Review: 'TRON: Legacy" dazzles visually, but ultimately disappoints
Is it enough to just look and sound great?
In 1982, when the original "TRON" was released, I was a wee lad of 12 years old.
I feel like I should offer up some thoughts on the original film because it may help you gauge what you should think about my review of the new mega-budget sequel to the film, "TRON: Legacy," which arrives in theaters on December 17th on a wave of hype that is as big as Disney can possibly generate. They've been building to this moment for a while now, ever since that reveal of the test footage at Comic-Con. They've bet big on this one, and they're already working on an animated spin-off and talking about making more sequels. And all of that makes sense… if the film is good.
So in 1982, I was already a rabid movie addict, and that summer was, in my opinion, the single best genre year of my lifetime. And not just up till the point, but still. It was a preposterous avalanche of great genre films, and I soaked it all up happily.
I even ran a whole series of articles about the subject over at Ain't It Cool back in 2007, in which I had different writers tackle different films from that summer that they loved or that were important to them. Harry wrote the article on "TRON," and I wrote an introduction for that piece which I'll reprint here:
"I published the first article in this series a couple of weeks ago, and the reaction to it was pretty great. Nordling kicked it off with his look back at the summer of "E.T.," and I talked a bit about my preoccupation with getting around the ratings of movies as a 12-year-old movie geek.
Of course, this was before I was a movie geek. It’s before I’d ever heard the term movie geek. Fandom was much lonelier when I was growing up. Sure, I had friends who were big fans of various things, but not everyone, and certainly the guys who were really movie crazy the same way I was were few and far between.
At the age of 12, I was living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I felt like I was a million miles from all the things that I was interested in. I was a weird kid, already desperate to get closer to the way movies were made. I read everything I could get my hands on. I treated each new issue of Starlog like homework, devouring it several times over until I could regurgitate the material within. I loved the coverage of the cinematographers, the production designers, the FX guys. I loved seeing behind the curtain. I wanted to know who helped create these amazing worlds I was seeing when I went to the theater.
I remember reading about "TRON" and thinking it sounded like a big crazy hoax. Like there was no way they were really doing what they said they were doing. They said they were going to make a movie about a guy who gets sucked into a computer, and it was going to be like "Mary Poppins," but for the stuff inside the computer, all the animation... was going to be done by a computer! It just wasn’t possible. I was pretty nuts about video games, and I had seen what the best graphics at the time were like, and I was sure that in my infinite-12-year-old wisdom, I knew what the limitations of the computer were because of my time spent in an arcade.
The first time I saw TRON, having already played the videogame and having already heard the score and having already memorized every still released, I wanted to make sure it was going to be the best. So I talked my parents into a trip to the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, the only 70MM screen in the area. It was a giant single screen complex, designed to be part of the tourist attraction. And they typically booked event movies. Despite the presence of the hotel and the theater, the area around that part of downtown Chattanooga was, politely put, pretty shitty. Even so, my parents turned the day into an event, braving a trip a few blocks into the neighborhood for lunch at an Italian dive called Mom’s that was, according to my Dad, the best Italian food in the city. And afterwards, stuffed with a meatball sammich and ripe with hype, I pretty much lost my mind for the movie. More importantly, for the way the movie looked. It was 2001 for the videogame generation, and it rocked me.
When I first started talking to Harry about doing this series, I knew I wanted Harry to be the one to write about 'TRON,' and when he heard the premise for the articles, he immediately IM’d me back: 'I get 'TRON,' fucker.' He showed it at BNAT for a reason... he loooooooves this movie. Unabashedly and completely. He gets why this one felt so important that summer. He remembers... and that’s what this series is all about."
And all of that is true. At the age of 12, I did fall for "TRON," head over heels. Part of it was the game that they also released to arcades, part of it was the cutting-edge nature of the film, and part of it was the heady mix of ideas in the film. But over time, revisiting the movie, much of what I liked initially faded, and my opinion of the film changed quite a bit. I still think the film is significant for how it looks and for some of the ideas in the movie, but I think the movie itself has some fatal dramatic flaws. Steven Lisberger is a smart guy, and even a visionary in some ways. His film predates Internet culture, but in a way, it is the first major piece of film fiction about Internet culture. The idea of avatars based on users and an entire universe that only exists inside a computer is something that seems positively commonplace these days. If you're reading these words, then you at least partially live online yourself. I also think the lightcycles are one of the coolest SF film ideas since the lightsaber, and iconic. Brilliant, even.
But as a film? "TRON" really doesn't work. It's poorly staged, poorly paced, and never quite brings all its ideas together. It is a visual marvel, but inert.
In almost every way, "TRON: Legacy" is a perfect sequel to that first film. It also is a visual marvel, with many good ideas in it, and yet somehow almost completely inert as a film. It is a truly terrible, sloppy, half-assed script by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, and no amount of spectacle can distract me from just how much the film disappoints as drama.
Joseph Kosinski has been the biggest question mark on this film since he was first hired for the job, and based on this first film, he strikes me as a guy who would make a stupendous production designer and/or FX supervisor. As a director? Mmmmm… not so much. Like Lisberger before him, Kosinski appears to have a tin ear for performance and tone and how to build a scene for any sort of dramatic impact. Image after image in this film, Kosinski knows how to dazzle, and it helps that Daft Punk appear to have been genetically engineered for the sole purpose of writing the score for this film. But by about halfway into the film, I found myself completely disconnected from what I was watching, and utterly discouraged.
The largest failing of "TRON: Legacy" is that, unlike the original film, this movie does not look forward in any way, and it does not seem interested in any larger ideas. Instead, it is yet another tiresome "chase the doodad" action movie with a curiously small amount of action in it. I am so tired of watching films in which people chase around some magical item that will "destroy the world" while other people chase them around. I think the stakes in these movies are just horseshit.
In this case, the magical doodad in question is the identity disc on the back of Flynn (Jeff Bridges), the returning character from the first film. At the end of the original, Flynn had defeated the MCP and Sark, the alter-ego of his corporate opponent, Dillinger (both played by David Warner) and taken control of the company he started, ENCOM. The new film begins several years later, after Flynn has built ENCOM into a sort of proto-Microsoft. He tells his young son Sam a story about the world of Tron and how he's on the verge of a major breakthrough, a miracle of sorts. Flynn vanishes that night, never finishing his story to his son, and Sam grows into a surly adult, played by Garrett Hedlund, who spends his time avoiding responsibility and pranking the company that his father left behind.
Flynn, of course, vanished back into the computer world, and the film has to get through a lot of shoe leather before it manages to throw Sam Flynn into the computer world as well. Sam, disoriented and confused, is picked up by a Recognizer and sentenced to the Games. He is taken to a facility where they dress him in one of the light-up Tron outfits, slap an identity disc on his back, and then throw him out into the Disc Wars for the film's first big action sequence.
The first act of the film worried me as I was sitting in the theater. I thought all of the plot acrobatics and "character" was wasted energy. The character work is facile, surface-only, and almost entirely expository. And the plot mechanics were so uninteresting, so labored, that I found myself wishing I had a fast-forward button just to get Sam into the computer. The most interesting move Kosinski makes in the whole film is just a lift from "Wizard Of Oz," with the film playing in 2D up to the moment Sam arrives inside the computer and the whole thing suddenly opens up to full gorgeous 3D. Neat feeling while you're watching, but it's a tech trick. That's all. Thematically, that doesn't add anything to the movie, and that seems to be the problem with all of the cool tricks Kosinski throws at the thing… thematically, there's nothing going on. It's all just eye candy, pure sugar, and no substance.
For a film with very little narrative thrust, "TRON: Legacy" still ends up being needlessly convoluted, and part of that seems to be the naked, almost grotesque attempts at setting up a franchise at the expense of coherence or any sense of satisfaction. A good example of what I mean takes place very near the start of the film, in what feels like a reshoot even if it's not one. There's an ENCOM board meeting that Sam Flynn interrupts with an Internet prank, and during that meeting, there's a casual introduction to the son of Dillinger, David Warner's character in the first movie. When they cut to Dillinger 2.0, or whatever his name is, it's Cillian Murphy. I was shocked since I haven't seen his name attached to any publicity for the film, and I thought, "Oh, wow, they managed to keep the film's villain so completely under wraps that I didn't even know he was in the film!" Nope. Those three or four lines of dialogue represent the sum total of Murphy's work in the film. There's no further reference to him, no effort to incorporate him into the story… nothing. He's just introduced and then abandoned, and it feels like this big giant obvious blinking red light. "WE ARE GOING TO MAKE THIS INTO A FRANCHISE AND THIS IS THE BAD GUY NEXT TIME AND WE JUST WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW AND ISN'T THAT COOL?" Well… no, actually, it's not. When you cast someone like Cillian Murphy and you introduce him as a major character with a key connection to the first film, that casting indicates that this isn't a bit part. And when you never return to him in the entire movie, it fells like naked franchise building. How about you tell me one complete good story first, and then we can talk about sequels?
The more egregious example, and this is a spoiler, so consider yourself warned, is the way they handle Tron himself. After all, this film isn't called "FLYNN: Legacy," is it? And Bruce Boxleitner, who played both Alan and Tron in the original, is back reprising his role as Alan, so it's obvious you have the right cast to bring Tron back. Without saying exactly how they handle the character, I'll just say that he is indeed represented in the film, but again… as soon as the movie introduces him in this new context, that's it He's gone. Out of the movie. And in such a way that they might as well throw up the subtitle "THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT… NEXT TIME." Again, screw you and your next time. Unless my ticket stub for "TRON: Legacy" is going to get me in to see the next film, you've failed in the basic task of telling me a story. This entire thing just feels like act one and a big chunk of act two, with nothing to bring the various story threads together.
The real bad guy in the film, as the ad campaign has promised, is Clu, also played by Jeff Bridges. The thing is, Clu is the digital avatar that Flynn created when he was still in his 30s, and Clu still looks exactly like the young Flynn. There are several scenes in the film where Clu and Flynn play opposite each other, and many scenes in which other actors interact with the youthful Clu. As long as the character isn't speaking, the illusion is so good it's creepy. But the moment he talks, the mouth ruins the trick. Ultimately, if I loved the movie in every other way, Clu wouldn't bother me, but it feels like Clu represents the film as a whole. He looks right for the most part, but there's something key about him that doesn't work.
In fact, if I had to describe the film in the most concise way, I would call it a Fleshlight. If you don't know what that is, go look it up (as long as you're not at the office.) It is, in my opinion, the perfect way to sum the film up. It looks like the real thing, and it might get you off, but it is plastic, phony, and utterly soulless.
I apologize for the scattered way I'm organizing my thoughts here… I wasn't planning on publishing this review until December 5th, but the timetable got shifted, and so I'm scrambling here to try and give voice to all my conflicted thoughts on this one. Like I said, it was the Disc Wars scene where I really started to worry, because as cool as the ideas are in the scene, and as compelling as the Disc Wars are in theory, it's almost an inaction scene. It's so cool, so focused on how it all looks, that there's no threat to the scene. The same is true of the big lightcycle scene, and that bums me out more than almost anything else about the film. They are such an iconic, amazing creation, and the game grid that they battle on has been redesigned by Kosnisnki, just as the Disc Wars stadium was, and like that earlier scene, the action looks and sounds furious, but it's uninvolving. There's really only one other big action scene in the film, much later, and as soon as someone said "Lightjets," I was hooked. Taking the notion of the battle from the lightcycles and adding in the ability to fly sounds like an opportunity for something we've never seen before.
Instead, what we get is a beat-for-beat, nearly line-for-line recreation for the scene in the original "Star Wars" where Luke and Han battle the TIE fighters. And, no, I'm not exaggerating. It is a stunning lift, and of all films to steal from so blatantly… "Star Wars"? Really? I don't buy it as "homage," either. It's an entire sequence, not just a nodding reference. And as soon as that scene ended, essentially wrapping up what little action the film features, I realized that I'd gone well past "disinterested" in what I was watching. A sort of naked hostility set in, and I found myself angry about the missed opportunity unfolding in front of me.
How many times have you read the description now of Quorra, the character played by Olivia Wilde, as a "warrior"? Well, that description is the only way you'd ever know she's a warrior, because there's no evidence of that in the film. And, yes, it's fair to hold them to that description. In the interview I did with Wilde, she compares her character to Joan of Arc. Uhhhh... I don't think so. It's a shame, too, because Wilde gives the best performance in the movie. She is an artificial being struggling to understand what it is to be alive and human, and Wilde invests Quorra with more life than anyone else onscreen. She has one moment, in the film's final images, that was the one thing in the entire film that actually affected me, and in that moment, I got a glimpse of the movie that "TRON: Legacy" could have been, and leaving me with that glimpse is what finally broke me for good. Nothing offends me more in a film than real potential squandered. When I sit through something awful like "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel" with the kids, it doesn't offend me because I have no expectations for a film like that. If it ends up being awful, who is surprised? Who expected anything else? With this movie, there is so much good work that's been thrown at this to no avail that it's just painful.
When you learn why everyone wants the magic doodad disc, it is a ridiculous notion, a premise that seems like a really bland and disappointing scheme by a generic bad guy. There's a sort of cursory attempt to make Clu a tragic villain, made a monster by his creator, but introducing an idea by paying it mere lip service is not the same as actually exploring an idea in-depth, and that is a mistake that "TRON: Legacy" makes over and over. Even the idea of a father-son connection as the emotional anchor for the film is, at best, a sort of half-hearted effort. What's really strange is the way the structure of this film is very close to the structure of the original, right down to the use of a Solar Sailor at a specific point in the story. It feels like they were afraid to try anything new here, and that's a weird idea, since the first film is practically experimental abstraction on a studio level. It's a safe sequel, timid and tired on a story level even if it's bold and bombastic on the surface.
I'm also disappointed by the way they handle Flynn in the film. Since they throw away Tron completely, everything falls on Flynn, and there are some great images in the film of the older Bridges in character. The first time Sam sees him inside the computer world is striking, with Bridges as a sort of digital Buddha, and there's another moment a little later when Flynn shows up in the End of Line club, ready to kick some ass, where it feels like the film is about to get amazing. And almost immediately, they back off. It's confusing and sad. It feels like they didn't bother writing any dialogue for Bridges. His whole "Hey, man, like, wow, dude" act in the film is funny in fits and starts, but it doesn't feel like he's playing a character. He's Obi-Wan Lebowski, mixing fake profundity with hippie-dippie language. I love Bridges, but it's like they had no idea what to do with him here. Michael Sheen shows up and chews more scenery than Nick Nolte in the final act of Ang Lee's "Hulk." Most of the other performers in the film feel like furniture, like they've been given nothing to do. There's no pulse to this world, and so it all just feels like travelogue filed with preposterous conversations about story points that just don't matter.
In the end, it is not a film that I find truly awful. There are too many things in it that I enjoyed looking at or listening to, and I assume the soundtrack will end up in permanent rotation in my car. I plan to see the film at least one more time in IMAX with some friends, just so I can look at the way Kosinski played with the aspect ratio in the IMAX version, and just so I can bask in the surface of the film one more time. But the disappointments of the movie are real and profound and insurmountable, and the various elements of the film just don't add up. This is, as I said, a major gamble for Disney, and I assume they may make some of their money back. But I can't imagine this film will inspire any real passion in new viewers, and even those who love to wallow in nostalgia will find their goodwill tested by it. "TRON: Legacy" exists as sad proof that this franchise's real legacy is pretty pictures and little else. And that is no fun to report. No fun at all.
End of line.
"TRON: Legacy" opens in theaters everywhere on December 17th.
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