TRON: Legacy Review

Tron: Legacy begins shortly after the events of the first Tron film and opens with a brief scene between Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and his young son Sam in which Kevin explains the Grid to Sam (and the audience) and hints at what he is trying to achieve with it. A nice set up perhaps for those who have not seen the original film but the computer assisted youthful Jeff Bridges is incredibly jarring, with dead eyes, a plasticine face and a seemingly disconnected head. The film then cuts forward to present day, Flynn has been missing since that night and it is the night of Encom’s very public launch of their latest operating system OS 12. Encom has become a distinctly stereotypical corporate entity though and the implication is that the new operating system release is purely a shameless cash grab, a point brought home by board member Alan’s (Bruce Boxleitner’s character returning from the first film) objections.

Despite Sam (Garret Hedlund), now an adult, owning the majority share in Encom he is not involved in the inner workings of the company and only takes an interest once a year for an “annual prank”. This year he decides to break into Encom, interfere with the televised launch of the new software and release the new OS online for free. It is at this point that there is a suggestion that the film may be dealing with themes that are topical or even prescient – open source software, large corporations’ stranglehold on development, online freedoms, piracy etc. – but the the film never really takes this idea any further than a casual aside and any of the complex ideas suggested by the set up here are confused or diffused by later events in the narrative.

After being caught by the police and let go (he owns the company he is breaking into after all) Sam returns to his apartment to find Alan waiting for him with the news that he has received a page from the disconnected phone in Flynn’s Arcade. Sam investigates the arcade and finding Kevin’s secret room, workstation and laser he accidentally transports himself into the digital world of Tron. It is at this point that the film pulls its Wizard of Oz like trick and switches to 3D. Despite the whole film being designed to be viewed with 3D glasses (thankfully effectively optimised to account for light reduction) the film is not entirely in 3D with a focus on 3D application in the digital world. Although the 3D in Tron: Legacy is not used strictly as a gimmick, there are very few campy things-flying-at-the-screen moments, but as a filmmaking tool it is poorly utilised adding little to the cinematography. The 3D application is competent though in never being distracting through particularly poor use and at over two hours Tron Legacy is easy to sit through without a hint of eye strain.

Along with its various ‘users’ and ‘programs’ the digital world is filled with a variety of vehicles, many of which are new to this sequel. These are for the most part aesthetically pleasing and their contrast against the dark landscape of the Grid is one of the film’s stronger visual elements but the use of the Lightcycles in the games sequence is disappointingly underwhelming. Upon entering the Grid Sam is immediately captured, picked up by a Recognizer and sentenced to take part in the Games. These are comprised of retreads of the disc battles and Lightcycle races from the original Tron but in a very deliberate attempt to up the ante Kosinski adds polarising gravity to the disc battles and extra layers to the Lightcycle course.

These games are sadly lacking in key technical areas and let down a section which should be filled with thrilling and satisfying action. The disc battle sequence suffers from editing that is simply not coherent enough for the action to work. This lack of fluidity in the editing of action again rears its head in a later fight scene in a club where some semi-competent fight choreography is wasted by poor framing and sloppy editing. The Lightcyle race/battle fairs even worse than the disc battle, which at least has some well designed presumably mo-capped wire-work. The race/battle is filled with a number of Lightcyles on a series of dark glass layers and although striking at first it collapses through poor direction and editing. The complexity in execution that is inherent in this set up is seemingly beyond those involved and what could have been akin to watching a number of thrilling car chases at once is rendered dull and even difficult to follow in places due to the editing issues.

The Games sequence ends with the introduction of Quorra (Olivia Wilde) who manages to breath some fresh air into a film that only around thirty minutes in is already flagging badly. One of the problems up until this point, far greater than any others mentioned, is that the main character predominantly on screen is Garret Hedlund as Sam Flynn. Hedlund in the role of Sam is lacking any real charisma. Lines that, although clunky, have a bit of spark to them fall flat in the hands of Hedlund and his performance is so far from engaging that he often disappears into the digital scenery. Olivia Wilde by contrast is fresh, charismatic and charming. The character of Quorra is naïve and innocent (a slight lift from the character of Leeloo in The Fifth Element) but she also possesses wisdom beyond this and Wilde manages to convey this well. A simple inflection in a smile from her carries more weight than anything Hedlund does throughout and it was perhaps a wise decision for her character’s significance to increase throughout the story as Sam’s seems to diminish.

The introduction of Quorra is quickly followed by the reunion of father and son, Kevin and Sam. The reconciliation between the two takes place in Kevin’s minimalist apartment, a set with production design hopefully deliberately designed to echo Sam’s apartment rather than just down to a scarcity of ideas. The film then stumbles into what should be its first significantly emotionally weighted scene. The development of the father-son theme should be important to the crux of the story and that and the linked story of CLU as Kevin’s other surrogate son/clone should provide the emotional glue that holds the narrative together. The scene is entirely flat though and wholly unconvincing, a trend that continues throughout the film. Bridges also appears to be sleepwalking through this role, at least partly, due it would seem to a lack of having anything at all to do.

Producer Brigham Taylor described the character at one point as “like Colonel Kurtz, gone too far up river” which actually sounds almost interesting but there is really no evidence of this in the finished film. Kevin Flynn appears more fed up and bored living out a tired existence in his created world that has slowly turned dark and corrupted (fans of the original film will sympathise with this). His inactivity partly explained as some sort of passive resistance makes his character an almost narcoleptic presence. Boiled down to essentially a stereotype of what many people perhaps think a ‘Jeff Bridges character’ is, he is left delivering phrases such as “bio-digital jazz” and adding man to the end of every sentence. Nothing about Kevin or Bridges’ performance as CLU is convincing and added to the problems in Hedlund’s performance and the script issues there is absolutely no dramatic significance to any of their relationships.

The drama is not present in the plotting either. We have the ticking clock, the portal to the real world closes in eight hours, and the macguffin, Kevins identity disc appears to be the key to the whole Tron world, but none of this actually feels important. The stakes don’t feel tangible. The original film had illusions to real world significance but the server on which the digital world lives in Tron: Legacy is clearly defined early on as separate to anything in the real world. Ttherefore the only stakes are the characters living or dying but without an engagement to these characters through intelligent writing why would an audience care what happens to them.

The threat of ‘consequences’ is also undone at one point as a character is very quickly and easily healed. There is an effort mid way through the film to suggest that there is a threat to the real world but it is not well enough written to have audiences buying it and there is also an attempt to inject extra drama in the form of a historical genocide in the Tron world and a fascist brainwashing sub plot but this falls as dull and flat as everything else and like a lot in Tron: Legacy, it just doesn’t add up. In a film that seems to love the idea of this world having an internal logic the inclusion of a new species, ISOs (non-geeks can Google ISO to appreciate this unfunny in-joke), that are referred to as having come from nothing just seems unbelievably lazy and like a lot of Kevin’s dialogue and exposition, just hippy hocus pocus.

The world of Tron that is built by Kosinski is at times visually striking and exciting but for the most part it is incredibly shallow. The visual histrionics are simply a distraction much like a fireworks display (there is even an actual fireworks display at one point), designed to invoke oohs and aahs but design elements generally serve no tangiable, applicable function and are often simply worthless. The world that is created by Kosinski has the potential to be utterly fascinating but a lack of adherence to simple functionality and logic results in his world building simply falling apart with every passing minute.

Very little in the world makes any sense despite the obvious desire for it to do so. Exposition is piled into dialogue and voiceover to explain the world but none of it helps explain simple logic issues. Even elements that appear to make sense at first through audience assumptions, CLU and Kevin’s physical separation for instance, are revealed to make no sense whatsoever. This is apparently down to CLU being unable to find Kevin despite the film explicitly establishing Kevin’s home as a bright light in a dark expanse and when CLU finally travels there no significant time is seemingly spent in getting there. There is mention made of Kevin being “off the Grid” although what this really means is unclear and one could assume early on that CLU is unable to travel off the Grid but then he does so shattering what could have been a simple piece of acceptable narrative contrivance.

This is just one of many examples though and the inconsistencies and holes in the plot come thick and fast. Despite, or perhaps because of, a number of rewrites there are also a number of lines that simply aren’t necessary, that don’t make narrative sense or often even seem incoherent. One line, for instance, references the speed of Kevin’s Lightcycle and how despite its age it is still the fastest thing on the grid. Aside from making no sense in a world where CLU has become obsessed with making everything perfect when the Lightcycle is then never used in any races but purely as a means of transport the line seems as redundant as it is inexplicable.

The inclusion of Daft Punk as characters in the actual film is also jarring and slightly childish. Coming at a time in the film when Michael Sheen as Castor is in the throes of an excessive performance piece that draws on Bowie and Chaplin to a frankly ludicrous degree, the appearance of Daft Punk just adds to the unpleasant hot mess. How do they fit in the world? Are they programs? Are they users? Why do they seemingly ignore the life threatening situation and see it as a chance to select new music that fits the scene? None of this is important it seems, Tron: Legacy is more about attempting to collect ‘cool points’ throughout to impress a geek-savvy audience. The score supplied by Daft Punk is mostly effective in the majority of scenes but apart from a few sparse moments, one of which is cut off, the score is a little derivative of populist film composers such as Han Zimmer. The revolutionary score that many were hoping for this is not.

Despite the insistence by many involved in the film’s production that Tron: Legacy can be viewed as a standalone film the weight of the original hangs over the film and there are moments where exposition is inserted to explain things for those who haven’t seen the original. Re-releasing the original film prior to Tron: Legacy’s release could have helped and there were rumours of this and also a Blu-ray release (recently delayed for a variety of reasons) but Disney have opted to throw Tron: Legacy out on its own hoping older fans will remember the original well enough (the DVD is currently deleted) and those new to Tron will be able to engage with it easily enough. There is an attempt it would seem though to restart this property as a new brand to make Disney money and little about the endeavour feels artistically motivated.

This is perhaps the most obnoxious aspect of Tron: Legacy as Disney have clearly set Tron: Legacy up as a franchise builder with little regard for the negative effect this has on the individual film. The introduction of Cillian Murphy in an early scene seems to set him up as a possible villain in Tron: Legacy but he is never again seen after wandering off talking on his mobile. The moment is similar to being shown the Joker card at the end of Batman Begins but the difference is that at that point the audience has seen the entirety of Batman Begins and the tease for a sequel is a cheeky move but one that most audiences are probably willing to accept. In Tron: Legacy the film has hardly got off the ground and the audience seems to be already being sold a sequel, a move akin to product placement in an already artistically empty attempt at simply making money. The early scene in the boardroom is ominously prescient. The large corporation releases a new version that they don’t really believe in, something not necessarily any good, just new packaging and one version number higher. They don’t think their consumers will care though, they’ll just buy it anyway.

This review was originally posted at MCM Buzz.