Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy is a film inspired by, and about, the power of the human imagination and human ambition. It transports us to a world we’ve never seen; showing us heretofore unthinkable cinematic feats and seemingly unachievable advancements in technology. In that respect, it is an absolute success along the lines of James Cameron’s similarly wondrous Avatar (that won’t be the last comparison between the two films I make during this review). But all technical marvels aside, there is an unfortunate absence of the human soul here; it leaves a void that neither an enthusiastic cast nor an infusion of nostalgia can fill.
That being said, there is a very enthusiastic cast here to enjoy, and performances that elevate the film from becoming the paint-by-numbers video game it always threatened to be. Jeff Bridges – reprising his role from the original 1982 sci-fi flick Tron – stars as Kevin Flynn, the creator of the shiny, living-computer-of-a-universe they call The Grid. And I must admit the idea of living in a world created by The Dude himself is an enticing one. Bridges’ Big Lebowski-shtick is in full force here. Whether he’s remaining faithful to the Flynn of 1982, or simply cashing in on the persona of his most loved character, I can’t say (yes, I’ll admit I’ve not seen the original Tron). I can say however that his delightfully loose and off-kilter performance brings some much needed fluidity to the proceedings of the occasionally too-rigid Tron: Legacy.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. As mentioned, I’ve not seen the original Tron, so I’m basing this back story upon that which is provided in Tron: Legacy (and they spend a lot of time providing back story). Back in the early 1980s, two talented computer programmers – Flynn (Bridges) and Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) – crafted a universe that acted as a sort of visual representation of a circuit board. They called it The Grid. The duo created two computerised clones of themselves – Flynn’s was Clu, and Alan’s was Tron – and the four of them helped evolve The Grid into a living, breathing city. But then Clu went crazy (and I mean Catherine-Deneuve-in-Repulsion-crazy), exiled Flynn to the outskirts, and established a dystopian society in which the citizens/programs do battle in a Thunderdome arena.
Tron: Legacy – penned by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz – picks up soon after Flynn’s disappearance from the real world, where his son Sam is left behind as an orphan with no answers. He grows up (and into Garrett Hedlund), but, oh, he’s a right hooligan these days! Sure, he’s the leading stockholder of his father’s old company ENCOM, but he’d much rather unnecessarily break into their offices than actually contribute to the running of the company. When Alan advises the ruffian to visit his dad’s old office, Sam is sucked into The Grid by Clu (a CG version of a young Bridges). There, he discovers the dangers of a world in which computer programs commit mass genocide, and to a less-threatening extent, throw discs at one another and race light-cycles. He teams up with a mysterious female program named Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who reunites Sam with his banished daddy. Also, Michael Sheen plays a David Bowie-esque nightclub owner, where Daft Punk is the rather-excellent house band (Sorry; I couldn’t think where else to add those nuggets of information).
So, how about that cast? Garrett Hedlund is fine. He’s a ‘Worthington’; that is, he’s an attractive enough body to walk from location to location, and his voice is pleasant enough to listen to. I think he’s trying to play Sam like a young Jeff Bridges would, or at the very least, mimic his accent. And he’s fine. But the character is just a cipher for the audience. So was Jake Sully. Luke Skywalker however was always much more than a vehicle for exposition and that is as far as I’ll entertain any discussion comparing Avatar or Tron: Legacy with Star Wars. Olivia Wilde and Michael Sheen, like Bridges, inject some absolutely wonderful and much-need quirk into proceedings. I love how Wilde, saddled with the usually thankless love-interest-who-gets-knocked-unconscious-for-part-of-the-film role, spices things up. She doesn’t play Quorra like a sex-kitten. She’s cheeky, and childlike, and has a mischievous cackle; her eyes are electrified when she discusses Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; she dreamily tries to imagine a sunset, as if the black-and-blue Tronscape were a bore by comparison. In contrast, you have Clu. Although he’s ably voiced by Bridges, he has a touch of the Final Fantasy‘s about him. When he’s not speaking, he’s a SFX triumph like no other. When he speaks, it might as well be Jar Jar Binks.
Now, The Grid. That is indeed wondrous to behold. It’s the kind of CGI-creation (not unlike Avatar’s Pandora) that seems too fantastical and detailed to be false. Sam spends the majority of the film in awe of this universe, wondering how his father created an entire world inside a computer. Yet, that is exactly what Kosinski and his crew have done, bringing to life a city like we’ve never seen. And no, even if you’ve seen the original Tron, you’ve never seen anything like this. How I wished then that the film’s earlier sequences, the ones that take place in reality, had looked a little more real. Frankly, the regular world looks and feels faker than The Grid. We really needed a darker, grittier, less-shiny version of America to make Sam’s eventual arrival at The Grid feel like an event. Transitioning from 2D to 3D is not enough; the transition should disintegrate our entire concept of reality.
I can only assume Tron: Legacy is a passion project for Kosinski, if only because, well, I don’t exactly think people were crying out for a sequel to the largely forgotten 1982 sci-fi flick. It seems likely that he pushed this project up the hill himself, and it’s a testament to Disney that they would throw themselves behind Kosinski’s vision of a newly reconfigured Tron universe. Perhaps they’ve decided to take some cues from their siblings over at Pixar, and setting up a “studio for directors” of their own, rather than grabbing any old filmmaker to helm the new Old Dogs, or Wild Hogs, or Mad Cows, or whatever terrible live-action project they’ve set up next.
I was concerned the film would be all about light-cycle races, disc wars, and computer-generated-Jeff Bridges’. Thankfully, it never succumbs to these potentially gimmicky depths. Alternatively though, there is a touch too much exposition, especially in the final act when you really want things to ramp up for an almighty finale. And as I wrap up, allow me, one more time, to compare this flick to Avatar. Yes, Avatar had a trite plot and weak characters. But Avatar had that soul that I was talking about in the first paragraph; it had a fire in its belly that is seriously missing from Tron: Legacy. Maybe you think it’s silly to wish a film about computer programs had more soul. It’s not. Shiny computer pixels are one thing – and Tron: Legacy does indeed have the shiniest – but a true cinematic achievement is capturing the human spirit on screen.
Tron: Legacy arrives in Australian cinemas December 16, 2010.