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Thursday, February 2, 2023

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Tron: Legacy

This review also appears at 24FPS

I’m not, by any means, Tron Guy, but in watching this movie I felt bad for him. I can’t imagine the level of disappointment I’d feel if I really had been waiting with anticipation for 28 years for Tron to have a sequel, and then this was what was delivered. I don’t say that because Tron: Legacy is awful, but because it is mediocre, and because you can see how it might have been far better.

The original Tron was the first film to use computer-generated imagery, and it did so brilliantly. As basic as the CGI was (a few very simple polygon forms) it was used to enhance live action footage, and to give a genuinely new and otherworldly look to the film. Legacy picks up the story 28 years later, and focuses on Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), son of the original’s main character Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) who has grown up without the father who disappeared 20 years ago (as is explained, along with the events of the first movie, in a graceless ten minute infodump at the beginning of the film). When Flynn’s old partner Alan Bradley (played again by Bruce Boxleitner; a good actor who really should get more work) receives a page from Flynn’s office he tells Sam, who goes to investigate, discovers his Dad’s secret office and soon finds himself on ‘The Grid’, a digital world ruled over by Clu (Bridges, with the assistance of the next generation of the technology used to make Brad Pitt appear young in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).

That’s just the setup, but lets be entirely honest, the story isn’t what’s really important about Tron: Legacy, what people are coming for, what they’re hoping to be sucked in by, is the design. It’s not quite the triumph it should be. The 2D trailers blew me away with their visual beauty, but for me, as with so many other films, the 3D process not only fails to add to the visual splendor, it detracts from it. Joseph Kosinski has deliberately made The Grid a dark world; dark blues and blacks dominate, highlighted with glowing lines of sky blue or white (for goodies) or orange (for baddies). This is pretty poorly served by the 3D process, which casts a murky grey sheen over everything and desaturates all colour. Add to that the fact that the depth is no more impressive (with the exception of the title card, which does look amazing) in the 3D segment of the film than it is in the 2D real world scenes and I’m hankering to see this again in 2D.

Another problem with the 3D is that fast motion still doesn’t quite work; it retains a blurry and indistinct quality, which made the otherwise excellent lightcycle scenes difficult to understand, for the most part I couldn’t tell who was driving which lightcycle, and the geography of each of those scenes (thanks largely to the many transparent layers of the grid) is incredibly hard to follow. This said, the design is astounding, the grid is beautiful and the effects work is, for the most part, very strong. Kosinski has, at least, succeeded in credibly updating the look of the grid we saw in the first Tron and showing us an evolution and expansion of that world.

Quite apart from being something that people had never seen before, Tron had ideas that were incredibly ahead of their time. The idea of people having a digital presence that is as much themselves as their real life presence is a reality now (though not in the same way as Tron depicts it) and the concept of digitizing objects (again, not quite so literally) is also a huge part of how we live. What Legacy fails to do is have similarly ambitious ideas and subtext, at one point Bridges’ Kevin Flynn observes of wireless communication between digital devices “I thought of that in 1985”, and that’s really the problem, it doesn’t feel like Legacy brings anything new to the table, not in terms of ideas and certainly not in terms of story, which is the same old orphaned kid searching for his dad tale that we’ve seen in roughly EVERY DISNEY MOVIE EVER. It’s not even very well told. The only time the script really comes to life is when Bridges – clearly having fun – gets to inject some of himself into Flynn (To Sam: Quit messing with my zen thing, man). Otherwise it’s all exposition and colourless character interaction, focused, sadly, on a somnambulant Hedlund. However, Hedlund’s not the worst thing here, no, the performers wooden spoon goes to Michael Sheen, whose outrageously camp performance as club owner Castor (who he plays as a gayer Aladdin Sane era Bowie) is completely insufferable.

The only good news on the new casting front comes in the shape of Olivia Wilde, who is appealing as Quorra, a programme whose true nature will prove interesting in the surely inevitable sequel. She makes the most of the few lines she’s got to help give her character depth, and she really does look like she’s been custom designed in a computer to make every geek on Earth go weak at the knees. And then there’s Jeff Bridges. This film essentially casts him (at least as Kevin Flynn) as God, and why not? Who doesn’t want that to be true? As poor as Hedlund is, Bridges does manage to make his side of the father/son story play, and is the only character you have any real emotional investment in, and there are also a handful of moments when he’s just being his own unassailably cool self, which is never a bad thing. Of course Bridges also plays Clu. Digitally de-aged (with Against All Odds used for reference), the Clu avatar seldom entirely works, plunging us frequently into uncanny valley by being, all too obviously, a head digitally attached to a double’s body, but the work done on Bridges’ voice is remarkable, he sounds exactly like he did in his thirties and that and his performance sell the character, if not always the effect.

The one thing that is truly outstanding about Tron: Legacy is its score. Written and performed by the French electronic musicians Daft Punk (who appear in the End of Line Club as MP3s) it is this pulse pounding mix of strings and electronics that really powers the film, more than the script, more at times than the visuals. Ultimately its so good that it reduces the film, making it at times feel less like a movie than the best Daft Punk video ever made, even during a spectacular fight scene in the End of Line club I was considerably more interested in the fact that the brilliant Derezzed was pounding out of the cinema sound system than I was in anything happening on screen. In this way Legacy’s score is both its strongest element and its biggest liability.

If you like 3D more than I do then I’d heartily recommend Tron: Legacy, if only because it does show some intent to use 3D to tell a story, by using it only on The Grid (and despite what the opening caption says DO NOT leave your 3D glasses on during the 2D scenes), if you’re not fussed by 3D then I’d say buy the Daft Punk album and wait for the DVD.

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