Monday, January 3, 2011

TRON: Legacy

Even before hearing all of the feedback from cranky film critics and excited fans on TRON: LEGACY, I had an idea that once I finally saw it, I would word the post mortem this way: "Really cool visuals, weak screenplay." If I were to merely do a 5 word review, that would sum it up. Turns out I was right on target with that.

That would make one wonder why then should I spend time composing a review of this 28 year delayed sequel to Disney's sci-fi item, TRON. The first film was somewhat of a cinematic revolution, a visual candy store of artificial computer landscapes. It was something not seen before: actors occupying space in a binary world. It would bring about all sorts of quantum questions if you thought too hard, but you just went with it. Despite the neat effects and overall innovation, the film was only a modest success at the box office in 1982. The video game inspired by it, however, was a runaway smash. The film went on to become yet another cable and VHS discovery, future cult status assured. I had a lukewarm response to the original film, and have not revisited it since sometime in the 1990s. I felt with that one much as I do this new one.

In the original TRON, we met Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a software genius/hacker who learns that this hissable executive at his firm, ENCOM, has stolen his code and taken credit for it. Through a series of events, Flynn is digitized and finds himself lost in his own creation. He eventually emerges victorious (see the original youself, willya?). At the opening of TRON:LEGACY, 7 years have passed. We see him promising his young son, Sam, a peek into that world before he takes off on his motorcycle for the night. It would be the last anyone sees of Kevin. No one knows if he's dead or "kicking it in Costa Rica". Flash forward to present day, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is now 27, a recluse who has detached himself from ENCOM aside from the occasional sabotague of the company's latest software release.

Flynn's old friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) is still at ENCOM. He was also Tron himself, you may recall. He receives a page (yes, he proudly still carries a pager) originating from an old phone number belonging to Flynn's long-closed arcade. He finds Sam and before long, the younger Flynn opens the musty doors and discovers a hidden computer room in the basement. He finds a dormant program running featuring "The Grid". A few keystokes later, he's been sucked into the Grid and is immediately apprehended and forced to engage in the same sorts of games his father did in the first movie. Only this time, things look a whole lot cooler.

The flying discs are back, for one. Not exactly a game of Frisbee. Sam squares off against neon suited opponents, or programs, who mean to win, to the death. When you get hit with one of these discs in just the right spot, you disintegrate (a tres cool effect). As Sam is an expert at this (his dad designed everything in this grid, after all, and Sam spent untold hours playing "Tron" in the arcade) he proves to be adept. His identity as a user and the son of the creator of the whole universe lands him in front of somone who looks just like his father, but the way he looked 20 years before when he disappeared.

TRON: LEGACY utilizes the same tech that THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON did: a process involving the de-aging of an actor's face digitally and seemlessly placing it on a body double. In this movie, it's kinda creepy and off-putting. Maybe it's the eyes. This "someone" I spoke of is actually a clone of Kevin's, called "Clu", created by Kevin way back when to help him build some sort of binary utopia. Two geniuses are better than one. They were destined for greatness. Of course, as the age old story goes, what was created for good turns sour. So sour, in fact, that Clu is determined to do no less than conquer the world! Not just the digital one. Clu is not human, yet apparently also not free from the contamination of greed. His blueprint does, however, come from a flawed human. Think about that next time you curse at your software.

But anyway, Clu's just a bunch of zeroes and ones, right? How does he plan to get out into the real world? After Sam enters the Grid, a portal that leads back to Earth remains open. But only for a few hours (what isn't clear in this screenplay is whether Earth hours are the same as grid hours, but never mind). When Sam finally finds his father, who has aged but still sports the same hippie outlook and language as before, he learns it was because of Clu that the portal had closed years before, preventing Kevin's return. Dad therefore spent the last 20 years "off-grid" in a very stylish abode with sleek architecture and cold but gleaming furniture.

The design of Kevin's home is one of the many technical triumphs of TRON: LEGACY. I found my mind wandering (much as it did during AVATAR) while dialogue, important plot points mind you, was spoken, just imagining what it would be like to occupy these spaces. They are some of the most visually astounding I've seen in a movie. The dining room table, the lighted floor under it, and even the sounds of silverware meeting plate reminded me of the climax of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, as an aside. This is a film where CGI not only makes sense, but creates something so otherworldly it will almost make me take back all the negative things I've said about it for other films. It makes sense because this movie takes place largely in a manufactured locale. CGI was not at filmmakers' disposal for the original film, and it makes quite a difference here. The effects and how they're implemented in TRON: LEGACY are reason enough to shlep out to a theater (see it in IMAX and 3-D, if you can).

What about the other actors? There's also Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a very cute young woman who seems to be Kevin's protege. We first meet her when she rescues Sam as he's about to eat it during the light cycle challenge (another spectacular sequence). She's also a program, a creation, and we will learn how special indeed she is. Actually, every bit of conflict in this movie can be traced back to why she's so unique, but you can discover that on your own. What I will say is that she represents something that the screenplay briefly addresses: a constitution of science and possibly spirituality. Kevin made her, after all, but he also utters a curious bit about how the bulk of her design may be of different origin. What did screenwriters Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis intend here? Was it a throwaway line? It may well have been, as the movie never hints at it again, preferring instead to recycle the plot of dozens, hundreds of campy sci-fi serials of yesteryear. The very weak script is what does in this movie.

Bridges is always watchable, and here he gets to be good and bad. I was amused but also scratching my head at his multiple scenes where he seems to be channeling that infamous character of his from THE BIG LEBOWSKI. I'm speaking of The Dude, of course. The character Bridges once described as a person in whom casualness runs deep. Kevin may be a computer guru, but he's awfully passive. Is that redundant in this case? He almost seems resigned to failure, even in the face of having his son remain trapped in the grid. "You're messin' with my Zen, man," he states to Sam during a scuffle with some baddies. The best laugh-out-loud moment for me was when Kevin attempts to recode Quorra's DNA to rebuild her arm after it is severely damaged. As he's working, a flurry of light flies out of her appendage, "Look at that, maaaan," he giggles with that patented stoner laugh. He may also be a genius, but I bet he'd still be down with burning a fattie with you at the end of the day.

Speaking of trippy, there's also Zuse, a flamboyant fellow who runs a club on the Grid called The End of the Line. As played by Michael Sheen, he's a vibrant latter day version of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, with a dash of CABARET's Master of Ceremonies and THE FIFTH ELEMENT's Ruby Rhodd. His and Bridges' character eccentricities seem to be an attempt to loosen up this semi-serious sci-fi. Zuse is a key to our heroic trio's hope for escape through the portal, but not before some script contrivances.

But it's all about the visuals. Aurals, too: Daft Punk contributes an energetic orchestral/electronic score that positively pulses with the onscreen action. Shades of Tangerine Dream can be heard in it at times. Surely there was some inspiration there. I knew from the trailers that I would be taking this trip, and I'm not sorry I did. Yes, many other sci-fi flicks were just rehashes of old plots (STAR WARS? Think 1940s serials and Kurosawa films), but it just burns me that the team of screenwiters couldn't match 21st century tech with as much imagination in screenwriting. For me, that's why the original MATRIX was so worthy. That was 1999. We're due for another.
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