Sunday, March 6, 2011

TRON: Legacy Movie Review

I’m not really sure there were legions of fans or even the box office pedigree from TRON to warrant a sequel nearly 30 years later, but since the Hollywood studios have all but run out of ideas, Disney went ahead and made one. TRON: Legacy picks up several years after the conclusion of the original and then leaps many years into the future to bring us to the present. It also follows thematically from the first film’s warning (more quaint than foreboding) about the impending computer age.

TRON warned of the potential dangers of machines creeping more and more, ever so insidiously into our lives, depicting the consequences of a megalomaniac giving rise to a computer system that could eventually take over.  Legacy follows in a grand tradition of cinema depicting man vs. machine conflicts from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Matrix in upping the ante from a human villain operating a computer system for nefarious purposes to artificial intelligence attempting to create a more perfect world at the expense of their human designers.

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges reprising his role) was once a skillful game and program designer who became the CEO of his company at the end of TRON. He created the program Clu (also played by Bridges with the help of some remarkable digital effects that reversed his age by about 25 years) to help him create the “perfect system” without any flaws. If you’re as confused as I am as to what exactly this “perfect system” was designed for, don’t worry – it’s just one in a series of inexplicable plot holes in this middling entertainment.

But in 1989 (the year the film begins) Kevin disappears one night after leaving his young son Sam at home to go to the office to do some late-night work. It turns out he’s trapped inside the system. His son grows up to be Garrett Hedlund, a major shareholder in the company whose entire interest involves occasionally hacking into their system during board meetings in order to embarrass the members.

Alan (Bruce Boxleitner, as in the original) is back briefly as well. He receives a call to his pager (Kevin once told him never to be without it and so he keeps it even in 2010) from Kevin's old office at the arcade so he sends Sam there to investigate. Miraculously the arcade has been left untouched for 20 years save some plastic covers over the old style arcade games and a mountain of dust. Even the electric company still pumps juice into the building so that Sam can flip a switch and treat us to a whiff of aural nostalgia as we hear the tell-tale blips and beeps and whirrs of those old machines.

Soon enough Sam is whisked off into the computer world just like his dad was back in 1982 and once again it will be up to a User to save the world from a Program gone haywire. He is drafted into gladiatorial school to participate in “The Games” (Clu may have designs on getting out of his silicon world and into the real world, but he obviously hasn’t advanced very far beyond the ideas presented in the first TRON.

Fans of the original film are likely to be satisfied by the presence of games that are at once familiar and more contemporary. The Light Cycle is still the game to kill or be killed in, but the visual effects used to create the world have been heavily updated. The programs no longer race their cycles around on X and Y axes making 90 degree turns. The Z axis has been added so they can ram each other in three dimensions. I’m glad to see the programs have advanced beyond planar coordinate geometry.

The visual style is actually an effective cross between the boxy and static computer images used in the original and a more modern style. The color palette also recalls that of the original with its blacks and blues and the two colors (red and turquoise) representing the good and the bad programs. The same is true for the musical score by the electronic music duo Daft Punk. The score is a melding of 80s sounding electronic pop and the contemporary orchestral sounds of most film scores. The dark atmosphere and harsh lighting give it a noir look and it’s no surprise to learn that cinematographer Claudio Miranda has worked in the camera and electrical department and as director of photography on several David Fincher movies.

Sam, a motorcycle rider in the real world, excels at the Light Cycle, but still needs rescuing by a female program named Quorra (Olivia Wilde) who takes him “off the grid” to his father – now looking more like the contemporary Jeff Bridges with a full gray beard and weathered skin. Kevin has been in hiding off the grid for many “cycles” (inside the system they count time differently) for fear that Clu will obtain his disc. Oh yeah, all the participants in the system have a disc on their backs. These are useful as both weapons and stores of information. Kevin's contains the secret for Clu to escape the system and enter the real world. What will happen if a program tasked with creating perfection enters the land known as Earth? Well, if you saw The Matrix you know that artificial intelligence views humanity as a virus deserving of eradication. If you’ve seen 2001, you know that it will put the mission above humanity at all costs.

Up to this point, TRON: Legacy is pretty boring. Director Joseph Kosinski, making his first feature, is rough at developing pacing. It has some much needed life injected into it when Quorra takes Sam to Castor, a hacking program who may be of some help. Michael Sheen plays Castor with the same fierce energy he brought to his portrayals of Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon. I knew he was excellent from those two films, but now I realize he’s extraordinary. There’s not much character for him to develop, but he makes the most of what little there – and more.

The screenplay by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz is at times muddled and confusing not unlike the TV show “Lost” which they presided over as producers and sometime writers. Along with Kosinski and the effects team, they have created the internal world of a computer system without explaining how it is possible for entities operating in that system to go “off grid.” Where is this place that Clu either doesn’t know about or can’t get to (although he goes there at the end, so who knows?) How can there be a place inside the system that’s not part of the system, but it’s accessible by the system? You follow?

I also tend to get hung up on little logical details like how a computer program can manifest itself in the real world. I can suspend disbelief long enough to buy into humans entering a system. I can wrap my head around the possibility that human consciousness can be transferred into a circuit board. But with the big fear being that Clu could escape, I have to wonder how he would function on the outside.

Correction: I originally misidentified the Jeff Bridges character as Billy. I have corrected it to Kevin.


  1. I believe the reason why you found this movie so boring is because you can see many biblical stories associated with it. You have stories such as the purpose of Jesus coming to earth, or the story of Noah's Ark illustrated in the main storyline, so uncounciously you know what is going to happen based on what you know about the Christian religion, and you find it boring.

  2. I've seen Star Wars about 100 times. Pulp Fiction more than 20. The Godfather and Magnolia about a dozen each.

    I know exactly what's coming next every step of the way in those films and they are never boring.