Thursday, March 29, 2012

From the Archive: 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 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.


  1. My only fault with Tron is Tron, or the lack thereof. That wasn't a technical issue; they could have modeled Boxleiter just like they modeled Bridges. Instead, it was personal, or should I say "personnel": they didn't hire Boxleiter on until the very end of the project, so they didn't have access to him or to his likeness. This was nearly unforgivable. Bruce should have been involved day 1, and Tron should have been something more than a Darth Vader/Boba Fett wannabe.

    Without his face, Tron's corruption and redemption gets nothing more than a passing mention, and that's a shame.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly; the short-shrifting of THE OTHER MAIN CHARACTER, you know, THE ONE THE BLOODY FILM IS NAMED AFTER, is absolutely unforgivable. And, the production designs and color schemes aren't a patch on the original. The villain, Clu, is an extremely poor substitute for David Warner's triple triumph of villainy that is Dillinger, Sark and the MCP. The actor playing the younger Flynn is completely nondescript in his performance; I felt nothing for him. Finally, Kevin Flynn has turned into a lame Dude knockoff.

      TRON: LEGACY suffers badly from sequelitis; bigger, longer, more expensive, but not half as good.

  2. I enjoyed this sequel -- visually its stunning. And man, does the camera love Olivia Wilde. Although, I'm still trying to figure out how "an artificial life form called an "ISO"" makes its way onto this human reality from a virtual one. Fine look at this, John.