Film Review: TRON: Legacy

The long-awaited sequel to the 1982 cult favorite retains the original's visual splendor, but not its endearingly geeky spirit.

It’s hard to fathom in an era where there’s a Wii in every living room, a massively multiplayer online game on every PC (or Mac) and an Angry Birds app on every smart-phone, but there was once a time when videogames—and computers in general—were viewed as more of a niche hobby than a big business. Although the early digital pioneers suspected there was money to made in their young industry, they were driven in large part by the thrill of innovation, using new tools and processes to build devices and programs that could literally change the world…or at least entertain people for a little while.

The 1982 cult oddity TRON, in which a videogame designer is zapped into a virtual reality that’s straight out of an Atari 2600 title, possesses that same spirit. One of the first films to make extensive use of computer-generated imagery, TRON is the product of a group of computer geeks that’s obviously enthralled by the possibilities of the film they’re making and the technology they’re using to make it. In fact, the movie’s final image—a nighttime shot of the Los Angeles skyline in which the glowing streetlights make the city resemble a digital grid—seems specifically designed to get viewers excited about the coming computer revolution, as well as more adventures within the world of TRON.

Much has changed in the tech world in the past 28 years and, for better and for worse, the long-in-the-works sequel TRON: Legacy reflects the current state of the industry as well as our own conflicted feelings about the various electronic doo-dads that compete for our attention. Certainly, the movie’s expansive universe and somber tone are in keeping with the way videogames have evolved (or, if you prefer, “matured”) from such simple diversions as Pac-Man and Space Invaders into sprawling, self-serious stories like Red Dead Redemption and Heavy Rain. Likewise, its surprisingly bleak depiction of a corrupted cyber-utopia fits the public’s uneasy relationship with the Internet—a technological breakthrough that has done much to improve our world, but is also perceived as having introduced a host of new problems.

The franchise’s newly acquired—and largely unwelcome—grimness also speaks to how seriously the generation of geeks that grew up on movies like TRON take these childhood diversions. When updating them for the present day, it’s no longer enough that they simply entertain, they also have to say something serious about The Way We Live Now. Sometimes this approach works: Just look at Ron Moore’s terrific revamp of “Battlestar Galactica” or Christopher Nolan’s suitably dark take on The Dark Knight. More often than not, though, the original property strains to shoulder the weight that its fanbase and the incoming creative team want to place on it. That’s definitely the case in TRON: Legacy, as the filmmakers’ attempts to lend the proceedings dramatic resonance turn out to be goofier than the original’s overeager earnestness. In trying to make TRON matter to a new generation, Legacy winds up squandering the best thing about the original: its sense of fun.

The film is at its most purely enjoyable during the first hour, when it functions as less of a continuation of TRON than a reintroduction. Once again, a rebellious young gamer falls through the digital rabbit hole and emerges in a dazzling (and now 3D-enhanced!) domain known as The Grid. This time, the rebel in question is Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), son of the original film’s hero, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who vanished without a trace 20 years ago. Sam’s first stop on The Grid is the Games arena, where he’s forced to engage in two of this world’s signature sporting events, gladiatorial combat with flying discs and drag racing on lightcycles, sleek two-wheeled vehicles that zip along at insane speeds emitting trails of light.

While fighting for his life, Sam crosses paths with Clu, the program that controls The Grid and who bears the face of Papa Flynn. (Using some of the same techniques developed for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the movie’s F/X team de-ages Bridges to resemble his ’82 self. It’s far from a flawless effect—particularly when seen in close-up—but, to be perfectly honest, this computer-created performer registers more emotional range than some of his flesh-and-blood co-stars.) Created to help construct the ideal world, Clu’s single-minded pursuit of perfection inevitably corrupted him and he turned on his creator. Before he can complete his vendetta by killing Flynn’s son, Sam is rescued by another program, Quorra (Olivia Wilde), and taken to a mountaintop hideaway where the real Kevin Flynn awaits.

The directorial debut of Hollywood’s latest wunderkind, Joseph Kosinski, TRON: Legacy does provide lots of eye candy for spectacle-starved audiences. That lightcycle chase, which resembles Mario Kart by way of F-Zero, justifies the cost of an IMAX 3D ticket, as does a climactic dogfight involving—what else?—lightjets. Kosinski also draws on his background in architecture and design to lend his version of The Grid a tactile realism that the original didn’t really try to attain. Though he wears his influences on his sleeve (The Matrix, Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey are all obvious visual inspirations), he fuses them into a consistent creative vision.

One thing Kosinski is unable to do, however, is distract our attention from the movie’s slipshod script, credited to Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. Once the writers reunite Sam and his dad, they have no clear idea what to do next and Legacy’s second half spins its wheels until the requisite showdown between Clu and the two Flynns.

Granted, the first TRON isn’t fondly remembered for its story either, but at least writer-director Steven Lisberger kept the action clipping along. Legacy is a half-hour longer than its predecessor and much of those 30 minutes are taken up with clunky “character-building” monologues and supposedly dramatic revelations (like Clu’s genocidal destruction of a race of programs with mystical healing properties) that are designed to deepen our investment in this world and these characters, but fall completely flat.

No doubt following studio-mandated orders to expand the franchise, the writers also use the second hour to introduce a number of characters and subplots that have little impact here but can serve to fuel any future sequels and ancillary products. For example, there are several references to an impending uprising of The Grid’s programs, a storyline that will almost certainly be explored in an upcoming animated series, conveniently titled TRON: Uprising. It’s telling that despite making time for all this new material, Legacy barely mentions its title character, the stalwart security program that fought alongside Flynn in the first movie and who is reduced to a cameo role here. Legacy may still carry his name, but TRON—and the kind of endearingly square-jawed adventure story he represents—is little more than a ghost in this big blockbuster machine.