Sunday, December 19, 2010

Movie Review - Tron: Legacy (2010)

It is interesting to consider just how much of the cultural & evolutionary landscape has morphed since the days of the original video game systems, and personal computers housed in wooden cases with bulky dial-up modems. Memories flood of the early Commodore systems, and the upcoming issues of ENTER magazine, detailing the latest achievements of a small number of brilliant minds, longing for a new utopia residing with the ever changing world of the microprocessor. And as all this was happening, the young dreamer in me was transfixed by one film, willing to explore the depths of this strange new frontier. TRON in my childhood was less a gap filler in the days between when an Empire Struck Back, and A Jedi Returned, and more a promise of undreamt of possibility, strange valleys of black, and an almost spiritual peek into the world of computerization.

So why is the 200 million dollar-plus TRON:Legacy such a troublesome letdown? Aside from being one of the most benign megabudget films ever produced, it simply falls victim to a growing trend of film projects that seem merely made to co-opt nostalgia highs, with a little subculture nods in order to generate success through identification. Oh, sure, the tale of Kevin Flynn and his adventures in the cyberspace netherworld of "The Grid" was a simple, and at times bland exercise in ideas rather than story, but in regards to time there is a sense of fun and adventure that seems lost on this new attempt to expand that universe. In this wildly belated sequel/remake, years have passed since Flynn(again played by the ever wonderful Jeff Bridges, while most welcome,seems quite lost here) returned from the digital world to become a Bill Gates/Steve Jobs analogue who's son is left orphaned when in 1989, he again vanishes. This time, never to return. Flash forward 20 years, and the young Sam Flynn(Garrett Hedlund) has avoided his responsibility of inheriting his father's technological monolith, ENCOM Corp, and playing annual pranks on the current personnel in charge who have ideas more profit-centric than his more progressively-minded father. It is when old family friend, Alan Bradley (reprised by Bruce Boxleitner) that a mysterious message, possibly from his father has surfaced, which leads the reckless Flynn on a voyage into a darker, meaner version of the world his father once shared tales of. The system had been saved once before, but it is now an ever more threatening realm of gladiatorial combat as a spectre from the elder Flynn's past has a tightened grip on this vast digital society of programs.

On paper, it is another spin on Homer, but in the hands of first-time director Joseph Kosinski, the film is an art director's wet dream, and a truly missed opportunity. Where we are meant to find reason to identify with Hedlund's wayward son, we are thrown headlong from situation to situation, with little to no context, which does little to help us understand his character, or even frame of mind before he is transported into the computer dimension. We are often expected to fill in those gaps ourselves. And in the hands of truly capable writers/directors, this could be possible. But here, it is a case of perhaps the screenwriters (Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz, as well as several other contributors) being so preoccupied with the visual fireworks, that Sam winds up little more than a cipher. And even as the film goes out of its way to hit those nostalgia buttons, it all rings hollow, as if to cover up what isn't really being said.

So once, we are in The Grid, we are given next to no reason to relate to our new lead, only making his immediate entry to the Disc War stadium all the more dull and uninvolving. (in sequences Disney has been building up so much noise for nearly three years now) Never before has something to conceptually unique, and singularly visual been so disconnected from the audience as to render me about as interested as if looking at another iTunes visualization while pumping Daft Punk. The sequence, while filled with wonders, have a lack of relatability to our lead that it becomes near impossible to invest anything. So when he is rescued from The Grid by rogue program, Quorra (played with fun by a fascinating Olivia Wilde) and taken to meet The Maker himself, a reunion ensues, only to reveal that the realm has been enslaved by father Flynn's old security program CLU (a bizarre digital facelift performance by Bridges again), making it near impossible for him to return home, explaining his 20 year absence. So when it is revealed that as in so many would-be epics that the fate of not only the digital, but real world are threatened due to a small, tangible Macguffin, everything locks into rote action sequences, tried cliches, and some wholesale sequences ripped off for good measure. (when your daringly visual action sequel co-opts a scene from the original Star Wars, it is less an homage, but rather a desperate cry for ideas.)

While we're on the idea of making CLU the antagonist, this again on paper sounds terrific as a metaphor for a workman losing grasp of his own flesh and blood, and tending to his obsession, only to have it enslave him, but here the whole surrogate son concept completely falls apart since the film does little to nothing with CLU. And as much as some may wish to defend that the technological limitations toward making Bridges appear youthful, one must also consider that it wasn't too long ago when we witnessed a near Oscar-worthy performance by a digital creation, rendering this defense moot. To make matters worse, for a digital creation, there are moments where his movements wander into Spirits Within territory. (and that was nearly a decade ago) Had the writing been strong enough, this probably have been less of a problem, but there it is.

As for elder Bridges, again as much as I find him to be something like a cinematic uncle to me, he seems less like the central spiritual core the film needs to be, and more an ornament for geek cred's sake. And let's not even get into Boxleitner, who really feels the brunt of this shaft. I truly wanted to believe that the world of TRON could be expanded upon, having two of the original's characters near center stage, but it comes off more like glorified window dressing. No amount of cute "dudes", or "man" from Jeff could save it, no matter how welcome it was to see him. The connections between this and the 1982 original are cosmetic at best, and unrealized at worst. Hedlund seems to really want to give it a try, but again, the script, and direction leave much to be desired. Perhaps it is merely me, but it is Wilde who comes out of this near spotless as a young disciple of our wandering elder Buddha, who is revealed to be more than she seems (**surprise**). There is a sense of innocence, and fun that is evident, even when the writing doesn't seem to call for it that works.

There are even moments where it all truly feels like it is getting matters together, as if Kosinski really is getting a feel for certain scenes. And yet, they are often derailed by a clunky action scene, or half thought out dialogue scene with more stiff lines than a Star War prequel. In fact, this is the closest comparison I can make at the moment. For all the visual flare that reminds me of my days as an EBM clubgoer, fantasizing about worlds not unlike this one, all that it lacks is the pulsating heart that made such music and art so thrilling for the younger me. So much is promised by these visuals, and yet it becomes impossible to corroborate a singular or cohesive theme to hold it all together. Which is a terrible shame since films regarding virtual worlds have evolved so much in the years post TRON. To see this not take full advantage of not only these changes, but of ones in our culture regarding our relationship with technology and each other within it, and hit for the lowest road is not only saddening, but almost offensive. So much so that by the end, not much has been resolved, and no catharsis has been reached.

So...200 million for a glorified light switch rave? I'll stay home next time, thanks.


  1. I just got back from the theater and I really, really enjoyed the movie. I thought the visuals were amazing, great effects, fantastic soundtrack, solid acting, and I even thought the plot, while not really anything new, was fun. And ultimately that is what I was looking for from this film, fun and great ambiance, and I thought it delivered both.

    Sorry to hear you didn't have fun.

  2. While there were moments where the film was hitting certain fetishistic buttons within me as a lover of this type of fiction, it often bothers me that the original film was so willing to offer up something so esoteric within a Disney film. And I guess for me, it felt vital to not oly make the new film more accessible, but willing to raise those ambition stakes in accordance with the changes we have experienced, otherwise we are looking at a dated product with little meat to it, which is what i guess the studio wanted. This explains the rookie director at the helm. This is more committee than I'm willing to support.

    A vision like this needs to raise the bar. When the original was made, noone knew what to make of it. And I suppose I feel audiences need to always feel that sense of mystery. What I witnessed here was a lack of will to even try. In a time when a film like INCEPTION dazzles with story gymnastics, and still turns a mean profit as a personal art project, this gets no pass for merely being an art director's vision with nothing personal to support it.

    -also..Having TRON in the film seems utterly useless as it becomes clear that he was merely shoehorned in as an afterthought. Plus the fact that Boxleitner himself has an aversion to this type of stuff, making it clear he had nothing to do with the Rinxzler thing, making the whole thing empty and disingenuous.