Film Review: Tron Legacy

(2010) USA, 125 minutes

DIRECTOR: Joseph Kosinski | CAST: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner |RATING: 2/5

I prepared for TRON: Legacy by watching the original TRON (1982) and despite the difficulty of finding a copy, one was secured. It was my first viewing of the flick since I saw it in cinemas in 1982.

And here comes my disclaimer, despite having geeky tastes (e.g. BLADE RUNNER, ALIENS, STAR TREK, BSG) there is plenty of geek cinema and telly that I don’t watch. Despite enjoying the geek-centric series CHUCK, I do not share Chuck Bartowski’s nostalgia for original recipe TRON. When I first saw it as a teenager, I found TRON to be a spectacular looking yet rather dull cinema experience.

Yes, I’m saying TRON used to be dull and I found it even less engaging thirty years later.  I gave it another go because I wondered if there was something that I wasn’t seeing beneath the hype of the new movie.

Reviewing old TRON, I found the story convoluted, the characters flat, the pseudo-science poor and the special effects allowed to take centre-stage all too often. TRON’s reputation has grown over the years because it correctly predicted how important the digital world would become. TRON was the stumblebum Nostradamus of the Computer Age and geeks have long-treasured its prescience.

By comparison, TRON: LEGACY is a far better film. It has all the formula script-writing elements; a rising line of action,  a hero,  a mentor and a quest.  All that Joseph Campbell machinery is in place and working very well. And yet, I found was neither entertained nor transported to another world.

I pondered this as my eyes glazed under my 3D glasses. Why is the world of TRON: LEGACY so uninvolving? It looks fantastic. It has a fabulous pulsing score by Daft Punk. It has Jeff Bridges saying Dude-esque things like “That’s Bio-Digital Jazz, man.” It’s a beautifully designed universe with startling sets and costumes and infinite computer generated spaces, but I thought the edible visuals were starved of underlying ideas.

In the original film, the action takes place in the digital world of a mainframe computer. A human programmer and hacker Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is digitised and sucked into the mainframe. He has to fight his way out.  His opponents are “programs” in humanoid form. The early 1980s were the dawn of personal computing. Colleges, government departments, banks and other serious businesses had mainframes.  The idea of anthropomorphising the mysterious world inside these machines was cute. The increasing power and importance of computers was a zeitgeist-y fear and TRON was an appropriate (children’s) movie response to that fear.  Although the visuals look very ropey by modern standards, they were state-of-the-art in 1982. As confused as I was by the poorly written story, I was dazzled by a world that I had never seen before. The visuals in and of themselves were enough because no one had ever seen anything like them.

In the sequel, Flynn’s son Sam enters a digital world created by his father called The Grid. Here he finds his missing dad. The Grid is where the senior Flynn has discovered self-created programs called isomorphic algorithms (aka ISOs) that could change life in the real world. Real world medicine, philosophy and science could all be transformed, but not if Clu, the evil master of The Grid, and his army of digital soldiers enter the real world first.

Nearly three decades later, brilliant, state-of-the-art visuals are not enough because we have seen many fictional worlds rendered in astonsihing computer graphics. Mere great design can’t make TRON: LEGACY’s world more striking than those we have already seen. It competes with the worlds of INCEPTION, THE MATRIX and DARK CITY to name just three. The funky wireframe inspired buildings of The Grid are beautiful; the unitards, the glowstick ambience, the chunky low-slung transports are all pretty cool, but sadly none of this contains any meaning or menace. Digital soldiers from The Grid are threatening our world? Pffft.

As an adult I find the idea of unemployment, a global financial crisis and climate change more frightening than digi-fascists cloned in the image of a young Jeff Bridges. But surely most children, presumably the target audience of TRON: LEGACY aren’t going to feel too perturbed by this silly concept, either.

When we hand over our 22 bucks at the cinema for a science fiction or fantasy film, we want to take a journey to somewhere quite unlike home. But as much as we want to be amazed by what we see, I think part of this involves our brain. The first thing that charmed us about Narnia was the idea of entering a different world through a portal that was also a childhood hiding place – a wardrobe. THE MATRIX asks what if this entire world were an illusion run for the benefit of others. The TERMINATOR franchise is a cautionary tale about ceding too much power and responsibility to computers.

This last idea seems to overlap with the TRON franchise, but it will take a better written screenplay to make this world interesting. It will require thought and ideas to truly illuminate The Grid. So far, in two movies, TRON has proved to be a himbo when it comes to intellectually stimulating concepts.

Like The Matrix, TRON posits that the people (and programs acting like people) who live in a world without restrictions, will default to a dress code somewhere between superhero cosplay and bondage club casual. I enjoy seeing gorgeous actresses Irma Vepping in a catsuit as much as the next person. But it’s meaningless.  It’s eye candy to sell movie tickets.

Kevin Flynn has been trapped in a computer for 20 years and is sensei to the beautiful Quorra. It’s a somewhat May-December set up. Or to put it another way, he’s old enough to be her Dad and he might be her mother as well. Because Flynn created the world of The Grid, there is some question about where his hot girl sidekick has come from. Questions are begged about Flynn’s psychology.

Other questions are: can one choose to look as dangerous or as attractive as one wishes? If do why is Michael Sheen’s character seemingly a cross between Tommy Steele, David Bowie and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s Alex? Also, if it is so simple to attack a virtual person and turn them into digital Lego blocks, should we be too worried about the advancing digi-army?

None of these questions is ever asked, possibly because this is a Disney movie, but also because this new film doesn’t ask interesting questions.  Let’s hope the planned sequels and television series fills in some of the blanks. So far, both the TRONs are a hot date with no conversation.

*NB: This piece has been rewritten to mention Daft Punk and The Dude.

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6 Comments

  1. A good review sir! And very fair. I had a good time with Legacy, but as discussed, I don’t hold the original in too high regard. I remember it being nice to look at as a kid, but I couldn’t tell you what it was about, or what happens. Much like yourself, I revisited the first as prep for the new one and I found it very dry, story wise.

    Legacy is pretty to look at, but there’s not much else to it. Much like the first, I struggle to remember what it was actually about. I feel like it’s trying to walk a fine line between fan service for the over 30s, and being simple and accessible enough for the younger crowd – and it doesn’t really succeed at either. I almost think it works the best when it’s not trying to painfully recreate moments from the original with better effects. As you say, hopefully the sequel(s) will be able to break the shackles of its history and move on and tell its own story.

  2. Hi Phil,
    Good review, there is something that has been bugging me about every single review I come across and I was wondering if you could share your opinion on it.

    It bewilders me that every review, whether it be positive or negative, all seem to praise Daft Punk’s soundtrack like it was the greatest matchup in cinema history, some even likened it to Star Wars and John Williams….?!
    As an original soundtrack to the film, was it really that good?

    Personally, I don’t think so.
    The role of musical score is to strengthen any kind of emotional tether between the audience and the onscreen drama, without the audience ever being aware of what the film is doing to them. In other words, it should never draw attention to itself and take a viewer out of the film.
    In the case of Tron Legacy, not only was I conscious of the soundtrack, it failed to boost any kind of drama whatsoever.
    During any emotional scene whether it be the light-cycle chase, a fight sequence or even a tragic moment between father and son, the score never lifted the scene, it was like I was waiting for the music to kick in and to take it over the edge, but it never did, it just kind of lingered. What could’ve been great sequences ended up becoming lifeless and flat. I even heard of people falling asleep.
    So how is this an indication of film elements working well together?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Daft Punk and if you were to buy the soundtrack and listen to the score on its own, it rocks!
    In fact, the way the music was used in the very first trailer was extremely well done, the use of electronic beats and distorted sounds combined with the stylistic imagery created a sensational trailer that gave me goosebumps.
    However, within the context of the actual film, where you have characters, a story and other elements working side by side, the music, as a soundtrack, feels flat and doesn’t serve its aforementioned purpose.

    So…. if the theory is that music is there to compliment and strengthen the film and the film itself is lackluster, how can the music be considered brilliant?
    Surely this has to be a first!
    Which brings me to this question good sir, has there ever been a bad film with an amazing soundtrack?
    And I don’t mean lyrical songs or pre-made music by artists which the director choses later on or anything like that, (like the films of Tarantino) I mean music that was specifically composed for the film.

    I would very much like to hear your opinions regarding this.
    Thanks sir.
    Keep up the good work.

    Greg

  3. @Mark – as always your feedback is appreciated. Another children’s film of the era THE LAST STARFIGHTER suggests that people have great untapped potential. I don’t expect everyone to get all nit-picky about story as I am, but I would like the TRON films to be “about” something and I am hard-pressed to say what they are about.

  4. Hi Greg, thanks very much for your detailed comment.

    I like Daft Punk but don’t consider myself a hardcore fan. For me, there were definitely moments in TRON LEGACY when their retro-electronic sounds reminded me of the era of the original film and also added to the artificial ‘ambience’ of The Grid. Much in the same way that Vangelis’s soundtrack for BLADERUNNER really gives the audience a sense of the ‘differentness’ of that particular dystopic future.

    I agree that in a perfect world a soundtrack ought to be invisible, but sometimes it isn’t. Thomas Newman’s work on SHAWSHANK and AMERICAN BEAUTY was so noticeable that the soundtrack albums became hits.

    Having made a short film before where certain things didn’t work, I have done as many filmmakers have and turned to a composer to strengthen moments and even create moments that acting (ie my direction) and camera coverage had not caught. I know from this experience that even good music can only take you so far if the basic material isn’t there.

    Without wishing to keep pushing my own wheelbarrow, I argue that those emotional moments didn’t exist in TRON: LEGACY because they weren’t there on the page to start with. Quorra’s desire to see what the Real World looked like was highlighted and paid off at the end, but this was a single grace note in an otherwise emotionally barren movie. As you suggest, what happened to the father and son story? Wasn’t this the heart of the movie?

    I think I was merely feeling what most other reviewers did. With so little going on, the excellent Daft Punk score became more obvious. I believe if the story doesn’t engage, this is when separate elements of a movie tend to be more obvious rather than submerged as part of a coherent, story world that draws us in.

    As for a a bad soundtrack to an amazing movie – that’s an excellent question. For me a bad soundtrack will pretty much kill a movie even if everything else is excellent. The only film that comes to mind right now is 1988’s THE BOOST. I don’t recall it being amazing, but it had it’s own kind of gritty intensity. James Woods and Sean Young play a middle-class couple whose relationship falls apart because of drugs. I recall being drawn in by the awfulness of their plight and repelled by the cheessy television quality music. It was a little like watching LEAVING LAS VEGAS with the soundtrack of THE LOVE BOAT blaring across everything.

    Thanks again for the feedback, Greg! It’s good to know that one is being read and challenged.

  5. I’m sure that what you thought of as “old” tron has been seen as a piece of work that doesn’t look into the future (as seen as plans that the “machine”that has been constructed to take over everything) so that we can look at something that has been distroyed and rebuilt into a new perspective for the same storyline. What I liked about “old tron” was that it had a sense of morals to the plot. What was looked at when looking at the machine was a tool to something that has been long in the works of men that has been looking at the corporate world as a form of battle field for the common man. What they said in the new work has a sense of heroism that has long been stored in the tron matrix that will be there for the rest of eternity.

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