Wednesday, December 22, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: TRON Legacy (2010)

"The Grid: a digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they traveled through the computer. Ships, motorcycles, with the circuits like freeways. I kept dreaming of a world I thought I'd never see. And then, one day, I got in."

-Programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) describes a breakthrough in human knowledge in TRON Legacy.

Nearly thirty years ago, the state-of-the-art cinematic fantasy TRON (1982) ended with a beautiful and resonant image: 

Day slides quietly into night and a 1980s brick-and-mortar metropolis changes before our eyes.   All the roads, skyscrapers and moving cars in the frame seem to morph into the raw, blinking data of the virtual Grid, of the movie's neon computer world.  Our eyes detect colorful light trails just like those generated by the light cycles, but these light trails exist here in our world; in our cities and on our streets.

I wrote in my original review of TRON that this valedictory and artistic composition  is "an image that connects man's natural world and his technological one, and reminds us, visually, that we inhabit both.  To our detriment or to our glorification."

Joseph Kosinski's commercially-successful, action-adventure sequel, TRON Legacy, is constructed upon this very notion; upon the passing of a gift -- a legacy -- whose nature each ensuing generation must interpret for itself .
 
Specifically, ENCOM programmer Kevin Flynn's (Jeff Bridges)  legacy to his adult son, Sam  (Garrett Hedlund) is a virtual Grid that has miraculously sprouted independent, artificial life.  The Grid and its young life forms -- Isos -- can either prove detrimental to the human race or something completely glorious: a change (or evolution?) to rock the very foundations of medicine, science, and even religion.  
 
And as the sequel ends, Sam becomes the keeper of that torch for the time being.  He can either repeat his father's mistakes...or learn from them

That's the narrative terrain of the movie, and TRON Legacy explores it about as deeply and as meaningfully as one would desire from a high-tech, 3-D, action entertainment.  Niggling complaints aside, this is a genre film featuring just about the right alchemical equation of thrills and heart.
 
Despite this relatively adroit balance of action and "think" sequences -- plus some truly kick-ass 3-D moments -- many film reviewers have been grievously unkind to TRON Legacy.  But really, this just is deju vu all over again.  Those of us who were around in 1982 remember that TRON also earned bad notices for the most part.

For instance, New York Times critic Janet Maslin essentially called the original Lisberger effort beautiful but stupid.  And that's a variation of the same charge leveled against this sequel in the closing weeks of 2010.

However, if you enjoyed and appreciated the original TRON, it's probably a safe bet you will also appreciate this very faithful, very enjoyable follow-up film.  It seems like many critics -- echoing the film's villain, CLU -- are seeking their own personal brand of "perfection."  Not finding it,  these reviewers fail to enjoy the movie's on its own stated terms.

In terms of narrative structure, the 2010 sequel almost slavishly apes the blueprint of the original film, and in terms of human interest, the sequel dramatizes the affecting story of an ambitious father who seeks perfection outside the human realm of his family...and ultimately comes to regret his mistake.  After correcting that mistake, he passes on his legacy to another protector: the son he once abandoned.

There are indeed minor resonances of Apocalypse Now (1979) in the TRON Legacy mix too, as I had hoped there would be after seeing the early previews.  Jeff Bridge's older (but not necessarily wiser...) Flynn is a Kurtz-like figure who leaves the difficult, emotional world of family and responsibility behind, and who then stakes out his own fiefdom "up river," in the virtual world, seeking to shape it exactly to his liking. 

These background touches lend TRON Legacy a solid grounding in the human realm, even when the intense gladiatorial sequences come hot and heavy, and the screen is splashed with dazzling, dueling neon lights.  In terms of action, the movie is also pretty much unimpeachable: it's an exciting film, legitimately augmented by the 3-D process so to feel totally immersing.
 
"Change the scheme! Alter the mood! Electrify the boys and girls if you'd be so kind."  

TRON Legacy begins in 1989, some seven years after the events of TRON. Kevin Flynn has defeated Dillinger and the MCP, and reclaimed ENCOM. One night, Flynn informs his young son, Sam, of a breakthrough on The Grid; a miracle that could "change everything."

He is never seen again.

Decades later, a grown Sam -- aimless and hurt over the disappearance of his Dad all those years ago -- continues to be a thorn in the side of ENCOM, a software company threatening to fall into the clutches of Dillinger's money-hungry son (Cillian Murphy). 

Although Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) speaks up for the missing Flynn's philosophy and wishes, the inhuman corporation is only interested in profits.  Sam's attempts to hijack ENCOM"s new release (a new- but-not-improved operating system) are not greeted warmly by the Board.

Then, however, Alan comes to Sam with curious news that he  has received a page from Flynn; a page originating from Flynn's Arcade.  Sam visits the old Arcade and finds the means -- in the basement -- to transport himself to the Grid.  Almost immediately, Sam is apprehended there, in the computer world, by the gestapo-like forces of the Grid's commandant, CLU (Jeff Bridges). 
 
CLU -- Kevin Flynn's doppelganger -- dispatches Sam to the life-or-death gladiatorial games that the Grid's Program's seem to hunger for, but the lad escapes at the last minute, thanks to the intervention of the beautiful Quorra (Olivia Wilde).  She takes Flynn to meet with his father, and Sam learns of the Virtual World's history; a history marred by Clu's attempt to achieve a "perfect system."

In attaining that lofty goal, Clu has actually resorted to genocide, destroying the self-aware beings who were born inside the grid, the Isos.  Now, Clu wants to go even further: he wants to take his genocidal ways to the outside world and reshape our human life.  But he needs Flynn's identity disc to accomplish this goal; to find the hidden way out of the computer world... 

"Out there is a new world! Out there... is our destiny!"

In very specific terms, TRON Legacy, mimics the narrative flow of the original Lisberger film.  In the 1982 effort, Flynn entered the computer world and was captured.  He was then -- rather promptly -- put on the game grid.   The elder Flynn first had to battle a single enemy on a dangerous game platform, and later had to engage other Programs in battle inside the light-cycle arena.  Following an escape, Flynn and his friends used a beam rider as transport to cross the virtual wasteland and reach their quarry: the malevolent MCP.

In the 2010 sequel, the same sequence repeats.  Sam is zapped into the Grid, and captured by a Recognizer.  He is forced into disc-on-disc combat against a single opponent, and then put into light cycle combat.  After an escape with Quorra, Flynn and his Dad use a beam rider to transport across the virtual wasteland and reach their quarry: a portal that can return them to the "real world." 

The characters are similar too.  In both films, we encounter a triumvirate or triangle involving one female and two males. 

The identical order of events -- and deliberately re-use of  trademark franchise moments such as the disc battle, light-cycle race and beam-rider interlude -- suggest that this "Grid test," as it were, is actually symbolic.  It's a rite of passage.  First the Dad had to survive it, and now it is the son's turn to run the same gauntlet. 

Since so much of TRON Legacy concerns the the son growing up, and (hopefully) avoiding the mistakes of his father, this narrative structure does not feel like a re-hash of the earlier film, but rather an important point of context.  This is life, the broaching of adulthood and responsibility, the movie seems to intimate. And by putting our new hero, Sam through the same events his father endured -- and in the same order, no less --the film gets that point across rather nicely, and without forcing the issue. 

The prime difference between original and sequel arises not in the order which the the action-packed events occur, but rather in the perspective in which how they are viewed.  In the first film, Flynn attempted to survive in someone else's system. 

Here, Kevin and his son are struggling in the system the Father engineered...a system controlled by a monstrous, calculating alter ego called CLU (voiced by Bridges and visualized by CGI). 

In other words, this is the story of one father and two sons. 

Sam is the human son Kevin left behind for the technological "miracles" of his work, his job.  And CLU is the technological son Kevin  abandoned when CLU's viewpoints about a "perfect system" diverged from his Father's ideals.  Everything that occurs in the virtual world of TRON Legacy is a clear result of dear old Dad's mistakes; his vanity and arrogance.  His "God Complex," if you will.

Kevin Flynn believed he could craft a utopia, a perfect system, but didn't stop to consider  that his "computer" son, CLU, might execute his will in an inhuman manner (owing to his nature as a machine.)  When Flynn is later greeted by his (prodigal?) son, Sam -- a fallible but wholly human creation -- he realizes, in a sense, the error of his ways.  He realies that "perfection" was indeed within in his reach all along, but it was a "perfection" resting in his feelings of love and devotion for his biological, human son. "Engineering" perfection was an impossibility all along.  Perhaps only God -- who created both Kevin and the Isos -- could engineer such perfect creations.

It's not too difficult, given this context, to view TRON Legacy as a kind of critique or commentary on the different stages of adulthood, really.  As a young man, Flynn rebelled against "The System," (the MCP, Dillinger running ENCOM, etc.) and took down that system.  Now, years later...as an older man, Kevin Flynn is The System.  And all the problems encountered in the sequel are not external ones of another individual's making.  They are his mistakes.

Again, this is how life is. 

As youngsters, we have so much to rail and rage against: the Establishment, the way-of-things, the world at large, the slow pace of change.  As middle-aged men and women, we are the ones to be rebelled against; the living, breathing results of a million choices and (some) bad decisions.   The world around us is one we've made, or at least shaped. 

I should hasten to add, this 2010 sequel is clearly and cleverly designed for the contemporary middle aged guy, like me. It arrives in theaters nearly three decades after the original TRON.  I was twelve years old when I saw the original; only-just forty one when I saw the sequel. 

Smartly, the movie makers take into account that so much time has passed and have crafted a film that appeals to that same audience, only grown up.  We are now the fathers, not the sons.  We are the ones who have made the mistakes.  How do we want to be remembered?

TRON Legacy both passes the torch to the next generation, and brings Kevin Flynn some measure of peace and understanding about his amazing life; and the mistakes he has made.   His acceptance of his flaws is visualized perfectly, and in distinctly sci-fi terms, when he must literally take them all back.  Those errors and foibles have coalesced in the person of CLU, and in the end, Flynn must re-absorb CLU into himself.  It's the ultimate act of responsibility, and one that paves the way for Sam and Quorra to have a positive future.

Perhaps this plot line is the reason why the younger fan boys may not groove so much on the film.  Though youthful Sam is undeniably the physical hero of the pic, Kevin Flynn remains the heart and soul of the Tron universe.  His journey is the one that resonates deeply, at least with those who fell in love with TRON twenty-eight years ago. 

And I should add as well, that the journey of TRON (Boxleitner) himself nicely  reflects and augments Flynn's journey of self-discovery.  TRON too has changed over the years -- veritably going to the dark side -- before a last minute redemption saves the day.  Watching our two heroes of yesteryear in this film -- responsible for and absorbed by the prevailing system -- men of my age must wonder if this too has happened to us, in the "real world."

In very simple terms, the movie reminds us to pay attention to our children, and not to let professional ambition interfere with what is perhaps the only truly perfect, unconditional thing in this mortal coil: the love of a son or daughter

To some that idea may sound hokey or corny, and I rarely make blanket statements like "you need to be a parent" to enjoy this film.  But in the case of TRON Legacy  it certainly helps you enjoy this film if you are over thirty, have some familiarity and nostalgia for the original, and are the parent of a child.

In terms of visual expression and ingenuity, I would still give the nod to TRON as a superior genre film, but I feel that TRON Legacy does not dishonor the original's accomplishments in any, way, shape or form

Indeed, this 2010 sequel culminates on a tight, unassuming two-shot of Sam and Quorra (Olivia Wilde) -- an artificial life form called an "ISO" -- riding off on a motorcycle together into the unwritten, unprogrammed future.

This is an appropriate and timely image, for Man and his technology have become infinitely more intertwined in 2010 than they were in 1982. The sequel's ending thus reflects our increasing sense of comfort with computers, software and "applications." Monolithic, computerized monstrosities such as HAL and the MCP don't carry the same dramatic power they once did because so many of us "interface" with our Droids, desktops, laptops, Internet and other high-tech tools several times a day.

Not once have these advanced tools tried to bite our hands, or transform us into malevolent, unfeeling cyborgs.

So TRON Legacy's final visual flourish -- the motorcycle two-shot with Sam and Quorra -- actually portends a kind of welcoming man/machine intimacy: the total marriage of the natural world and the technological one. A new direction that -- given our vigilance -- can open up a new information age and broaden our understanding of creation itself.
Technology is our co-pilot, in other words.

This idea is a dramatic and valid next step beyond TRON's Reagan-era ending, a deliberate moving of the ball down the field to our current epoch and its unique pitfalls and promises. 

In this fashion and in this ending, the 2010 sequel speaks to today's youth in the same literate and cinematic matter as its predecessor spoke to my generation. 

In the end, both TRON and TRON Legacy are not about video "games," but about how people choose to use or misuse technology.  Intriguingly, these movies also show how our high-tech creation's mirror -- more and more -- their creators.

Let's hope that these "programs" will continue to "fight for the users" on the Grid -- and in reality -- for generations to come.

10 comments:

  1. I thought "Tron Legacy" looked pretty but was largely form without substance. I'm glad I saw it, out of nostalgia for the original Tron, and I do appreciate the homages paid to that film, as well as to Black Hole, Wargames and other classic sci-fi films. However, a flimsy plot, illogic, weak dialog and flat acting, not to mention blatant ripoffs of Star Wars and The Matrix, ultimately hurt this film in my eyes. That's a shame, because I genuinely WANTED to like it--I'm not someone who went into the film expecting to hate it, like a lot of people did. And, in truth, I didn't hate it. But I didn't love it, either. For what it was, it was fun... but it could have been a lot better.

    --Rich Handley

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  2. I will have to agree with Rich Handley about the film's flaws... which, let's be honest were the flaws of the original film. However, what saved TRON was the playful charisma of Jeff Bridges as our audience surrogate, taking us through this strange world. This new one has Garrett Hedlund as the audience surrogate and he just doesn't have the charisma to pull it off. Of course, he's not helped by the screenplay which is just plain awful in parts and I get the feeling that Jeff Bridges' occasional Dudeisms where improvised and at least distracted by the uninspired writing.

    That being said, I do think that TRON: LEGACY is a triumph of style over substance, much like the original and it was fascinating to revisit this world after so many years. I also though it was a masterstroke hiring Daft Punk to do the score. They did a great job creating a definite mood and atmosphere with their orchestral score that evoked all sorts of past composers - Vangelis, Maurice Jarre and even John Carpenter.

    I dunno. I guess I need to see the film again but I did feel a bit let down in terms of substance but thought that it was a visually gorgeous film.

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  3. I haven't read the review yet because I haven't seen the film OR the original. I actually was posting to ask if any of you know where and how I can see the original?

    It seems Disney stopped making the DVDs and I, oddly, can't find it on TV anywhere. Netflix and Blockbuster has a few copies but they are always checked out. Any thoughts (of the non-illegal type)?

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  4. Will, since you asked, I'm selling my copy on eBay:

    http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=180602146446&ssPageName=STRK:MESELX:IT

    :)

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  5. Hi J.D., Rich and Will, thank you all for your comments regarding TRON Legacy.

    It looks like I enjoyed the film more than Rich or J.D., but we're all agreed at least on the fact that the film is visually dazzling and that score is AMAZING.

    Thank you so much for commenting, and I hope you all have a happy holiday!

    best,
    JKM

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  6. Being 29, I'm a little too young to be part of TRON's original audience, but I liked it enough when I saw it that I went to go see Legacy last week. And I enjoyed it a lot! The script didn't break any new ground, but I thought it had plenty of substance (which you outlined well in your review) to match its nearly-overwhelming style, and that's what set it apart from most of the special effects-heavy movies that have come out since CGI became cheap.

    Anyway, perhaps because I'm not a parent, I'm under thirty (only just!) and my appreciation of the original isn't quite old enough to be nostalgic, I found myself watching it more from the son's POV (both of the sons', actually) rather than the father's:

    I sort of missed the symbolism of Flynn absorbing Clu, but I was struck by the message of learning from (and forgiving) the mistakes of your parents. I didn't see perfection in the love for a child, but rather in chaos, unpredictability and freedom (e.g., the Isos / biological process, the real-world sunrise, "liberating" the OS in the real world, and freeing the programs from Clu's harsh, imposed "perfection" on the grid). I saw this movie as kind of a TRON for the "open-source/Internet generation". A generation that once again has to realize that total control is stagnation, only in a different way.

    I realize you touched on most if not all of this, but reading your review helped me see the film through the eyes of someone who kind of grew up with Flynn, which made me appreciate his story more and realize the connection between a father's and son's view of the same process. So this is basically, a long-winded "thanks!" I'm curious about what my dad will have to say if I can get him to go see it this week.

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  7. Very fine review, John. I very much enjoyed the film (the effects in IMAX 3-D are jaw-dropping), but thought the way it follows the original was too imitative (though still entertaining). However, your analysis of what's behind it all has started me to rethink my initial impression that there are too many empty calories spread throughout it. I still believe, given the way the story culminates, that Disney is looking to franchise this (and not wait for another 30 years to pass before releasing the next sequel).

    As I commented in J.D.'s review, Michael Sheen was so much fun to watch chewing the scenery as Castor. And man, does the camera love Olivia Wilde! I could not keep my eyes off of her when she was in the scene. Looks like I'll be making another trip to the theatre with my kids in tow due to reading your review. My thanks, John.

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  8. Ah - finally got out to the theater to catch this today.

    In the spirit of full disclosure - I am over thirty, certainly have familiarity with and nostalgia for the original film, and have four kids.

    This was also my first experience with the modern iteration of 3D, which I generally just avoid on the perhaps selfish belief that I shouldn't have to wear 2 pairs of glasses at the same time in order to enjoy new tech. (yes - I wear glasses normally) I gave that a pass this time. I wanted to watch the film.

    Up front - I had a good time. I enjoyed the story. My sense of wonder had many things to consider; lots of sketchwork in broad strokes that lacked detail - but not for me, in a negative fashion. I like things to ponder over. It was so very nice to be back in this world again.

    Visually - I have zero complaints. Those things that updated, like for example the light cycle trails, I liked the look of. The only things I could quibble about here are just purely nostalgic touches like... oh.. not seeing a Recognizer do the legs together stomp maneuver ... or the lack of an analogue for that odd moment in the original Tron where the gridbugs popped up, swarmed, and then followed gamely after the light rider - and are never even spoken of again. Minor quibbles, truly. (Though I'd have been curious to see a Legacy-updated gridbug)

    And for every quibble, I could point to nostalgic touches in place, like the dormant "bits" on Flynn's mantle, the sounds of the arcade games in Flynn's place, the corner office overlooking the arcade.

    And maybe it was just the father in me, but I found myself tearing up during those final moments in the grid proper. Say what you will about the 'Dudeisms' (and I didn't think they were really that off character given passage of time), but the query of 'Why are you doing this?' being answered with a very plain, direct 'Because he's my son' struck a chord in a big way for me.

    Ultimately, I think this is one of those films where I enjoy what the film is saying and doing. A fun story, great visuals, and some fine commentary about familial and parental relationships. It worked for me.

    (As an aside - I may have to dig up my old copy of Tron 2.0 for PC - I'm wondering how it holds up in light of the new material.)

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  9. I'm grateful for your review, John, particularly because, as you note, so many reviewers have been so very unkind towards the film. I'm a passionate fan of Tron and I was absolutely swept away by Tron: Legacy--not, as you state, because it is a perfect film but because it offers an intoxicating blend of those amazing aesthetics, an ideal score, and, at the level of the script, technological themes of some relevance and potency.

    You've nailed down the very reasons for the film's relevance here. It is nothing less than remarkable when a film inherently about technology, a film so shaped and driven by technology, possesses such heart. I had doubts prior to release but 2010 was the year to release this film.

    In terms of the total cinematic experience, Tron: Legacy gives me all that I've been looking for in a science fiction film. It's the reason I've been to see it twice, and I'll probably be heading to the theater to see it again real soon.

    Long live Tron!

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  10. Hello everyone,

    Wow, there are some AMAZING comments about TRON Legacy here, and I am happy to learn I was not alone in my enjoyment of the sequel film.

    Renophaston: Wow! You have given me a lot to think about there; not just in terms of "perfection" being in the natural, biological world; but in coming at the film from the son's perspective.

    That's very, very intriguing, and now I want to see the film again. It's fascinating to me that the movie can be interpreted both from the father AND the son's point-of-view; and in my book, that just makes TRON Legacy all the better, and all the richer thematically. Thank you so much for adding your perspective.

    Le0pard13: I agree with you about Sheen's energetic performance, and also about the charisma and beauty of Wilde. Both these actors add so much to TRON Legacy, and keep it from being an empty exercise in technology, in my book. Thanks for a great comment, and I hope you enjoy the film again when you see it. I'd love to see it a second time myself...

    Woodchuckgod: I loved your comment, as well! Like you I was hoping to see a grid bug (and the movie seemed to be headed in that direction, in the last act...) and was disappointed when none appeared. Like you, I love that weird, almost throwaway (and yet memorable...) moment in the original.

    I totally understand what you mean about the last act, and getting emotional over the "fatherhood" arc. I totally felt that too, and found myself moved by Bridge's performance and the dialogue. That's one reason I can't agree that the film is mechanical or uninspired...those moments certainly inspired me to be the best father I can be, you know? These moments inspired me to think about the legacy I will leave my boy, and about the mistakes I make (probably on a daily basis).

    Thank you for sharing this, and for stating it so well. Man, I just couldn't agree more!

    Brian: Another wonderful insight. We are simpatico on this, as well. I found ample heart and soul in TRON Legacy (as I did in the original TRON) and I must admit I'm baffled by the unkindness of many of the reviews. I found the whole TRON Legacy experience enriching and touching, not to mention dazzling. What's not to love?

    Again, these were just fantastic comments on the film. Thank you one and all!

    best,
    JKM

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