(Originally published at The Rogers Revue on December 16, 2010.)
In 1982, Walt Disney Pictures released a film called Tron, which promised to take us to the world behind the computer screen; it did exactly that, with actors personifying various computer programs. The story of a software developer physically pulled into the computer to gain access to his stolen programs captured the imaginations of a generation of computer users, inspiring computer animation and computer-generated imagery (CGI) to become a prevalent force in cinema. (Oddly enough, the Academy did not consider Tron for Best Special Effects that year; the director, Steven Lisberger, was told that using computer animation was cheating!)
However, watching the original Tron today on DVD is definitely not the same as watching it in a theater back in 1982 (which I did, twice). The computer graphics, called “cutting edge” back then, can be easily outperformed by the most pedestrian computer animation software today. Camera movement with CGI elements wasn’t possible back then, thus making for a visually boring movie. Most importantly, the audience’s sophistication level has grown in leaps and bounds, and it’s more difficult these days to make them suspend their disbelief. Tron: Legacy, released 28 years after the first Tron film, seeks to remedy all these problems while providing a captivating piece of motion picture/computer art. Does it succeed? Being a huge fan of the original film, with all its dated sound and image, I have to say “Well… kind of.” There’s a lot to please the fans of the original film, and there’s a lot to satisfy modern film audiences. Whatever I say in this review should not stop you from experiencing this ride in either a conventional movie theater or an IMAX 3D theater – it is a ride, but one that I will have to recommend with a little hesitance.
The trailers and TV spots you’ve already seen tell you enough about the story (and also showed you the best moments of the movie, too): Kevin Flynn’s son Sam gets pulled into the computer world in order to find his long-lost father. However, what may be confusing are the appearances of Kevin as he currently looks (a grizzled, older Jeff Bridges) and that guy who looks exactly like the young Kevin from the first movie. That character is Clu, a clone of a hacking program of Kevin’s first seen in Tron looking around for Kevin’s stolen computer files. Having betrayed both Kevin and Tron (the computer program hero from the first movie), Clu has created a world similar to the one wrought by the MCP and Sark that Tron and Kevin so desperately tried to undo 28 years ago. He is forced into exile, living far beyond the borders of The Grid or any type of civilization, which is where Sam finds him.
Up to this point in the film, it’s a very exciting ride, with computer effects worthy of the next three years’ worth of Academy Awards. The environments and action will blow you away and keep you enthralled for most of the picture, and that’s where its greatest strength lies. Beyond this, the film’s storytelling is uneven, which is one of Tron: Legacy’s failings. There’s a storyline blown over so quickly that its relevance toward the end leaves you desperately trying to remember it. During momentary break from the action, a quiet dialogue moment explaining this storyline is laid on us which totally kills any possible momentum the film has up to that point. Ultimately, the story gets so boring that you’re left wishing and waiting for the next grand action moment; thankfully, you don’t have to wait too long for those.
Another one of its failings is that of the computer graphics. Not the large ones that show off how cool this movie is – rather, it’s one of the most important parts of the movie: Clu, who is played by a combination of human movement and Jeff Bridges’ computer-pasted face. Watching Bridges as Clu was like watching The Polar Express, as his face doesn’t match the timbre and intensity of his voice, and it’s really off-putting at times. CGI facial mimicry isn’t quite right yet, and that really got in the way of my belief in the Clu character. And speaking of Jeff Bridges, his portrayal of Kevin Flynn keeps in line with the hippyish computer hacker from the first film; however, his look and certain dialogue bits really got me thinking that he might have confused Flynn with his iconic portrayal of The Dude from The Big Lebowski.
Something else just didn’t sit right with me about this movie: too much is riding on the original 1982 film. Some throwaway lines, action beats, music cues and even structural elements from the original make appearances here, making the film feel like nothing more than a polished update. Even the iconic Bruce Boxleitner/Cindy Morgan poster stance from 1982 is ripped off here for the sake of a visual callback to the original. My biggest complaint is the treatment of the title character, Tron – as the central character in the first movie, calling the film Tron makes sense with that in mind. Here, he is given no more than a cameo, thus making the film’s title almost a misnomer. And even worse is the way his character is perverted, in a twist so telegraphed that you’ll be sure to pick up on it early on. It’s almost like the movie automatically is supposed to be given a level of respect it doesn’t take the time to earn – it expects you to just pick up and run with it.
When a film relies so heavily on its computer-generated imagery, it’s either the sign of a bad movie or it’s another movie that heralds new breakthroughs in computer animation. With Tron: Legacy, CGI is not just a part of the world – it is the world, and it looks spectacular. Every technical aspect the original film got wrong is corrected by the new filmmakers’ imaginations as the film moves you through new and boundless territory with sights and sounds heretofore unseen. At the same time, the film feels as cold as the landscape it portrays. At times emotionally empty, Tron: Legacy may be a mixed bag, but it’s a relatively fun mixed bag, and definitely worth the 3D upcharge.