Friday, December 17, 2010

Tron: Legacy Is A (Mostly) Satisfying Sequel Which Improves Upon The Original!

The Good: Special effects, Moments of science fiction concept, Moments of character/acting
The Bad: Plot points are repetitive/derivative, Moments of acting, Lighter on character than I’d like, PACING!
The Basics: Despite starting out engaging and having exceptional special effects, Tron: Legacy drifts in the middle and becomes too familiar to seasoned cinephiles.

This year is a weird one for franchises. While last year recognizable franchises like Star Trek provided new outings, this year has seen the establishment of more esoteric franchises like The A-Team and the very unlikely creation of the Wall Street franchise with the release of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (click here for that review!). The latest classic film to be reanimated as a franchise is Tron. In the case of the Disney science fiction epic, there is a fruitful universe to be explored and it is done fairly well with Tron: Legacy. But Tron: Legacy is hardly a masterpiece and while it works for entertainment and philosophy, it actually left me less satisfied than I hoped going in (especially when I paid $13.50 for a midnight showing of the film in 3-D!).

Tron: Legacy is very much a sequel film and it alludes heavily to the events from the 1982 film Tron (reviewed here!). The story of what happened after Tron and before Tron: Legacy was recently spelled out in the graphic novel prequel Tron: Betrayal (click here for my review!) and that does an adequate job of setting the film up. While those who have seen the original film and read the graphic novel are likely to enjoy Tron: Legacy that much more (the allusions to the former head of Encom and to Dumont that come up early in the film coming right to mind), but truthfully, Tron: Legacy does a decent job of explaining itself well enough.

When Sam Flynn is seven years old, his computer genius father disappears and the majority stake in Encom falls to him. After an exhaustive search, Kevin Flynn is declared missing and Encom’s Board Of Directors, including Flynn’s good friend Alan, run the software giant for twenty years making it into a worldwide giant. Sam, however, sees his father’s work as corrupted by the greed of the Board president and he manages to sabotage the latest rollout from Encom. Following that incident, Alan visits Sam at his home and informs him that he has what appears to be contact from Kevin Flynn, in the form of a page from a previously-disconnected Flynn phone number. In investigating the arcade his father used to work out of, Sam is dematerialized into the Grid, the computer world his father designed and made impressive breakthroughs in.

On the Grid, Sam is captured and after a brief gladiatorial match is exposed as a user (not a program like the other “people” in the grid). Sam is brought before Clu, the ruler of the Grid who resembles his father and Sam realizes he is being used as bait to lure Kevin Flynn out into the open. It does not take Sam long to be reunited with his father, who has been living within the computer grid for the twenty years. Flynn describes the downfall of the Grid and implores Sam to help Quorra, a program within the Grid, to escape with him. As the Flynns and Quorra attempt to flee to the exit point, Clu hunts them relentlessly with the most unlikely of allies at his disposal.

First, what works. Tron: Legacy is solidly entertaining, which is impressive when one considers that it is a more philosophical science fiction film than most action-adventure science fiction films that are its contemporaries. Films like The Matrix and Inception clearly have paved the way for movies like Tron: Legacy where the nature of reality is explored and the film works heavily on a metaphoric level in addition to the literal level which all viewers can understand it on. No, Tron: Legacy is a classic son searching for father hero myth presented with the understanding that mechanical evolution will someday reach a point where it self-perpetuates. In Tron, viewers were treated to an intriguing metaphor which personified computer programs in the virtual world. In Tron: Legacy the principle question about technology explored is “what happens when codes propagate codes beyond themselves? Is that life?” The film has a very firm answer on that and just as Clu and his minions seek to make perfect order within the Grid, the ISOs - life forms within the grid who were not written by outside sources – struggle to survive.

The struggles within the Grid are amazing, especially in 3-D. Tron: Legacy has a whole The Wizard Of Oz thing going on with the 3-D effects and it is presented in a way that enhances the shock factor when the 3-D does come into play. While Sam is in the real world (after the very cool 3-D Disney logo), everything is presented in 2-D. But when Sam enters the Grid, he becomes part of a hyper-alive experience and the 3-D effects are not only intense, but amazing. The contests with the light cycles, especially, are incredible in that they take a battle which was previously presented in a fairly 2-D way and makes the conflict truly three-dimensional. The result is a fast sequence that is mind-blowing and pushes the envelope much like the original Tron did and The Matrix did years later. Unfortunately, even some of the climactic scenes were spoiled in the trailers and teaser advertisements for Tron: Legacy and I can only imagine the awe those who managed to avoid the previews will feel when they see some of the sentinel ships coming over the virtual horizons or the battles which have programs rendered into explosive bits by the discs hurled between them.

Furthermore, Jeff Bridges does great with the dual role of Clu and Flynn. As Flynn, he is mellow and philosophical, as Clu, he is smart, efficient and somewhat ruthless. His screen presence is only matched by Bruce Boxleitner, who plays Alan. Boxleitner is good as Alan and fans of the original will be pleased that he has a meatier role than just a cameo, which some might have feared. Instead, he becomes a credible father-figure and he plays off Garrett Headlund quite well, making the most of his time on screen. And as Tron in the expository scenes in Tron: Legacy, Boxleitner does what he can.

But Tron: Legacy is no The Matrix. Instead, it is a weird blending of the philosophical nature of The Matrix and Tron. The most significant problem with Tron: Legacy arises for those who actually do their homework. Tron: Legacy has an almost identical plot structure to Tron. Major events happen at about the same time and order, so for example, where Flynn visited Dumont in Tron, in order to reach his goal, he must meet with the eccentric Castor to reach his goals in the new film. And while Dumont was smart and a great metaphor for the importance of preserving legacies, Castor is no such thing. The closest the film comes to making a corporate statement is a subtle dig at Disney itself when Encom’s new platform is revealed to be the old platform with “12” on the box this year. So, fans of Tron are supposed to be bowled over by the exponentially better special effects and ignore the fact that they are watching something that is so close to the original as to be troubling.

But there are some new elements to Tron: Legacy and even when they come up, they, too feel familiar. That is because they are remarkably derivative . . . of Star Wars: A New Hope! Yes, Quorra might as well be any other Disney princess, but she is also a virtual surrogate for Princess Leia and this is accented by the battle in the air wherein Sam must man the turrets to protect her that mirrors the Millennium Falcon shooting at TIE fighters outside the Death Star. In this regard, the writing feels sloppy and entirely derivative.

As well, Garrett Headlund only has his moments as Sam. Sam is the main protagonist – even though Flynn senior is the most important character in the narrative – and Headlund is given a great responsibility to carry the film. Too often, he fumbles that. Michael Sheen, who is playing a ridiculous parody of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust or Aladin Sane characters, overshadows Headlund in every scene they share and the raw magnetism of Quorra makes Sam seem white bread by comparison. The result is an unfortunate blend of stiff, unemotional acting that plays poorly against the duality of Jeff Bridge’s performances. Because Bridges is complex and radically different as Flynn and Clu, Headlund’s monotonal performance of Sam makes him hard to empathize with.  By contrast, Olivia Wilde is vibrant as Quorra and Beau Garrett is great with her body language as Gem.

Ultimately, though, there is enough to recommend seeing Tron: Legacy on the big screen and in 3-D. I’d recommend going to a matinee as the pacing for the movie takes a turn into slowsville almost immediately after the Flynns are reunited and it does not pop out of the rut until late in the film (I’ll be honest, my rating oscillated between 5, 5.5 and 6 because of how oppressively slow the movie feels for long stretches). In the end, I opted for the higher rating because I do find myself still thinking of the film and I can easily acknowledge that there was something deeper going on than in most science fiction movies today. For that, Disney ought to be commended. For using so many other, familiar, conceits and plot devices, though, they should be ashamed. Still, Tron: Legacy is an appropriate thrill ride that improves upon the original.

For other Disney live-action works, please check out my reviews of:
Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time
Alice In Wonderland
Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End
Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe
Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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