Tron Legacy

titleSam Flynn, the rebellious son of legendary (and now missing) ENCOM video game programmer Kevin Flynn, spends his time fixing up his father’s motorcycle and finding new ways to cause grief for the current generation of ENCOM executives. The only member of the ENCOM board that Sam can tolerate for even short amounts of time is his father’s old friend Alan Bradley, who reveals that he received a mysterious page from Flynn’s downtown arcade – which has, like its owner, been out of commission for 20 years. Sam goes to investigate, and finds a hidden office full of unusual computers and other equipment, including a laser which activates the moment Sam queries the computer about its function. Sam finds himself inside the computer, in a digital realm known as the grid. Forced to compete in deadly winner-takes-all games on the grid, Sam learns quickly that he must win to live – and to lose means death. He comes to the attention of the seemingly all-powerful digital dictator Clu, who looks like his programmer, Kevin Flynn (circa 1989). Clu takes a personal interest in challenging Sam, who is then rescued by a female program named Quorra and taken to meet his real father. Now grizzled and isolated, Flynn’s custodianship of this experimental digital world was long ago usurped by Clu, in a coup that also marked the last time Flynn saw his friend, the warrior progeam Tron. Now Clu has plans for both the world inside the computer and the real world as well. Two generations of Flynns, with Quorra’s help, might just be able to save both worlds.

screenplay by Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz
story by Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz and Brian Klugman & Lee Sternthal
directed by Joseph Kosinski
music by Daft Punk

Cast: Jeff Bridges (Kevin Flynn / Clu), Garrett Hedlund (Sam Flynn), Olivia Wilde (Quorra), Bruce Boxleitner (Alan Bradley), James Frain (Jarvis), Beau Garrett (Gem), Michael Sheen (Castor), Anis Cheurfa (Rinzler), Serinda Swan (Siren #2), Yaya DaCosta (Siren #3), Elizabeth Mathis (Siren #4), Yurij Kis (Half Faced Man), Conrad Coates (Bartik), Ron Selmour (Chattering Homeless Man), Dan Joffre (Key Security Guard #1 – Ernie), Darren Dolynski (Young Man on Recognizer), Kofi Yiadom (Disc Opponent #2), Steven Lisberger (Shaddix), Donnelly Rhodes (Grandpa Flynn), Belinda Montgomery (Grandma Flynn), Owen Best (7 year old Sam Flynn), Matt Ward (Iso Boy), Zoe Fryklund (Iso Girl), Dean Redman (Light Jet Sentry), Mi-Jung Lee (Debra Chung), Christopher Logan (Nervous Program), Sheldon Yamkovy (Destitute Program), Dale Wolfe (Culpepper), Joanne Wilson (Reporter #1), Catherine Lough Haggquist (Reporter #2), Thomas Bradshaw (Security Guard #2), Shafin Karim (East Indian Taxi Driver), Rob Daly (Lead Sentry), Mike Ching (Blue Gaming Program), Michael Teigen (Green Gaming Program), Brent Stait (Purple Gaming Program), Shaw Madson (Reporter #3), Amy Esterle (Young Mrs. Flynn), Cody Laudan (End Of Line Club Bouncer), Jeffrey Nordling (Richard Mackey), Christine Adams (Claire Atkinson), Kate Gajdosik (News Anchor), Jack McGee (Police Photographer), Dawn Mander (Crying Program), Cillian Murphy (Ed Dillinger Jr.)

Review: An unexpected surprise from beginning to end, Tron Legacy is a far better movie than I was expecting – and bear in mind that this comes from a huge fan of the original who was predisposed to like whatever Disney finally followed the 1982 original up with.

For years, the basic concept behind Tron has been revisited and expanded upon under different names – names like The Matrix and Reboot and others. In 2003, with the release of the video game Tron 2.0, we finally had a sequel, although it was really one for the fans only. Tron 2.0 did modestly well, with the emphasis on “modest”; we knew there wasn’t a Tron 3.0 waiting in the wings. But we also didn’t know a movie was in the works until the 2008 San Diego Comic Con, when a short but splashy trailer introduced us to the concept of an older, grizzled Flynn still on the game grid, and a miraculously (and digitally) de-aged version of him stalking the grid in a very un-Flynn-like manner. At the time, we knew only three things: the universe of Tron looked awesome in the age of CGI, the movie was going to be called TR2N, and we needed to see the whole two-hour thing in about two hours or the anticipation was going to kill us where we stood.

The funny thing is, it was only the rapturous response of the Comic Con audience that guaranteed that Tron Legacy would go into full production – the trailer was essentially a stand-alone test that could’ve wound up being the only follow-up to Tron that we’d ever see. The thunderous applause pretty much bought the movie its ticket to being made. (Thank you, Comic Con audience of 2008.)

Seeing the original 1982 movie right before heading to the theater isn’t required. Much like the modern-day version of Doctor Who, Tron Legacy uses the basic premise, iconography and the major mythology points of Tron, but it’s the stuff everyone who’s ever heard of the original knows about: if you get sucked into the computer world, you find yourself covered with glowing armor and a disc which doubles as your ID card and a weapon. Thanks in no small part to the fact that the games based on the 1982 movie are more popular (and perhaps better-loved) than the movie itself, the audience already knows how light cycles work… and that’s all one really needs to know going in. Even then, the light cycle concept is fairly self-explanatory, and the rest is covered in a flashback info-dump covering Flynn’s activity between the original movie and the new one. (That same flashback is also the basis of a comic book, Tron: Betrayal, the new Tron Evolution video game, and an upcoming all-CGI animated TV series, Tron: Uprising – score one for multimedia synergy, the real name of Disney’s game.)

One thing that’s very obvious from even the preview trailers is that Tron Legacy takes place in a darker, less day-glo world than Tron. This is handily explained away in the story, and it doesn’t “break the universe”. Both visions of the world of Tron are compatible.

One of the movie’s biggest conceits hangs on the ability to convincingly show Clu as a younger Flynn. Shaved clean and filmed in much the same way as the actors playing the Pandora natives in Avatar, Jeff Bridges provides both vocal performances, but is digitally de-aged as Clu (and, in a very few flashbacks, as a younger Flynn). For the most part, the effect is convincing enough; the only times that the effect crashes into the uncanny valley with no survivors is in a few select moments of the movie’s opening flashbacks, and in a shot much later in which an overhead camera crash-zooms in on Clu. Considering the decidedly unreal nature of the world in which much of Tron Legacy takes place, the effect is acceptable just about everywhere else. A second actor is de-aged for some computer world flashbacks, and the effect is actually much better when his character appears – take a look at the cast list, keep in mind who appeared in 1982’s Tron, and it won’t take you much effort to guess who it is.

The movie is marvelously directed by Joseph Kosinski (I now feel much better about the news that he and Tron Legacy writers Eddie Kitsis and Adam Horowitz are being charged with rebooting The Black Hole for Disney). Some of the shots, even in 2-D, are obviously set up to achieve maximum effect when seen in 3-D, but not in a way that takes the viewer right out of the story. The script, by Lost alumni Kitsis and Horowitz, is very smart in deploying the mythology of the original movie very sparingly, and lands solidly on paydirt with the father-son material played so well by Garrett Hedlund and Jeff Bridges. There was a much-publicized late-in-the-game bit of script doctoring, supposedly done by John Lasseter of Pixar fame, that was supposedly aimed at giving the movie more heart. If the father-son scenes result from that revision, they’re fairly successful.

Bridges was a young turk of Hollywood when he starred in the original Tron, but he’s now – as of Crazy Heart – a highly-respected Oscar winning actor. That he could be talked into revisiting Tron at all may well be the biggest surprise of the whole endeavour. It’s easy to try to connect the dots between the elder Flynn’s “aging hippie” personality and The Dude, but Flynn may well be the best piece of characterization in the entire movie. Most game programmers who were active in the 1970s and early ’80s (the era in which Flynn was portrayed in Tron had more than a hint of counter-culture to them. At that time, with Cold War fears sprinkling lavish funding on Department of Defense projects (both in and out of the skunkworks), the real money for those with advanced computer programming skills was in the defense business. I’ve met my fair share of classic video game programmers, and those with that skill set who chose not to gravitate toward DoD contractors tended to steer clear of it because they wanted their skills to entertain people, not kill them. The hippie-fied Flynn is almost like a composite of a bunch of real people I’ve met who were in the game design and programming business at the time, and it rings absolutely true. Bridges’ digital performance as Clu is impressive as well: the two read as wildly different characters. An Oscar for Tron Legacy probably won’t be sitting next to Bridges’ trophy for Crazy Heart, but honestly, a movie with two performances by Bridges is worth the price of admission.

The other standout performances come from Olivia Wilde, whose perfect combination of incredibly cute and very dangerous will tickle many a geek’s fancy, and British actor Michael Sheen as the duplicitous program Castor, who runs a nightclub in the computer world where the many complications of the story come together in a painfully tight knot. Sheen gleefully dances around, twirling his cane as all hell breaks loose below him, and his character is hard to hate – it’s more likely to get you chuckling “What a bastard!” to yourself. When many of the cast, like Garrett Hedlund, try to offset the unreality of the movie’s setting with low-key, naturalistic performances, Sheen has an easy time grabbing the spotlight and keeping it focused on himself. Castor’s a great character, one who I hope will be popping up in the various spinoff media.

The set design is incredibly impressive stuff – if Tron Legacy doesn’t get some Academy love for its visual design and effects, then the AMPAS has about as much ground-level credibility as the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. As opposed to the original, this movie has a surprisingly number of at least partially practical sets. Where Tron‘s computer world was all sharp edges, gentle curves and squeaky-clean early computer rendering, Tron Legacy‘s computer world has viscera. The original movie’s light cycles made 90-degree turns and left perfectly-shaded solid walls in their wake as a concession to the limited computing power available in 1981 and ’82; this movie’s light cycles turn in arcs and their light walls are vivid, electrical and liquidy – and when another vehicle slams into those walls, they don’t just neatly de-rezz, but explode into a liquidy shower of debris that suggests that the victim vehicle – and its driver – has just had its guts emptied onto the arena floor in the least gentle fashion imaginable. The original movie’s hand-animated circuit patterns on the cast’s armor have been replaced by less trippy suits of skintight black fetish-suit armor that almost certainly rely on real-life, on-set electroluminescent wiring – it looks like Jay Maynard, the “Tron Guy,” made a huge uncredited contribution to the Tron-iverse. I hope he at least got invited to the premiere.

Many of the sets are lit in a kind of fluorescent film-noir style, with strategic just-out-of-sight lighting lending unearthly glows to things like pools or glasses of liquid. The most effective set of the entire movie, however, may actually owe its impact to Stanley Kubrick. Flynn’s hermitage on the outskirts of the grid borrows its under-lit grid flooring directly from the hellishly isolated surroundings that Dave Bowman finds himself in at the end of 2001: a space odyssey, and Kosinski smartly uses that visual reference to point up Flynn’s own isolated fate. It’s just a beautiful set – I want to move in after Flynn leaves.

Story-wise, once the audience takes the notion of getting sucked into the computer as a given, everything hangs together very well. If there’s one major plot point that’s left hazy, it’s the “isomorphic algorithms” that Flynn is trying to save. We’re given a vague explanation that they could wipe out disease and other human woes, and that they were to be Flynn’s “gift to the world” – but how, exactly? And what would’ve been in it for these digital organisms? Most of Tron Legacy stands up to scrutiny and a bit of thinking-it-out; this element isn’t, and the implications are troubling. It’s hard to imagine a now-more-altruistic Flynn bringing the isos to our world to simply serve as lab rats, but precisely how they were to benefit humanity is left worryingly foggy. It even remains to be seen whether or not they would’ve been able to manifest the same abilities once deposited into the real world (to say nothing of the unanswered question of where the matter for their bodies come from – the end of the movie leaves one with the slightly uneasy feeling that Quorra’s “real world” body is made up of matter that was originally Kevin Flynn).

The other thing that could’ve been explained very easily is the connection between Tron and Rinzler; instead, the movie leaves this up in the air for the audience to figure out what happened. Since Tron Legacy closely parallels the storyline of the PC game Tron 2.0 (in the game, Alan Bradley’s son is the one who gets zapped into the grid to search for his missing father), it’s easy to conjecture that Tron is infected with some sort of viral code during the flashback fight. Even the spinoff media, such as the “Tron: Betrayal” graphic novel, don’t do much to make this clearer – it really is a “your mileage may vary” plot development. The whole point of Tron’s transformation into Rinzler seems to be allowing for the save-the-day twist at the end of the movie, and even that seems almost arbitrary. (Someone really needs to feed Rinzler, by the way – his stomach was growling through the whole movie!)

Another curiosity is the creative decision to completely eschew the internet as a plot point. Aside from Sam’s unauthorized release of ENCOM’s new operating system to the web at the beginning of the movie, we don’t hear about the internet again for the entire story. It’s a curious thing to omit, and it puts the film in a strange sort of time warp: Flynn doesn’t know what wi-fi is. Is this movie set 20+ years after the original, or 2 years?

Overall, however, Tron Legacy is good eye-popping fun, and a damn good opening gambit for reviving the Tron universe and turning it into a multimedia and merchandising franchise. If you ever needed a textbook case of the evolution of state-of-the-art special effects across nearly 30 years, this is it, but this time the story has heart… and this time, society in general has geeked out enough that the whole concept isn’t incomprehensible to the general audience. Tron’s time has finally come, and Tron Legacy is the right move at that right time.