(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.