Thursday, April 21, 2011


To be honest, I have stronger memories of the Tron video game than I do of the 1982 film that after 28 years -- is that some sort of record? -- generated a sequel. I remember seeing the original on the big screen, and I know I saw it at least once on video -- but apart from the then-innovative visuals and certain verbal tics like "End of Line," little about it made an impression on me. Many other people must have had a different experience, as I assume the sequel was made to satisfy Eighties nostalgia as well as to show off Disney's current bag of 3D and IMAX tricks. On that assumption, I shouldn't have been surprised to see the film burdened with so much of the "fathers and sons" bushwah, though for once I can complain that a movie doesn't push this theme hard enough. That's not -- I assure you -- because I find the usual intergenerational guff compelling. Too often "fathers and sons" seems like a gimmick designed to make a film seem meaningful. With Joseph Kosinski's Tron: Legacy, however, the filmmakers had the material for an ultimate "fathers and sons" story, but largely ignored it.

What is Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) if not the god of the merry little world of anthropomorphisized programs he helped create within that wonderful computer above the old video arcade? Add in his lookalike program, Clu, who plays the jealous, vindictive demiurge after seizing power from Flynn and his faithful e-companion Tron, and Flynn's real-world offspring Sam (Garrett Hedlund), who manages to get digitized the same way his father did way back when, and you have a holy trinity at war with itself. Or you could have had it. But since this is a "fathers and sons" movie, Sam is interested only incidentally in redeeming the world within the computer, and primarily in saving his dad. Dad's not that interested in being saved, if only because he can't imagine it being done without opening the door for Clu to run amok in the flesh world, and he isn't even that interested in saving his world, since he considers a rebellion inevitable and is willing to simply let it happen. For his part, Clu protests his purity of motive, insisting that he has only fulfilled his User's mandate to perfect the program world. Gladiatorial combat, it seems, is a prerequisite for perfection. On the other hand, he seems to enjoy power too much in a swaggering, virtual Jeff Bridges kind of way. Whatever else you say about Tron: Legacy, it does give Academy Award Winner Jeff Bridges a double ham sandwich of opportunity. He provides the skeleton of Clu's performance to play off his slightly Dudish, slightly Jedi-ish Kevin Flynn and indulges both selves, really letting it rip in his climactic showdown with himself. It is a rare master thespian who can pull off a "fathers and sons" scenario entirely on his own -- and maybe it's regrettable that CGI isn't yet so far advanced that he could have played Garrett Hedlund's part as well.

"They stole my monolith, man! It really held the room together." Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, right) abides.

But Tron: Legacy is nothing if not a laundry list of opportunities ignored. Its biggest disappointment is how ordinary its fantasy world seems, or how like a vodka advertisement it often looks. Nothing afterward ever lives up to its one ingeniously disturbing sequence, after Sam has been digitized, arrested for vagrancy and condemned to the games. He's left in a vast chamber, where from the four walls emerge identically, fetishistically dressed females equipped with laser-tip fingers who first strip and then prep Sam for combat. The identically coiffed women -- two black, two white -- move in an unnatural, robotic choreography for no apparent reason, since the ritual isn't being transmitted anywhere, as far as I could tell. No other "programs" behave this way, and when we encounter one of them again, it's surprising that she doesn't live in her little alcove at the arena. The scene is obviously designed to be erotic on a superficially wholesome level -- the women are fully dressed -- but it also meets, however momentarily, our expectation of how strange this world should be.

I can predict at least one scene in Tron Legacy: the XXX Parody.

For the most part, however, the programs are all too human, or all too cartoonish. One wonders what the original program function of Castor (Michael Sheen), a pale, flamboyant fixer whom Sam is sent to meet, could possibly have been. But I suppose the point of such personalities is to show how decentralized sentience has evolved in that lonely computer over the arcade. It's even evolved entire neo-aboriginal species from nothing. All this should serve to remind viewers to schedule their antivirus programs to run regularly. Look what might become of your computer after 30 years.

If this isn't a malicious file, what is? Michael Sheen (center) as Castor.

The Tron sequel is less interested in such eccentricities than it should be. Castor is really the way he is because that's the kind of character who always turns up in utterly generic adventure stories like this one. Look past the fancy graphics and it's the same story you've seen hundreds of times. An unlikely hero must recover the special artifact that opens the portal to redemption with the aid of a loyal band, not all of whom will be able to go through with him. There must be sacrifices and arguments about sacrifices, the eternal choice between personal loyalties and the mission. And it's about fathers and sons! That doesn't mean there isn't some spectacle to enjoy -- and it was probably more enjoyable on the really big screen. But Legacy isn't anything more than cinematic candy, and not the kind that's filling in any way. It's like a box of Runts: tasty enough in a tangy chemical way, but you wouldn't want to be stuck somewhere for two hours with only those to eat.


James R said...

Nowhere near a record. 46 years separates The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Return to Oz (1985).

Anonymous said...

After waiting 26 years for the sequal to a movie I really enjoyed as a teen, I was disappointed. I went in with low expectations and they were barely met. CGI effects are well done, but without a decent story, interesting characters and some original ideas, this movie is completely, unmotivatingly flat.

Samuel Wilson said...

James R: Thanks for the reminder, though some might not consider Return a true sequel to the 1939 Wizard if it wasn't a sequel and didn't use the same character designs. By the looser standard, the real record could belong to Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010) which could be called a sequel to Disney's own cartoon version of nearly 60 years earlier.

Chrymethinc, "flat" fits this project, and it'd probably feel the same way if I saw it in 3D.