Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn/Clu
Garrett Hedlund as Sam Flynn
Olivia Wilde as Quorra
Bruce Boxleitner as Alan Bradley/TRON
James Frain as Jarvis
Beau Garrett as Gem
Michael Sheen as Castor/Zuse
Anis Cheurfa as Rinzler
The thing about nostalgia is, it's pointless. In and of itself that's not the end of the world, except that nostalgia is often pointless in an insidious manner, sneaking up on the story it's been transplanted onto and strangling the life out of it like a creeper vine. Images and phrases and even whole characters and plots--repeated because of their nostalgia value--are separated from their original meaning and given no new meaning to build a story off of. Instead they're raised to iconic status and expected to be important and mean something to a viewer just because they exist and for no other reason. They are there merely to remind you that you liked the original object they came from.
It's a problem naturally endemic to sequels, especially sequels of cult films that grew their audiences slowly, by word of mouth, specifically because of the objects that became icons over time. When done badly you end up then with just a repeating string of familiar images lumped together with no thought or purpose beyond finding an excuse to show the next familiar image. When done badly, you end up with "TRON: Legacy."
And the end of the of original "TRON," way back in the heady days of 1982, all seemed right with the digital world. Brilliant, maverick software designer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) had overthrown his hated corporate rival, taken control of Atari/IBM tech giant Encom and was prepared to live happily ever after. And for a little while it looks like he did; he even managed to find time to find a girl and have a son, Sam. And then one day in 1989, Kevin Flynn went for a ride on his motorcycle, never to be heard from again.
So far, so good. One of the oldest stories in the book is that of the young prince or apprentice (or both) searching for their lost parent and preparing to take their place as the new hero. It hits all of the key points needed to get the film made – an older product with a strong core fanbase willing to turn out to see their beloved creation done up nice, combined with your standard callow youth as young male audience surrogate.
It's a little bit of a classic bait and switch – market on the older, familiar characters and setting to get the older fans, but deliver a new young protagonist who gets most of the screen time in order keep new audience members unfamiliar with the original. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
Similarly, while there's not a lot of creativity in the premise, that also doesn't have to be the end of the road either. Plenty of good films have been made of a classic (or stale, depending on your point of view) film plots. It's all a matter of how the filmmakers approach it. Are they going to take stereotypical parts and apply some thought and care to making them work together in a logical fashion? Or are they just going to throw together several disparate parts without care for how it connects together into a whole?
The makers of "TRON: Legacy" have chosen the latter.
There are two great plotholes all sequels face and must avoid if they have any hope of succeeding. "TRON: Legacy" doesn't stumble into them so much as jump head first without a parachute, heedless of the cost because hey, it's going to be a cool ride, who cares what happens when you get to the end of the line and have to figure out if it was worth it?
The first is plot repetition. A first film is made which means it must have some sort of conclusion at the end, mostly with evil defeated and hero victorious. That doesn't leave much for the guy to do if he gets a second chapter, though. You either have to come up with a new problem for the hero to face, to build and develop them as a character, or you have to regress them and the plot back to the status quo from the beginning of the initial work and have them go through another version of the same story all over again.
The second choice is really popular because on its face it has very little risk; it's a proven story that audiences like and a proven way to deliver the world (one of the other big draws of a fantastical story) to the audience. It's also the laziest, hackiest of hack story-telling choices, leaving the characters and audience in an adrenalized, trigger happy "Groundhog Day" time-loop purgatory of repeating the same events over and over and over again for no reason other than they worked the first time.
"TRON: Legacy" always takes the lazy choice.
After learning from old family friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) that a message is emanating from his father's old arcade, Sam quickly finds a familiar looking Master Control terminal, and before you can say 'always look behind you to make sure there isn't a 10 kJ solid state laser pointing at your back' he is zapped into the digital realm. A digital realm ruled with an iron fist by a power hungry military leader who forces other programs to compete against one another in gladiatorial combat as part of a plan to build a huge army of completely loyal programs with which he will somehow take over the 'real' world. In other words, exactly the same situation his father spent the entire first film trying to stop. The more things change, etcetera, etcetera.
It's almost the first second Sam arrives in the computer world, the point we're all waiting for and where the film is supposed to really get going, that the serious icon worship begins and everything goes off the rails.
It's not particularly fair to any sequel, as hard as it is to resist, to compare it to the original and pick out flaws. It is necessary, in this case, to talk about the first "TRON" in order to explain the meaning the original icons had and how it's been tossed out the window in "Legacy" in order understand why the filmmakers fail so badly at connecting their dots together.
The original "TRON" is no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but at the very least it was internally consistent. It built a world operating by certain rules and it played by those rules all the way through. The programs in the first "TRON" were just that, created in the real world to do something specific, with the interior world of the film becoming a visual representation of the tedious and un-cinematic reality of computer programming. They wore their outfits and had their look, not because of any stylizing or even because they were wearing clothes but just because that is what they looked like. When Flynn originally enters the world he looks the same way because that's just what the world looked like.
Compare that to Sam's arrival in the TRON world, still somehow wearing his every day street clothes. After being picked up by the evil overlord's troops and sent to play in 'the games' Sam is brought into a wardrobe room to go through a lingering, overlong knighting sequence as four models clothe him in his TRON armor and hand him his game disk like they were passing over Excalibur. What had been everyday items whose acceptance as everyday items built and sustained suspension of disbelief is now being pointed out and made a spectacle of, not because it's not still just what people wear, but because its something familiar from the first film. Suspension of disbelief is thrown out the window in favor of holding up familiar objects and going 'Look, it's TRON! Remember how much you liked TRON! Isn't it cool!'
Individual moments of nostalgia like that are shallow but survivable if you're not getting hit over the head with them repeatedly. "TRON: Legacy" hits you over the head with them repeatedly; it's the films only reason for being and the filmmakers only vision for it. No moment is passed up to refer back to the original, with some scenes existing for no other reason than to allow the film to make those references. To take familiar images from the original, amp them up to eleven, and throw them back at you.
Instead of individual programs having one on one battles in small enclosed rooms, now we get a giant gladiatorial arena with moving platforms and boxes, anti-gravity and spinning Capoeria masters. It makes for some stunning action sequences, and a spectacularly shallow film.
Which is too bad because are some interesting ideas in there.
Instead of your typical power-hungry madman ruling the evil empire we get a power-hungry alter-ego of the hero, CLU (Bridges again), a computer program created by Flynn to build a perfect world who has taken his directive to the next logical (if overzealous) step of eradicating imperfection wherever he can find it.
CLU himself is perhaps the epitome of the film's fantastic look, which may surpass anything else put on screen this year in sheer dazzling beauty. A computer generated likeness of Jeff Bridges circa original "TRON," CLU is staggeringly lifelike in execution with Bridges' performance shining through in array of perfectly human subtleties. You can almost forget he's not entirely there; his false nature only really shines through when he shares the screen with something real, like a human, or when you're given opportunity to stare at his face too long (a reality director Joseph Kosinski seems to be aware of as he hides CLUs face as much as he shows it). It's only especially noticeable during a flashback where you get young computer generated Bruce Boxleitner as the titular TRON fighting off CLU and his goons, though there is something so surreal about watching Bruce Boxleitner doing jumping twirling disc fu that you can let the obvious fakery pass.
Actually, CLU and his ilk represent in many ways everything that's good and bad about "TRON: Legacy." He is a spectacular visual achievement of craft and skill which is completely hollow inside, a good idea that is not developed at all because all of the effort was put into his look and none into what to do with him. While representing an interesting a take on the split personality and the way man's own nature tends to be his greatest adversary, he is unfortunately stuck in a bog standard action movie, which means he spends most of his time skulking in the background and preparing grandiose plans to take over the real world in order to up the threat quotient for the big finale.
How exactly he's going to get himself and his army of conscripts physically into the real world as walking talking people isn't really explained, which is probably for the best. Somehow he's going to go through the portal created whenever a human enters the digital world and pop out the other side because the laser has morphed into a magical teleportation device. Because the meaning of the images of the original film has been lost in their translation to icons, so has all internal consistency, tossing the metaphorical nature of the first film aside and treating the world as more of a fantastical alternate reality.
Understanding that might help you get past some of the sillier aspects, like the race of spontaneously self-creating programs which, if they can be saved from CLU, will somehow bring peace and understanding and an end to all disease to mankind.
Because it is, underneath all its pretty trappings, it has been designed in the bog standard action film way, with several large scale set pieces featuring (naturally) recognizable action elements from the first film like the Light Cycle race (and naturally pumped up to the next level) designed first and then stuck together in some fashion to get us from one to the next. This is not a better or worse way to design a plot assuming you actually try to come up with logical means to go from one action beat to another, means that are initiated by the characters based on their own internal personalities and which force them to grow and change in order to deal with the increasing dangers. Unless you take the lazy way out, in which case the action beats are just slapped together with no rhyme or reason, and characters doing things not because it seems like they should but because they have to because the next action beat needs them to be in certain places.
I'll give you three guesses which way "TRON: Legacy" usually goes.
It's rife with scenes which, while pretty and sometimes interesting in and of themselves, in context with the rest of the film are staggeringly pointless.
After CLU takes over the system, Flynn is forced to flee to an unmapped area where CLU can't follow because he can no longer return to the real world himself as the portal closes on a timer and can only be opened from the other side. It is explicitly stated that CLU doesn't know where Flynn has been hiding and can't easily get there, he has to wait for Flynn to come to him [which is why he has to open the portal to bring Sam down to use as bait even though the portal can only be opened from the other side, oh my brain hurts]. But when Flynn finally does leave to come to rescue Sam from doing something extremely stupid, CLU completely misses it. Because he has casually flown to Flynn's hideout and is searching through it as though it were something he could have done whenever he wanted.
This is what the entire film is like. Major characters switch sides despite having had no real interactions that would cause the switch to be believable, solely because that's what was decided on in the plot so it has to happen. The work of getting there in a believable fashion was just too much trouble for four different writers to bother with.
Which isn't to say there aren't good things in it. As a whole it is beautiful to look at, especially in 3D IMAX (almost to the point of not being worth viewing any other way). Production designer Darren Gilford and cinematographer Claudio Miranada have combined to make the best possible use of vast negative space and the contrast of almost entirely black and white dominated color schemes. In factm the less you pay attention to the film and the more you just look at it, the happier you're likely to be.
It also benefits from a good double performance from Bridges, who has re-characterized Flynn as a kind of wise old Zen master. It's unfortunate that the filmmakers have no real idea what to do with him, leaving him to spend much of the time standing around watching while Sam or his apprentice Quorra (Olivia Wilde) race about as action scenes require. This isn't so bad, at least in Wilde's case as she's quite winning as the simultaneously childlike-yet-badass Quorra. A program who's spent her life hearing about and learning about the real world, Wilde plays her with a wide-eyed innocence that is often fun and heartwarming without being trite. It's a tricky balance which she pulls off well, switching easily from trying to understand the intricacies of a father-son conversation to crashing into a nightclub fight to Daft Punk's soaring electronic beats.
Actually the score, which is fantastic, underscores everything "TRON: Legacy" should have done right but couldn't be bothered with. Using none of Wendy Carlos' original themes, the new score nonetheless feels perfectly at home, a natural outgrowth and development of the original without wasting time repeating things that have already been done. It's the height of the film's problems when more thought and care was put into the score than anything in the actual movie.
What we're left with then is something beautiful but ugly, a shining diamond filled with cracks and pits and scars due to nothing more than neglect. "TRON: Legacy" takes everything that's wrong with big budget blockbusters and nostalgic reminiscing and mixes it all up into a great big bag of pointlessness. By now I'm willing to give up on the movie being good and will settle for merely coherent, but even that seems too much to ask.