Almost three decades ago, the original Tron movie caused a generation of budding computer geeks to break out their Commodore 64s and wonder what might be inside. Can the sequel take what made the original so inspiring and bring it up to date?
It certainly seems that way. While the world of Tron: Legacy is replete with references to the original movie, it treats itself as a mostly fresh take on the franchise. The familiar elements are in place, but if you’ve never seen the original, you won’t be excluded. True, you might not feel the tingle of familiarity when the Recognizers approach – but their monolithic threat looms even larger today than it did the first time round. All the references in Tron work on those two levels.
Indeed, regardless of your familiarity with the original, the story of Tron: Legacy is easy to grasp: Kevin Flynn, creator of the Grid and CEO of Encom, makes a great and secret discovery, then disappears. 20 years later, Sam Flynn, tearaway heir to Encom, is unexpectedly summoned to his father’s laboratory.
A few errant keypresses later, he finds himself on the Grid, participating in the games. You know the ones. Disc throwing, Light Cycles, all the classic Tron stuff given a modern music-video overhaul. Rescued by Quorra and reunited with his father, the trio have eight hours to reach the portal and get back to the real world, while Clu – Flynn’s grimly authoritarian avatar with his own designs on the real world – chases them down.
Sam Flynn, played by Garrett Hedlund, is instantly recognisable as the kind of bland, everyman action lead Shia LaBeouf made his own. The opening sequence, where Sam breaks into Encom to execute a cyber-prank against its cartoonishly evil boardroom executives, is a string of motorbike-chasing, computer-hacking, base-jumping clichés presumably designed to signpost his proficiency in these areas for when he reaches the Grid.
Of all the cues the film takes from The Matrix, the idea that – as a User – Sam might have some additional abilities within the system would have been far more plausible than the notion that he spent 20 years training himself to be Batman, just to irritate his old man’s former employees once a year.
Still, the characters surrounding Sam are so strong that it’s hard to complain too hard about his complete lack of a distinct personality (tellingly, despite being the lead, he doesn’t get any of the best one-liners). Instead, the film relies largely on Bridges, who brings both his trademark hippie spirit to Flynn, and a cold malevolence to Clu, carrying the second and third acts squarely on his own shoulders, and never once stumbling.
Even so, it’s Olivia Wilde’s Quorra – a naively sweet, ass-kicking, stunt-driving program who has kept Flynn company in his exile – who steals every scene she’s in. Probably because every time a conversation happens in her presence, Kosinski feels the need to cut away to her silent reactions just so we can admire her wide, almond-shaped eyes and asymmetrical haircut, like a manga character drawn to life.
Between Wilde’s poise, beauty and natural comic delivery, the camera can’t quite keep its eyes off her. The audience will probably feel the same way. The plot asks us to believe Quorra is special, and with the lack of any concrete explanation as to why, it’s left to Wilde’s warm, engaging performance to realise the significance heaped upon her. It’s a wonderfully far cry from her turn as the formidable, hedonistic Thirteen in House, the role for which she was previously most famous. If this is any indication, she’s going to be huge, and justifiably so.
A plot as thin as Tron: Legacy’s can never really suffer from its holes, of which there are a couple of minor ones: Michael Sheen, while brilliantly flamboyant as Castor (think Russell Brand dunked in bleach and asked to play the Merovingian from Matrix Reloaded), doesn’t really slot logically into events, while Quorra has a habit of springing to the rescue out of nowhere that belies any reasonable probability in a city the size of the Grid. Bridges’ moments of messianic power seem at odds with his plan to do absolutely nothing as often as possible. Mostly, they’re an excuse for some cool visuals. But then, so is most of the film.
What prevents the plot from turning into a Transformers-style barrage of special-effect action sequences is that it remembers to tell a story about the characters. At the heart of the movie is the relationship between Flynn and his various children: Sam, his biological son, Clu, the alter-ego that represents his own youthful folly, and Quorra, his adopted digital “daughter”. The film never forgets to refer back to these elements, creating relatable character drama in a film that could have easily been as soulless as the digital world in which it is set.
And what of the effects? Certainly, the technology which allows Jeff Bridges to play a CGI version of himself in his 30s is quite impressive. In a year or two, it might even be good enough to use in a movie. Unfortunately, it’s being used in one now. Clearly aware of this flaw, the Tron: Legacy team often finds some way around subjecting Bridges’ young face to too much audience scrutiny. We frequently find him bathed in confusingly deep shadows. Or viewed off a reflected surface. Or from beneath a heavy video effect.
Such kludges are distracting, though not quite as much as when the film dispenses with the trickery during the final act. Clu comes out of the shadows and slips straight into the uncanny valley. Perhaps it’s an intentional nod towards his digital nature. More likely, it’s just an effect that’s fallen a tad short. The flaws in Tron: Legacy are few and far between, but this one stands out above all the others.
As for the film’s 3D, for once it feels like an appropriate use of the technology. Although (on the IMAX print, at least) there were some 3D moments early on, it’s not until the film reaches the Grid that everything truly pops. The effects give it an appropriately digital, other-worldly feel, and make the most of the wide, digital vistas that are rendered before you. If any film felt born to be in 3D, it’s one set inside a computer-generated world, and Tron: Legacy makes the most of that, revelling in its own look.
In many ways, Tron: Legacy is the ultimate expression of 80s fetishism that has dominated pop culture of late. With a persistent neon glow and a mind-blowing synth soundtrack by Daft Punk that proves integral to the feel of the film, it looks and sounds effortlessly cool, but at the same time, despite all the nods to the past, it never looks retro. It’s all about the future. And if the suggestions of more Tron to come are true, well, that’s a future we can all look forward to.
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