It’s difficult to believe that, after 28 years, and then months of teasers, previews, banners, posters and hype, the finished Tron: Legacy has finally arrived, in a glowing head-rush of imagery, pounding music and strobing lights.
The backstory we’re already familiar with from the countless snippets of footage all over the Internet: Kevin Flynn, the superstar programmer responsible for designing the Grid, has become trapped within his own creation, leaving his son Sam to grow into an embittered, thrill-seeking 20-something who’s somehow adept at hacking, motorbike riding, base jumping and frisbee throwing to boot.
Having received a mysterious signal emanating from his father’s arcade, Sam sets off to investigate, and following a few brief key presses on an old computer terminal, he too finds himself locked inside the Grid.
Taking up the Wizard Of Oz references Steven Lisberger left behind in the original Tron, Legacy director Joseph Kosinski shoots the real world in flat 2D, making the leap into the Grid all the more startling with its sudden in-your-face extra dimensionality.
Almost like an atonement for the lengthy scene-setting that forms Legacy’s opening, Kosinski has Sam kinkily stripped out of his civilian wear, zipped into a skin-tight costume made of rubber and glowsticks, and throws him into a series of Tron-referencing gladiatorial games, beginning with a high-velocity tournament with deadly discs, and then a dizzying Light Cycle chicken run, before he’s whisked away by slinky heroine Quorra.
Quorra, played with feline innocence by Olivia Wilde, is a warrior program who, like Sam, is dangerously multi-talented, and as at home talking about 20th century literature as she is driving an off-road vehicle or smashing opponents into cubes with fists and feet. Whisking Sam off the Grid, Quorra ushers Sam to a refuge in the world’s digital wilderness, where his father Kevin sits in a zen-like trance.
It’s here we learn a little more of Kevin’s backstory – his most advanced program, Clu, has gone rogue, turning the Grid into a fascist state, subjugating its populace and trapping Kevin inside the world’s neon confines. There’s a little more to the story than this, which I won’t bother to spoil here, but it’s sufficient to say that Clu has some particularly nasty in mind and, naturally, it’s up to Sam to stop him.
What I liked about Legacy is just how much it references back to the original film. Far from hiding its retro roots, it positively revels in them – its frisbee-like discs are everywhere, and the Recognizers, Solar Sailers and Light Cycles are all present and correct.
It also feels, at the same time, that Kosinski is a little impatient with some of the trappings he’s inherited – the disc battles and Light Cycle duels are dispensed with early on and never revisited, which is a pity because, as muddled and synapse-frying as these sequences are, they’re never topped elsewhere.
There’s an aerial dogfight that attempts to dazzle with sheer light and noise, but is too obviously reminiscent of its analogues in the Star Wars movies to really satisfy, and gives way to a denouement that could be seen as muted, or downright confusing if you’re not entirely up on your Tron lore.
If Tron: Legacy teaches us anything, it’s that computer graphics really have evolved into something quite terrifyingly powerful. Compared to Kosinski’s film, the original Tron is like an old zoetrope or something by Georges Méliès, which, in terms of CG effects, it effectively was.
And yet, as remarkable and beautiful as Legacy’s glowing, semi-transparent redesigns of Syd Mead and Mobius’ ships and landscapes are, the appearance of Clu acts as a salutary warning for visual effects studios everywhere – we may have come a long, long way from the original Tron, but we haven’t yet reached the point where we can create an entirely convincing human head out of pixels.
The trick may have just about worked in Benjamin Button, the movie that pioneered the technique, but that was because we don’t yet know what an octogenarian Brad Pitt will look like. With Clu, designed to look like a 35-year-old Jeff Bridges, we’re so aware of how the actor has looked and behaved over his career that a digital version can only look like one thing – an imitation.
It’s this aspect, more than any other, that will be looked upon least fondly in another 28 years, I fear. But at the same time, there’s an awful lot in Kosinski’s take on Tron that is enormously enjoyable.
Clu may have all the presence of a Texas Instruments calculator, but the real Jeff Bridges is an absolute delight as Kevin Flynn. Playing up to his Baby Boomer equivalent of Obi Wan Kenobi, his every utterance of “far out” and “I’m gonna go and touch the sky” are perfectly delivered – they’re lines that could only work coming from his mouth, and had he wandered around the Grid with a carton of milk in his hand, this could just as easily have been Tron: Lebowski.
Garett Hedlund is merely okay in his everyman hero role, but Olivia Wilde is great as Quorra, and the film could have benefited from more of her.
As a big-screen experience, and as pure eye-candy, Tron: Legacy is a riot of colour and esoteric design, and visually, Legacy is a confident debut from Kosinski.
It’s in storytelling terms that Legacy seems unusually timid. The sprawling vistas fail to cover up the fact that the film’s action takes place in a mere handful of locations, and the inclusion of a big-name cameo early on hints at an interesting plot twist that never arrives. The plot is filled with holes and inconsistencies, and the less said about Michael Sheen’s singularly irritating performance, the better.
Nevertheless, I found myself liking Tron: Legacy in spite of its faults, which are manifold. What teenagers, or a wider audience who have no interest in the original Tron will make of Legacy I can’t possibly guess. But speaking as a fond devotee of the original film, Legacy is a worthy belated follow-up, filled with references that geeks like myself will love.
Ideally, Legacy would have featured a villain as lip-smackingly evil as the original Tron’s David Warner to make its truly zing, and with another actor as charismatic as Bridges to act as an evil counterpoint, the movie could have been genuinely fantastic.
Instead, its antagonist is a mere jumble of pixels, and Tron: Legacy, as a result, is merely a mesmerising diversion.