In 1982, moviegoers in Fresno were treated to a film experience unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. Tron was, at the time, a groundbreaking achievement in visual effects with a unique story that inspired numerous creators since its release. But despite its accomplishments, Tron was destined to become a cult film do to so many members of the public (including, unfortunately, this examiner) never being able to see it, as well as a few reviews that criticized the plot. Even so, the film remained firmly entrenched in the psyche of “techies” for 28 years, all during that time fans have been begging Disney to produce a sequel. Well, last night, those prayers were finally been answered.
Tron: Legacy represents a major financial investment (and risk) by Disney to breath life back into one of their most infamous cult franchises. Since the release of the original film there have been several Tron video games released, include the classic arcade game from that same year. But to make a direct sequel to such an underground film is a risky move for a studio to make, especially considering the obviously exuberant budget that has been put behind the project. Yet their investment proved justified as the early footage released at Comic Con was praised for its incredible visuals. The film was advertised with a massive multimedia campaign that included a viral marketing campaign, trailers, a soundtrack by Daft Punk, and two prequels, the graphic novel Tron: Betrayal published by Disney Press, and the video game Tron: Evolution produced by Propaganda Games and Disney Interactive.
Tron: Legacy picks up seven years after the events of the original film, in which computer and video game programmer Kevin Flynn (played by Jeff Bridges) has now become CEO of leading tech company ENCOM International. Flynn also has a son named Sam, who he tells stories to about his adventures in the virtual world alongside the computer program Tron. Flynn promises his son that one day he will take him inside the virtual world to see “The Grid” that he has created, but then Flynn disappears without a trace for twenty years.
Without his father in his life, the now adult Sam (played by Garrett Hedlund) has become a rebellious heir to the company that breaks into ENCOM’s mainframe and leaks the latest version of its newest generation operating system over the Internet free of charge. After getting arrested and then quickly released from prison, Sam is approached by one of ENCOM’s executive consultants and an old friend of his father, Alan Bradley (played by Bruce Boxleitner), who tells Sam that he received a page from his father’s office at the old arcade where his dad used to work. Breaking in late at night, Sam discovers a secret room behind the old “Tron” arcade machine his dad created. Ultimately, Sam’s investigation into where his dad disappeared to result in Sam himself getting transported inside the Grid.
Inside this virtual world, Sam is quickly captured by computer programs that exist in the shape of human beings and is put into combat in Gladiatorial Games. Sam is victorious, but his identity not as a program but as a “user” brings him into conflict with Clu, a program created by Kevin Flynn in his own likeness that has now taken over the entire Grid. Sam escapes his near-death experience thanks to rescue from Quorra (played by Olivia Wilde), a female program that brings Sam before his long lost father himself, and who now, together, must find a way to reach the portal the will allow them all to return home and destroy Clu once and for all.
As anyone that has seen the trailers for this film can predict, the greatest strength of Tron: Legacy is in its visuals. The CG universe of the Grid is so uniquely technical, fantastic and colorful that it cannot help but draw you into the theater for that reason alone. The costumes have that cloth and leather look with neon lights all over it that represents the feel of the original film while bringing it into the new millennium. Honestly, it is difficult to properly describe the visuals of this film without giving too much away, but just rest assured they are amazing to behold. One brilliant effect utilized throughout the film was the de-aging effect on Jeff Bridges to make him appear as the young Kevin Flynn as well as Clu; it still isn’t perfect, but it does show how far the technique has already come since, say, X-Men: The Last Stand.
This is also one of the few films that this examiner would encourage to see in 3-D. Unlike Avatar, Tron: Legacy was probably not intended to be a 3-D film from the beginning. However the transition was very successful in comparison to other films that have tried to take advantage of the trend. And more importantly, there is just something about 3-D filmmaking and the Tron universe that just makes sense. You just want this world to digitize off the screen and come at you. I sensed that would be the case going into this film and I a pleased that I wasn’t wrong.
But for all the visual slender that the film offers, it does sadly fall a bit short in the storyline. The opening of the film is strong and does make you care about Sam and where his father had disappeared to. They also find a good balance of providing necessary catch-up for audiences that never got to se the original Tron, but never feel preachy for those who have loved the original for 28 years. For those veteran fans that are also some nice in-jokes like an uncredited cameo by Cillian Murphy as the son of the Ed Dilinger, one of the main villains of the first film; this character has absolutely no role in the story after this scene, but succeeds on a fan service level.
The opening scenes and the first arrival into the Grid (including the iconic disk battle and Lightcycle chase sequences) are all great, but then after Sam is done reacquainting himself with his father the story just starts to slow down drastically, despite the visuals meant to keep your attention. In fact, this examiner found himself nodding off for a good portion of the second and third act, until one epic moment involving one of the original characters triggered a cheer from the audience that snapped me awake again.
The dialogue isn’t bad, but some of the delivery did seem a bit flat, with the exception of Jeff Bridges who was able to infuse it with his natural coolness.
One of the most exciting elements of the film, as evidenced by the reaction from the audience this examiner saw it with, was the electronic soundtrack by French duo Daft Punk. Lifelong fans of the original Tron, their score was described by director Joseph Kosinski as a mixture of orchestral and electronic elements. It does not need to be said why their style was so appropriate for the film, and in fact Daft Punk can be seen in costume in one of the scenes, which I remember getting a reaction from the audience.
As for the performances, the were all acceptable and not the worst ever, but at some moments the just felt flat. Jeff Bridges is the exception to this that to that natural coolness mentioned earlier. He plays Flynn with a modern suave and a wise old sage vibe to coincide with his age and experience in this world. Simultaneously, his performance as Clu is also hip and modern, but still makes it clear that this being is something evil that should never be messed with. Also returning from the original film is Bruce Boxleitner as Alan Bradley, who doesn’t have too many scenes but we can all see he is a good man that just wants to put Sam on the right path. Like Bridges, Boxleitner also plays his human character’s computer program, Tron; there isn’t much I can say about the character without spoiling anything, but rest assured that fans will enjoy a moment he gets at the film’s climax. Garrett Hedlung plays Sam Flynn, the real main protagonist of the film, and he portrayal is solid despite a few moments of flat delivery. When you see him, you are convinced that he means what he says and that he can take care of himself in face of what’s to come. Michael Sheen plays a program named Castor/Zuse, who is a fairly obvious red herring that is set up as a important ally of Sam’s that then turns out to be a traitor. But at least the actor keeps it a little bit fresh and with his youth and strangeness. Olivia Wilde plays Quorra as pretty much the token female protagonist that befriends Sam in defiance of her father’s orders, but there is a slight plot twist that makes her character of critical importance. Beau Garret appears as Gem, a program that first brings Sam into the Games and later accompanies him as he meets with Zuse. Nothing much to say about her character except that she is cold, bland, and lifeless, yet sexy at the same time.
Overall, Tron: Legacy is a visual marvel that definitely deserves to be seen in 3-D and on an IMAX screen. However, the story does slow down dramatically for a time and some of the acting lacks some necessary energy to keep it alive. Still, if audiences do not take the time to watch this as a matinee just for the awesome images of the Tron universe, then they are definitely missing out.