Alright, let’s just get this out of the way. Tron Legacy is very competently executed, filled with strong visuals, a fine dual performance by the irreplaceable Jeff Bridges, and some great ideas. Despite everything I am about to say, it is still one of the better releases out there right now and if you are truly interested, I would say check it out.
Right, now that’s out of the way. Let’s talk about why Tron: Legacy ultimately fails.
The original Tron is actually one of my favorite films. It is comparable to Star Wars in many ways – it pretty much ignited a genre (it and Neuromancer pretty much wrote the rules for the cyberpunk genre) and was very progressive in its views on computers. It also had a lot of heart – each of the programs really defined themselves as people and made me care about their fates, almost as if they were actual people.
Well, if Tron is like Star Wars, then Tron Legacy is like Revenge of the Sith. Sure, there may be a story to tell. And the film looks a lot better. But a lot of the thrills from the original are no longer present. It is less about being progressive and more about being dormant.
In the original, Kevin Flynn (Bridges) took over Encom after his trip inside the Encom sever (or “grid” as it was referred to). Now, in the present day, no one has any clue where Flynn is. His son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is as much of a genius as his father, but has no ambition and pretty much leaves his life committing industrial espionage against Encom. One evening, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, the only actor aside from Bridges to appear in both films) receives a page…possibly from Flynn. Sam goes to investigate at his father’s old arcade, and finds himself inside the grid, where the program CLU (Bridges again) rules with an iron fist. He seeks for a way to leave the grid, while Kevin seeks to help the program Quorra (Olivia Wilde) escape and possibly help give society new information about biomedical science.
Let’s start with what the film does right. The visuals are a lock to win all sorts of awards at the Oscars. The 3D actually looks convincing (something that, after my experience with Toy Story 3, I thought I would never say) and the effect of making Jeff Bridges look as he did 27 years ago is quite good. Tron has always been, primarily, a visual movie. I can see why the time was taken to get the effects right.
But they did so at the expense of the development of characters and the world itself. I came out of the film with far more questions about the grid than answers. For example, the whole idea of CLU entering our world…well, that is just an impossibility. Also the idea of self forming computer programs seems far fetched. I know its fantasy, but the original convinced me that its situation could happen. This did not. But it gets more basic than that. One scene shows Flynn eating – where did the food come from? Where did the books that adorn his shelf come from? What exactly is CLU? Is he a manifestation of Flynn’s personality? None of these were problems in the original (for example, the fact that the programs looked like real world counterparts was more of a reference to The Wizard of Oz than anything else). I never want to leave a film with more questions than answers. That demonstrates that somewhere, the film has failed to explain some essential elements.
In the first, the grid was essentially Kevin’s fantasy world and worked on that level. This time, Flynn tries to convince us that “the two worlds are more connected than you could ever imagine” but never tries to tell us how.
And the script actually makes another big mistake that a lot of sequels do – it remakes the first film. The first act is essentially a carbon copy of what happened in the original (user is sucked in, selected for games, starts with a disc throwing one,then moves on to light cycles, immediately exits the games, and makes plans to go after the Big Bad). I kept getting the strangest feelings of deja vu watching the proceedings.
During the second act, when it actually discusses Flynn and his guilt over losing control on his creation, the film becomes somewhat more engaging. Such a theme has been a part of science fiction for eternity, but it still feels quite good here. “He is me” Flynn moans “I screwed up.” Many people treat computers as distinct entities who are trying to make their lives miserable. Of course, that is not the case at all. This moment is one of the most poignant observations on the new digital age. I needed more moments like that (in the same way that the original was filled with computer jokes) and I was glad to receive the few that I did.
So, ultimately, the film was not the success that the original was. I know that maybe my standards were high, but then, I know what the franchise is capable of. It was able to invite people into a fresh world. I am not going to say that this is a bad film. But I will say it does not come close to meeting the standards of its predecessors.