December 16, 2010

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TRON: Legacy is an odd sequel as it attempts to capitalize on the technologically groundbreaking but commercially unsuccessfully 1982 film TRON.  The original film has built up a cult following over the years and even managed to occasionally find its way into pop culture with South Park‘s depiction of Moses resembling the Master Control Program and the YouTube celebrity “TRON Guy”.  The sequel attempts to reinvent the series as sleek and cool, but the result is a simplistic visual style that attempts to mask a poorly-paced story filled with bland characters.  TRON: Legacy comes alive with an amazing score and some eye-catching set pieces, but the sequel makes this franchise look like it should be shutdown rather than rebooted.

It’s been over twenty years since Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), the hero of the original TRON, disappeared.  His son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) believes his dad to be “either chilling on a beach in Costa Rica or dead or both.”  It turns out that Papa Flynn hasn’t been relaxing on the Bernard Lomax Beach for Deceptive Corpses, but is actually stuck inside “The Grid”, a virtual world he created with the help of Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) and an avatar, Clu (a digitally de-aged Bridges).  Unfortunately for Kevin, Clu took control of the world and the portal that would have allowed Kevin to return home.  Sam, responding to a page from his father’s office, ends up getting sucked into the Grid and only has eight hours to make it out before the portal closes again.  It turns out Clu was behind the page and wants to use Kevin’s identity disc to get out into the real world.  In its broad strokes, TRON: Legacy follows the exact same plot of TRON: Guy gets sucked into virtual world and in order to get home must battle an authoritarian ruler who has designs on the real world.

The sequel also suffers from the same problems as the original and then some.  What little character development is available feels forced and stilted.  Sam still feels hurt over why his father never came home twenty years ago, but it’s nothing a little heart-to-heart while on a traveling on a Solar Sailer can’t heal.  Sam’s character arc is hampered by Hedlund’s weak performance.  He never seems to take much joy or experience any wonder in his adventure.  It’s the kind of stiff, detached performance that can cripple a straightforward adventure like this one.  Bridges doesn’t fare much better although he at least injects some silly life into Kevin Flynn.  It seems that Kevin has become a hippie during his time in the Grid and while it makes sense that his slang wouldn’t have evolved since 1982, it feels more like The Big Lebowski‘s Dude has become stuck in the Grid rather than the freewheeling character TRON.

While the Flynns suffer from poorly executed character development, the supporting cast doesn’t even get chances to change and grow.  Olivia Wilde has some fun as Quorra, an ally of Flynn’s, and looks like she could be a cool and engaging character…until the film quickly shuts her down and tries to pull focus onto light-vehicles chasing each other.  Michael Sheen plays a scenery-chewing nightclub owner and his zany character is a relief in the cold, sterile environs of the Grid.  But he barely has any time to breathe before the film realizes someone is having a good time and moves to rectify that grave error.  Any time “joy” seems to enter the picture, it’s as if an alarm sounds and TRON: Legacy screams angrily, “Who’s having fun in here?!” and then pulls away to either dull conversations or the hi-tech failure of Clu’s face.

If the technology were as advanced as it needed to be, Clu could be a marvel and we would be dazzled by a young Jeff Bridges giving a performance as if he hadn’t aged a day.  Instead, Clu is a grotesque distraction who sets up residence in the Uncanny Valley and never leaves.  Some will argue the problem is in the dead eyes, but my issue with Clu is that he looks like he doesn’t have enough muscles in his face.  Rather than being invested in Clu’s motives for wanting to escape from the Grid, I was left wondering what he would want to do in our world other than scare small children and be a spokesman for Botox abuse.

Most of the other special effects fare better, but they exist in a hollow, poorly-defined world.  It’s awesome seeing light cycles and light jets fight each other, but it eventually all comes down to a black-and-neon blur.  The Grid is a place of nifty architecture and design, but it feels lifeless.  The original TRON at least had the creativity of ascribing personalities to programs.  Programs were made in the image of their user so, for example, an accounting program is an overweight nerd who is probably going to get his ass handed to him in disc wars.  With the exception of a hapless program we see when Sam first enters the Grid, the world appears to be inhabited by supermodels.  Presumably, Kevin and Clu wanted “perfection” and these “programs” are a physical manifestation of that desired perfection.

But these programs, and indeed the whole world of the Grid, are all form and no function.  There’s no culture or reason to the world.  One of the programs, Gem (Beau Garrett), is seen carrying a parasol even though there’s no sunlight and no rain in the grid.  It’s there because it makes her look cool and that, in a neon-laced nutshell, is the rhyme and reason behind the majority of TRON: Legacy: “Because it looks cool.”

And yet that “cool” look eventually wears out its welcome because there’s not much to it.  I remember watching the special features on The Fellowship of the Ring DVD and director Peter Jackson talking about how they put orcish inscriptions on the inside of the gauntlets.  No audience member would ever see it, but it helped add character and detail to the world.  The only details of TRON: Legacy are “needs more neon”.  That visual style is impressive when we see wide shots of chase scenes, but the close-ups are just a muddle of black and neon and it becomes difficult to follow the action.

What’s actually cool and always welcome in TRON: Legacy is the score.  Composed by French electronic music duo Daft Punk, the music pulses with deep bass and skillfully utilizes tempos that range from the solemn (“Adagio for TRON”) to the triumphant (“Flynn Lives”) to the pulse-pounding (“Derezzed”).  It’s a score that works well on its own and is far better than the movie that inspired it.

In his debut feature, director Joseph Kosinski shows he has a strong eye for style and choreographing wide vistas of action, but his TRON seems afraid of its own shadow (if it could see a shadow).  The film either stays away from lighthearted enjoyment and then swings wildly into maudlin, awkward conversations as if inserting emotional beats and character development were as easy as inserting another digital explosion.

TRON: Legacy is a frustrating and at times downright boring affair that has visual style to spare, but lacks any depth beneath its skintight black-and-neon exterior.  Characters are poorly developed (if at all), jargon is embarrassingly shoehorned into the dialogue without any consideration given to what arguments about open-source and piracy actually mean, and for all the attention given to the design of the special effects and the vehicles, the actual world and life of the Grid seems to have been either ignored or forgotten.  And while the amount spent on marketing for TRON: Legacy has ensured it won’t be ignored, the film itself is likely to be forgotten.

Rating: C-


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