character or not; her willingness to commit to the role seemed a bit more genuine than Hedlund’s performance, which seemed tired at times. Michael Sheen, aside from being almost unrecognizable covered in white makeup, seemed to have more fun than everyone else on set combined. He played the flamboyant character of Castor as a brash loudmouth who loves to be the center of attention. While grating as a character, Sheen gave a memorable performance and shows a willingness to go from British royalty films like The Queen to big budget blockbuster with no problems in between.
(Very minor spoiler in the next paragraph.)
Like most blockbusters these days, TRON: Legacy borrows heavily from other sources, but this one regularly strayed from paying homage into more dicey territory of quasi-theft that caused me to wince a few times. Cillian Murphy makes an uncredited surprise appearance in the beginning of the film as the son of Flynn’s nemesis Dillinger, the villain from the first film. He now heads up the technical operations at ENCOM, the company made famous by Kevin Flynn years before. But his appearance is limited to about five minutes of screen time (if that), and then he’s never seen or mentioned again. As if blatant set-up for sequels wasn’t a big enough sin, writers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis actually have Murphy utter a famous line from another franchise sequel in which he made a tiny appearance: The Dark Knight. “It’s all part of the plan,” the younger Dillinger says, with a hint of Heath Ledger in his voice. Immediately following this scene, there’s an epic helicopter shot of Sam Flynn standing on top of a building at night that looked suspiciously similar to TDK even before Sam base-jumps from the roof.
Using The Wizard of Oz as inspiration, the movie stays in 2D for the “real world” aspects until switching into 3D as soon as we enter the Grid, just as Dorothy and Toto stayed black-and-white until they hit full color in Oz. (Incidentally, I think Avatar would have benefited by using this same approach.) Like the first TRON, there are plenty of Star Wars rip offs here (the gunner battles are near identical in all three films, actually) and also a visual callback to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, hearkening back to James Cameron’s T-1000 innovation when programs are “derezzed” in the Grid. Even the notion of Castor and Zeus being the same person dates was notably featured in science fiction in Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall.
Musical duo Daft Punk composed the score for the movie, sending shock waves through the online film world when it was announced. I won’t pretend to know anything at all about Daft Punk, but from what I can gather, the original movie was a massive influence on them as artists; it’s fitting, then, that they would provide the score for the sequel. Trouble is, the score sounded an awful lot like Hans Zimmer’s already-iconic score for Inception, with the same frenzied strings and intermittent bursts of loud horns. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great score – it certainly was – but I don’t think it reached the groundbreaking level many assumed it would reach when they heard DP were on board. Daft Punk even made a cameo in the film as the DJ’s at The End of the Line Club.
Over at GeekTyrant, we recorded a video of our initial thoughts right after we left the theater. After I expressed disappointment with the storyline, Mazer wondered what I (we, anyone) would have done to change it. I didn’t have an answer right then, but after a few hours to think it over, I’ve got a couple of ideas. For starters, I actually liked the look of the movie outside of the Grid, so I would have featured more of the “real world” in the film. Not in the way the movie was hinting, in which Clu would lead an army out into the world to cleanse it of its imperfections in an updated Nazi storytelling device that we’ve seen dozens of times before, but perhaps feature Bruce Boxleitner’s returning Alan Bradley character more on the outside, helping Sam out or working behind the scenes to cause trouble for the corporate hackjobs who have taken over ENCOM since Kevin’s disappearance. Sure, now that sequels are being planned and an animated series is in the works, I’m sure we’ll find out all sorts of different ways to tell a story within this franchise. I just wish we would have seen a better one here to get it all started again.
TRON: Legacy is a mindless action movie, and I take issue with that because more than many other blockbusters, this one had the potential to offer us something to think about instead of just something to look at. Though the first film looks cheesy now, there was a definite sense of something deeper going on under the surface; concepts and ideas about the digital world were highlighted with CGI and wrapped in a new and exciting story. Here, the world has been retrofitted with better tech, but all of the heart from the original is gone. It devolves into the exact cliches longtime movie-watchers will see coming from light-years away (“he’s building an army!” “Get to the portal!”), but it does a great job of making me want to ride a light cycle. And hey – any movie that features Journey’s “Separate Ways” can’t be all bad. Until next time…
*A similar tactic was used to convince Frank Miller that a movie version of Sin City would work, with Robert Rodriguez shooting the opening scene as a test and shopping the concept footage to Miller and the rest of the soon-to-be lead actors.