When Dennis Miller got up on stage sometime circa the mid-Nineties and lampooned Al Gore by saying “The man’s favorite movie is TRON, for Christ’s sake,” and got massive laughs doing so, that more or less summed up the man-on-the-street view of both Al Gore and TRON. The former more or less redeemed his eggheadedness with An Inconvenient Truth, which single-handedly brought awareness of the impact of global warming into the public mind; the latter had a harder time rehabilitating itself. Fellow fans who had a positive opinion of the movie kept their mouths shut about it lest they be branded fans of Playskool Cyberpunk.
Eventually, the generation that had not only secretly grooved on the film but actually seen remarkable things in it (nifty premise, groundbreaking visual effects processes, first full-blown use of CGI in a movie, more adult and thoughtful than it seemed on first glance, etc.) was able to come out of the closet. By the time TRON showed up in Kingdom Hearts as a playable level, the stigma was fading fast; by the time a certain hush-hush short film played in Hall H at Comic-Con 2010 to massive audience reactions, the stigma was all but gone. A fan culture that had learned to live with the likes of Edward Cullen looked back over its shoulder and realized Kevin Flynn — The Dude, man! — and his binary buddies had been a lot cooler than they had wanted to believe.
And Disney said “Let there be a sequel,” and lo, there was a sequel. And as sequels go, it was better than most, even if still riddled with the kind of stupidity and unnecessary idiocy that plagues both sequels and major-studio tentpole releases generally. TRON Legacy works best as a movie about an environment rather than a story or a set of characters, in much the same way the real star of the original TRON was not Jeff Bridges (although his charisma carries so much of the movie that it’s easy to believe so) but the luminescent-fluorescent world he moved through, made up half of computer-generated imagery and half hand-rotoscoped cels. I don’t mind a movie being flat in one respect if it is extraordinary in another; I can hardly complain about The Holy Mountain being incoherent when literally every shot in the film was arresting in some way. Likewise, TRON Legacy is not great drama or great filmmaking, but it might well be darn good cinema.
Legacy picks up decades after the first film, long after super-hacker Kevin Flynn rose to the stewardship of ENCOM, the very company that tried to steal his work, and then vanished into thin air. His son Sam (the amiable but hardly charismatic Garrett Hedlund) has carried on the family tradition, so to speak, by pulling pranks like hijacking the source code for the company’s latest software offering and publishing it to the Internet, and then para-gliding off the roof of the company’s headquarters into oncoming traffic. He’s a trust-fund brat with little more than his cocky intelligence as an asset, and he immediately comes off as far less likable than Flynn Senior: the Bridges character had smarm and charm, where Flynn Junior is mostly smarm. He doesn’t make the opening half-hour of the film feel like a prelude to great things, and we spend most of it tapping our toe and waiting for the movie to get the obligatory setup stuff out of the way.
Once Flynn Jr. gets sucked into the same digital landscape that consumed his father, though, the movie improves drastically just by dint of creating an environment entirely unlike both the original movie and anything since. “The Grid”, as Flynn the Elder called his little digital utopia, looks like the urban darkness of Blade Runner as created by the design team for Mac OS X. All is made of glass surfaces, neon light traces, and streamlined onyx; the denizens wear suits that owe more than a little to the fetishistic look of the gear worn by the mecha-piloting kids of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Flynn Jr. can barely take in all this before he’s rounded up, clad in new digital duds, fitted with an identity disc, and pitted against other programs in gladiatorial battles to the death. (“I have a two-inch version of you on my shelf,” he gapes, on seeing his first opponent.)
His prowess — and the fact he bleeds the red fluid of Users, not voxels — bring him to the attention of Clu, Father Flynn’s digital avatar and current lord of the realm. Dad created him in his own image, all right — maybe a little too closely, since Clu’s orders to create a perfect, untroubled system have led him to purge it of every trace of resistance or real diversity. Clu throws Kid Flynn into the game grid to test his mettle, only to have him broken out by a third party: Quorra (a sprightly Olivia Wilde). She’s been serving as a right-hand-app to Father Flynn, ensconced far off in some remote sector of the system, an Old Man of the Digital Mountains who’s all but given up hope on ever leaving the very system he designed. Seeing his son is rejuvenative, but not enough to break him out of his old habits. His son has to lead the way on his own, to both return to the real world and to prevent Clu from following him there.
Most people have been content to dismiss TRON Legacy as one for the designers: great to look at, but painful to think about. The wasted first half-hour; the rather pokey plot (if you stop to think about it, precious little actually happens for most of the film); the blandness of the lead actor — the shame of the film is that so many of the good things in it, and there are good things in it, are all things on the periphery and in the corners. Some of this is prejudice: Jeff Bridges, I would watch him if he were doing nothing more than reciting the alphabet, and he is able to give his part of the movie swing and soul that the rest just doesn't have. He even manages to go a fair distance towards redeeming the movie's somewhat fumbled fathers-and-sons plot, no mean feat by itself. And I liked Olivia Wilde as Quorra, even if the character seems cut out for far better things than what the movie has to offer her. (She has a note-perfect moment when Sam mentions liking Jules Verne and she replies, "Oh! What's he like?" For her, anyone could be a contemporary.)
I mentioned how the emotional heart of the movie, the way the elder Flynn has to reconcile himself with two sons — both of whom have been betrayed in different ways — does not quite work. PIXAR's Brad Bird and Michael Arndt were brought on board to take a pass at the script, and the results are redolent of a B-league PIXAR production. Our emotional connection to the material is only there because the script has provided us with obligatory hints on how to feel it, not because those pieces actually link up with each other and sing. The climax does further damage of its own: it's a sound-and-light show that's supposed to be transcendent but merely makes most of the audience slap its collective forehead.
None of this is my way of saying an SF story shouldn't include human details, or that it works best when it deprecates such things in favor of the mechanics of its conceit. It doesn't, of course; it works best when its technical conceits are grounded in specific human details that we can relate to or feel an aspiration towards. The movie's mistake is not in trying to use family feelings as part of its story, but rather being stuck in the Disney/PIXAR model for such things. Some of this I chalk up to the constraints of the medium and the distribution channel: as someone else put it, when you have nearly $200 million at stake, you need to be Disney and not Dostoevsky.
If the movie is best as a sound-and-light show, there's no harm in admitting it. The work put into the film's effects is genre-setting stuff. In fact, some of the visuals show more thought and care in reflecting the story's themes than the script itself does. Consider the digital de-aging process used to create Clu from the present-day Jeff Bridges: there’s a creepy edge to it — mostly in the way the mouth works — that I suspect may be either deliberate or a happy accident. It underscores his synthetic nature all the more and reminds us we’re not looking at even an earlier iteration of Flynn. He’s more like a son of another mother who has tried to be faithful to the father to an extreme, and whom the father cannot completely turn his back on for that reason.
The father/son stories (plural) and other human touches throughout
go a long way towards making the film work without completely touching base..
The original TRON sported a hybrid orchestral / electronic score courtesy of synthesizer-music pioneer Wendy Carlos (she of Switched-On Bach fame), but Legacy instead brought in Daft Punk. Problem is, their compositional skills don't come anywhere near Carlos's. Despite a full orchestra also being added to their synth sound, most of the orchestral parts are colorless — tiresome strings sawing away, the sort of thing Hans Zimmer has turned into a bad cliché over the last couple of years. The pure electronic parts are far more interesting, if only because they don't make us feel like we're being shortchanged. Listening to the soundtrack without the movie behind it is a lot less rewarding than it might seem, which maybe explains why the remix album that later accompanied it is actually the more satisfying of the two.
There are many movies we revisit after the fact, sometimes decades later, to find that all the things we found egregious about it are actually rather charming. When we have far less of an immediate, personal stake in the end result, it's easier to see the good in something, the way we look back now and see the 1982 original as being pretty darn groundbreaking. I'm not sure if we'll say the same about Legacy in another couple of decades, but maybe we'll be able to more directly savor the things in the film that do work without feeling like we're cutting a devil's deal with the ones that don't. Not that we should ever have to, mind you.