Dec 21, 2010 – “Tron: Legacy” is a film meant to follow in the footsteps of “Tron,” the visually creative, high-concept Disney film from 1982. The original “Tron” was not only a visual marvel that still holds up surprisingly well visually and conceptually, but it was also full of fun, character and adventure. Legacy captures the look and enhances it, creating a new visual marvel for the modern audience. But where it should have character, and charm, it only partially accomplishes this. “Tron: Legacy” is one of the coolest movies that you’ll see in theaters this year, and yet is is also one of my disappointments for 2010.
“Tron: Legacy” picks up twenty years after the disappearance of Kevin Flynn, one of the central characters from the original “Tron” and he is the focal point of the plot for this film. His son, Sam Flynn, has become a rich, cocky kid who makes himself a thorn in the side of the company his father took over in the first film. The movie begins with Sam committing a prank on the company, giving its latest and greatest software to the world for free. Sam is pretty much let off the hook (his shares make him the owner of the company after all,) and he goes back home where he is met by Alan Bradley (also from “Tron”) who has received a mysterious page from Flynn’s old office at the arcade from the first film.
When Sam goes to investigate he stumbles upon Flynn’s old tech and computers and finds himself sucked into the Grid, the virtual world of “Tron.” From there he is captured and meets Clu, a program created by Kevin who has taken over the Grid and turned it into a sort of tyrannical state. He is saved from Clu by a woman name Quorra and taken to a far away hide-out where Kevin resides. Thus follows a reunion of father and son and an eventual break for the real world.
The characters aren’t the problem. They all show sparks of interesting character development waiting behind their exteriors. Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn is still the most intricate and developed character in the film, much like he was in the original “Tron,” though the writers make some strange choices with where he develops, in some ways turning him into a sort of mystical monk-like figure. Garrett Hedlund’s Sam Flynn hides intelligence and a painful and lonely childhood behind his cocky exterior and Olivia Wilde’s Quorra is the last member of a nearly extinct race of virtual life, ISOs who came into being in The Grid. She is innocent but intelligent, strong-willed but naïve, a capable fighter who is virtual and yet really alive, making her the most interesting character in the film. Oh, and it helps that Olivia Wilde is gorgeous.
All of the actors do great jobs with the well-written dialogue. They feel as natural or unnatural as they should, and you feel like there is so much more about them to be revealed and learned; so many more ways for them to grow. But they aren’t given the time or opportunity to do so. When Sam meets Kevin they are given very little time to deal with their emotional issues with one another. Quorra and Sam are obviously supposed to be falling in love with one another, but it rarely seems to advance beyond the attraction and bare flirtation stage, even at the end of the film. Being a sucker for romance, this was a real bummer.
Where the film truly succeeds is in its visuals. The neon glow and running light aesthetic is true to the original while exceeding it in every way that a modern film should. The Grid, its city-scape, its people and the vast expanses of the Off-Grid are all amazing and enrapturing. Everything about it is electric, sexy and sleek. It is so sensual it’s almost fetishistic. This is only enhanced by the terrific soundtrack by Daft Punk who manage to put together an actual film score, and not just a dance-club set-list. They deserve every bit of praise they get for it (Their cameo is also quite amusing.) The fight sequences share in this visual glory, being some of the best action pieces this year.
The true victory of the film is the way it packages the world of The Grid. The visuals, the music, the inhabitants, all come together to make The Grid feel like an interesting, if dangerous place. Kevin’s god-to-creation interactions with that world provide some of the coolest moments. The way he built The Grid, his entrance to the End Of Line Club, his ability to heal Quorra, his use of his powers against Clu all fascinate me and I wish there was more of it.
The first real tragedy of the film is the structure of the plot. The character building, the sweet action, the world of The Grid, all of that is hampered by the plot of the story. There are a number of inexplicably bad choices made throughout the film. Most of the real action set-pieces take place during the first half of the film. Yes, there is a dogfight sequence near the end, and that’s cool and all, but it is hardly personal conflict. You got more character out of the fighting on the light-cycles. The movie climaxes in the middle with Quorra’s rescue of Sam, but swiftly loses that momentum and never fully regains it. All of the remaining plot is centered around an escape attempt, as the main characters make a break for the portal.
They run away. It is an escape attempt that is not entirely successful. There is no victory, no catharsis. The first “Tron” rose to a crescendo of action that resulted in a tangible success. Though there are some elements of that in this film’s end, it is not presented well enough to be felt by the audience. It feels like the good guys lost. That is not the sensation you want from a holiday blockbuster, or an adventurous romp. (Add a little boredom and that’s what makes Oscar Bait *bu-dum-bum-cha!*)
The second, and arguably worst tragedy of the film lies in the way it treats its title character, Tron. Tron was a hero of the first film. He was the program the film’s plot revolved around as much as Kevin. In this movie he is barely a cameo, and a dissapointing one at that. The pacing and characters of the film, in all respects, would have been much better served if he had been brought in sooner. I talk more about this in the Spoiler Talk section below the review score if you want to know more.
This film offers me a whole lot. It’s “right in my wheel-house” as some might say. There is so much to love. The visual attraction I have for the world and its sense of design is considerable. The music is terrific. The characters had promise. There was so much that was great, so, so much that could have and should have gone right. And for that I give the movie its due. But there was much left to be desired as well. The plot, the treatment of Tron, the lack of good pacing, all hurt the film terribly. Despite that, I’m going to go see it again. Something tells me I’ll enjoy it better the second time around. But for now, I can only give it a”good” rating.
For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a extra segment for you called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story or themes that are too spoilerish or high-concept for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.
Let me begin by being frank about the use of the character Tron in the film that carries his name. It sucked. The near complete abandonment of the character is terrible. He is reduced to a deus ex machina near the end, when he assaults Clu in his fighter. Why didn’t Tron fight his re-programming earlier? When the fighting was more personal, and more likely to elicit his repressed personality? Instead it comes at the end during aerial combat? Of course what makes this all worse is that his attempt to help against Clu isn’t even effective. His sacrifice makes no difference in the story. To put it bluntly, what the writers did to Tron is a bastardization of his character.
I keep thinking how much better it would have been if the movie had been more low-key near the beginning. Have Quorra save Sam before he goes to the games, but they don’t just immediately escape The Grid. Have them be hunted by evil-Tron. Have them realize that it is Tron. Make the whole thing more sinister and impacting. It would have been emotional. It would have brought Tron in as a character, and it would have given Quorra and Sam time to interact with one another a lot more before they reach Kevin.
The mid-late section of the movie could involve a climactic confrontation with and salvation of Tron who then helps them through the later portions of the movie and then sacrifices himself to stop Clu (and is mostly successful at the very least). Bam. Tron is involved. There can be both sadness and victory for the good guys, and Sam and Quorra have time to grow as characters. I don’t know why they didn’t do something like that.
I also would have liked to see some reference to the MCP that goes outside of the “End of Line” quotes. Maybe Clu resurrected portions of the program and combined them with himself. Something like that. Another wasted opportunity.
Quorra was, in my mind the most interesting character in the film, and not just because I think Olivia Wilde is damn sexy (Katie, before you get mad, remember William Riker. Muahaha, can’t say anything now, can you! 😛 ). Quorra also represented the possibilities of Kevin’s world and philosophies. The idea of finding new sentient life in a virtual world is exciting. I want to know that new race better, know how they see the world. The most I got out of that was her fascination with Jules Verne and the truly great scene of her watching the sunrise while watching from behind Sam on his motorcycle.
If you want me to get way out there for a minute, watching Quorra is a lot like watching Eve would be, or some sort of heavenly being. I’m not just talking beauty here. There are many parallels, starting with her situation as being a being of new life sprung out of near-nothingness. I mean the naivete opposite intelligence and wisdom. She exhibits freedom of physical motion, and seems to take joy in it. She is utterly innocent and happy, yet strong and willful. She’s an explorer, warrior and scholar. I really think that the filmmakers were trying to portray her as a sort of perfect being. That sort of Edenic ideal is fascinating, especially for someone like me who believes in it and desires the return to it.
Tron: Legacy is, if you’ll permit me, a sort of re-telling of Milton’s Paradise Lost, except God was cast down to Earth with Satan. Many differences, yes, but they play with the same sort of ideals of what it means to be a created being, what it means to rebel against the creator, the emotions and humanity behind it. It is compelling stuff.
And all this is why I feel I need to go a second time. The first time I was over-hyped and there may have been other factors to color my perspective. I stand by my review, but my personal opinion, where it sits in my heart, may yet be swayed. Keep an eye out for an update. I may be introducing a new segment here in the coming weeks I’m tentatively calling: “Films Revisited.” It’ll be interesting to see what happens there.