The geeks shall inherit the Earth: “Tron: Legacy”

December 27, 2010

Tron: Legacy arrived in theaters here in Bangkok a week later than in the US and amid a toxic fog of critical dismissal. To say that I was dispirited would be an understatement.  This was Tron: Legacy! Fer chrissakes, look at the totally awesome trailers! From the ComiCon one where we’re first introduced to creepy Young Jeff Bridges, to the later one where the hot blonde says “survive” in a weird, distorted voice…before we see creepy Young Jeff Bridges, they all kicked ass. I hate it—absofuckinglutely hate it—when awesome trailers set me up for really disappointing movies. And yet, when the time came, I didn’t hate Tron: Legacy. I kind of grooved on it. Granted, it was a midnight screening and I’d been awake for 22 hours by the time it finished, and I was pretty dehydrated by the early-evening events, but it still looked damn cool to me. So suck on that all you holier-than-thou, I-get-a-reasonable-amount-of-sleep-and-don’t-have-to-sing-karaoke-with-Thai-police-before-I-see-a-movie critics!

As you probably know, Legacy is a sequel to a movie that neither begged for a second installment nor left fans clamoring for one, either. The fact that Disney poured upwards of 170 million into a sequel to a movie that’s best known for inspiring some fat dude to terrorize us all on YouTube with his spandex-covered bulge means that someone in Magic Kingdom has either lost their mind or is a real, real big Tron fan. Either way, we got a sequel that is pretty faithful to the original’s vision.

Hotshot computer pioneer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges and an eerie CGI simulacrum) disappeared in 1989, and his son Sam has grown up aimless and questioning. While technically the majority shareholder in Encom—now a computer-program conglomerate so massive Bill Gates probably serves tacos in its cafeteria wearing a hair-net—the company has been taken over by money-grubbing parasites (including the son of old Flynn nemesis Dillinger) who, you know, grub money while they crank out crappy operating systems and marginalize Flynn’s old buddy Alan Bradley (Boxleitner again, and, wtf? Does this guy ever age?)

After a commando raid/extreme sports spectacle/publicity prank, Sam is confronted by Alan who…ah screw it, all you need to know for this part of the story is that Sam ends up in album-cover-land. Only it’s much darker and more forbidding that it was when his old man first visited during the glorious summer of 1982. Once more, the land is being scourged—this time by a renegade program created by Flynn called CLU (Creepy Simulacrum). CLU doesn’t think much of Users, but unlike the old Master Control Program, he doesn’t try to tamp out belief in them so much as openly challenge them. CLU has retained the game grid and Sam is put on it—much like his old man was. Only this time he gets sprung by a renegade program named Quorra (Olivia Wilde) who lives with a trapped, exiled Flynn in the cyber-badlands.

After some catching up and father/son bonding, the Flynn’s figure out that CLU lured Sam to album-cover-land to open a portal to our world, which he intends to invade with a cyber-army he has been amassing. To do that, however, he needs Flynn-pere’s knowledge. So he hunts Sam with his badass henchman Rizner, while Sam, Flynn, and Quorra set out to get back to real world. Because, in addition to everything else, Quorra is an “iso”—a living program that is the key to everything. I don’t know what that means, either.

Like the original, Legacy has a pretty simplistic plot, which amounts to little more than an extended chase/race against time. The muddy theological issues of the first have been replaced with muddy paternal issues (Flynn created CLU to help Tron and him create the perfect world…CLU still thinks he’s doing that). Sure you can read some creationism ideas in that, but it’s really nothing Battlestar Galactica didn’t do already and better. Sam and Flynn also come to grips with that whole abandonment thing pretty quickly, too. I suppose the filmmakers had to wrap that up pretty quickly, though. Can’t waste too much Light Cycle time, you know.

Tron: Legacy is also a half-assed open-source tract, with Flynn constantly talking about how the ‘net and its contents should be free and accessible to all. It’s interesting and topical, but, somewhat laughable as well. I mean, it’s not like Disney’s gonna be posting free copies of the movie on Hulu anytime soon.

But what made the original Tron memorable was the cinematic experience it provided. It offered up state-of-the art visuals, and in this the sequel more than measures up. Eschewing the original’s ‘80s neon for a darker, more post-millennium color-palate, it still offers an endlessly fluid dreamscape of a world.  Complete reinvention of the Tron universe is probably too much to hope for, but Legacy applies the advances in CGI that have occurred in the past 30 years to take the visuals to the next level. The light cycle grid operates in three dimensions, and when programs (or their vehicles) are destroyed, they shatter into a cloud of pixels. Also, there are Light Jets, which are pretty cool. Over all this is Daft Punk’s pounding, propulsive soundtrack, which does a fair amount of heavy-lifting as far as creating mood and atmosphere. They story may not be anything special, but the film is endlessly transporting anyway.

The performances this time around are better than in the original—possibly because of the stakes involved. Bridges saunters through the role of Flynn as a kind of techno-hippie, but doesn’t really break a sweat—why should he? It’s not really a challenging role. His simulacrum is a bit more spotty. They still haven’t quite gotten mouths to work right, and while the uncanny valley is an asset for the computer-program CLU, it makes the scenes with young Sam and Flynn just unnerving.

As Sam Flynn, I was pleasantly surprised by Garrett Hedlund’s enjoyably droll performance. I’m not sure why so many critics found him annoying (and that’s usually the adjective they used), since he infused a fairly obnoxious man-boy character with a vague archness, as if he didn’t buy Sam’s posturing either. I mean, with endless vapid, MTV-ready douchebags crawling around Hollywood, I think it’s lucky we got a guy who gave a unique performance.

Speaking of critical flack, poor Michael Sheen was pretty much roasted on a spit for his portrayal of Zuse, the flamboyant (and flamboyantly-gay) owner of the End of the Line club (which is, apparently, cool enough to feature Daft Punk as the house DJs). Yes, it was OTT and very campy, but it also injected some levity into a movie that desperately needed it by that time.  Besides, Michael Sheen is a pleasure watch whatever he’s doing—even transforming into a werewolf in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.

Olivia Wilde’s Quorra, on the other hand, is pretty much a complete misfire. Who or what she is, and why she’s so damn important isn’t made clear. Flynn says she’s “the answer to everything” like religion, philosophy, medicine, multiple orgasms…but he never quite gets around to explaining why. Quorra herself doesn’t go very far in answering that question. She seems to have been envisioned as a River Tam-style innocent/badass, but she doesn’t do much beyond drive real fast and sport a bad hairstyle. Wilde is capable enough, but brings nothing to her performance that might fill in those blanks. She suffers most egregiously compared to Beau Garrett as cyber-femme fatale Gem, whose performance is a perfect alchemy of sensuality and alienness. Her character doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but she brings the movie alive in her every scene. And not just because a good thirty-percent of the time she’s shot from behind (though, you know, that’s fine too).

Legacy is heavier and more leaden that the original—which is too bad, since playfulness was one of Tron’s big strengths. If Legacy had lightened up on the Matrix-like self-seriousness, it might have gotten a warmer critical reception. It also wouldn’t leave audiences wondering things like why computer programs would eat vegetables and roast pig. A few more rules in this universe would have helped. Still, it doesn’t ruin the fun of the movie.

In a larger sense, though, Legacy’s very existence is a success. A sequel to 28 year-old box-office flop, it swaggers into theaters atop a freight train of marketing and effectively forces audiences to see it. Just like CLU, all those kids who geeked out in movie theaters in 1982 have taken over the world.

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