The original TRON was a visual and auditory feast first and an introspective tale second. TRON: Legacy continues that tradition by focusing heavily on its true 3D, motion capture and digital renderings, with Daft Punk’s soundtrack adding an additional driving force.Like a steep and twisting waterslide, it’s not terribly deep, but it is one helluva ride.
Few film-goers have seen the original TRON in recent memory, as it’s been taken from shelves and movie queues, ostensibly in anticipation of a special edition. Nor could I discuss the latest reviews from critics like Roger Ebert while waiting for the film to begin, because at the advance screening I attended, patrons had been required to turn in their cell phones before they could enter the theater. It was an immediate object lesson in how skillfully technology has been inserted into our lives, how ubiquitous the pre-film text and tweet have become, how we can no longer even tell time without our phones. Without technology, humans are as imprecise and as flawed as nature. A part of us hates that, though we hesitate to admit it.
For those who know little more than what you’ve seen in the F/X-heavy trailers, here’s a speedy recap of both films: In the first TRON, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) attempts to remove a key section of code from the digital mainframe of his former employer, ENCOM. In the process, he is digitized into the electronic Grid by a new piece of hardware ENCOM is developing. He spends the rest of the film trying to survive in the darkly oppressive digital world, remove the corrupt program that has infested ENCOM’s CPU, and get home again. In the 2010 sequel, Flynn disappears again, this time for good. When Flynn’s now-adult son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), receives a message that his dad is alive, he, too, must enter the Grid, save his father, and stop Kevin Flynn’s renegade avatar, CLU, from climbing back out into the real world.
The film actually begins in 2D and doesn’t switch over until a few seconds before Sam Flynn is sucked into the Grid. Patrons are asked to keep their glasses on throughout the film, but I found the lighting to be clearer without the eyewear. The transition to 3D is obvious enough that I knew when to gear-up and I felt the transition between “real” and “Grid” was more intense, that way.
Countless actors have noted the difficulty of acting within a soundstage that doesn’t contain much in the way of furniture or props. In creating the digital world of TRON: Legacy, Director Michael Sheen (who plays Castor) at this summer’s Comic Con, “It’s actually a 4D film because Jeff Bridges brings an extra dimension of awesomeness.”
His alter-ego, CLU, however, lacks some of that charisma. Despite filming Bridges using the latest motion capture techniques, the rendering of his face is still “off” enough to look creepy (his lips are too smooth and their musculature isn’t tight, and the odd, tic-like facial twitches are distracting). He looks like the moving-just-a-little-too-slow-to-be-real kids from The Polar Express. While the body and vocalizations were great, that face kept reminding me this was a visual trick. I didn’t want to be reminded of, you know…imperfection.
Still, Bridges brings such joy and dedication to his craft that you can’t help but feel embraced by the bearded, elder Flynn as he hugs his son for the first time in 20 years. And Hedlund holds his own quite well, opposite such a heavy-hitter, especially during that same, tearful reunion.
I have always been bothered by dysfunctional relationships between parents and children in films. It’s as if we’ve decided as a culture that the only way to tell a good story is to turn family members against one another and make their struggles to bond well-nigh impossible. Here, however, rather than distract the characters with petty squabbles that ignore the greater goal at hand (and the fact that the two haven’t seen each other in 20 years), the chemistry between the adult Sam and his father develops from what appears to be an already deeply-felt trust in one another. Even when they’re at odds over the best course of action, Sam’s father works visibly to remain calm. “You’re messing with my Zen thing, man,” he admonishes his son.
Olivia Wilde, as Kevin Flynn’s protege’, Quorra, is pixie-darling, tomboy-ish, and kick-ass, all rolled into one. Not an easy combination, but Wilde manages to create what she describes as “a very strong, capable woman in what could be considered a very male-centric film.” Every actor, in fact, from the principal cast to the most minor extra seem to have immersed themselves in the world of TRON so much that we believe we could step into it beside them.
None of that would be possible without a landscape on which to step. The digital renderings are technically perfect, from the landscapes to the vehicles. In creating the latter, it helps to have a former car designer for Bugatti on your team. Daniel Simon used the original sketches by Syd Mead, designer of the Lightcycles for the original TRON in order to develop the new models. Says Simon, “The Lightcycles are created out of a baton, so I had to design the entire inside of the bike, every screw and gear, so Digital Domain could transform it in animation. That was interesting, developing the look of how a vehicle might grow.” Nowhere is this attention to detail more evident than in the transition from baton-weilding CLU to one riding a Light jet, as each part manifests itself from apparent nothingness. It is this careful planning and configuration that creates an instantly-believable on-Grid world.
Certainly the faults in this film aren’t in the acting or design. But there are plenty of technical imperfections in the story itself: a “user” like Sam, although digitized, still bleeds; programs can’t travel “off grid” to reach Kevin Flynn’s rocky tower, yet Sam later drives a light cycle across this impassible terrain; the Siren named Gem claims to have “intuition”, not something you’d normally associate with a computer program. And how is it that an encoded creation like CLU could expect to manifest as a human being outside the Grid?
And yet…the overarching theme of TRON: Legacy is that it is our flaws that make us beautiful, and that we should be skeptical, if not outright wary, of the supremacy of technology. In other words, let it go and take the trip without taking it all too seriously.
Disney doesn’t take on a project without seeing the long-term plan: a ride, a show, a franchise. TRON: Legacy has already become TRON: Evolution, a video game available for a number of major game systems. During the Light jets chase at the end of the film, I felt as if I were in the game; I found myself leaning into the forward drops as if at the top of a slide. Later, as the house lights came up, the guy sitting next to me said, “I wanna play.”
“It was like a roller coaster that was always up,” said theater patron Ryan Lanteigne, who gave the film a neutral grade, ostensibly for its lack of emotional depth. While the action was fantastic, he said, “I liked when it had a little humor and [some] human elements.”
A self-described geek with TRON action figures in his pockets and a light disc toy in his hand thought it lived up to the hype. “It dragged in parts, but it was good.” Asked which parts dragged, he answered, “The talking parts.”
Certainly it’s a whole lot of eye candy and a great hook for gamers. Those of you who recall the original film may remember the lesson of the original TRON, about the dangers of technology. It was prescient, in its own way. As computers shrank and diffused into millions of homes after the mid-80s, game systems also went from the 6-foot high, coin-munching behemoths to pocket-sized smart phones that can carry any number of game apps.
In a Comic Con interview earlier this year, Bruce Boxleitner (who reprises his role as Alan Bradley and a flash-back Tron in the new film) said, “It was a sort of a lighthearted story way of [saying] that [digital technology] was soon going to become everybody’s to use–[for] entertainment–as opposed to just IBM, the ENCOMS and the government. I don’t think we set out to be prophetic, but it was.”
As fun as it is to watch, it’s definitely not a film you have to think that hard about. There are no crazy twists or mind-bending surprises. In fact, it plays much better if you don’t think about it.
This is an unfortunate loss of opportunity. LOST writers/producers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz wrote the screenplay, which is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because they’re clearly adept at creating a long-term storyline with its own mythology. And a curse because there isn’t enough time in the film to develop a longer frame of reference, as there is in a multi-season television drama. These guys have been writing in Hollywood long enough to know better.
Mythological and literary references pepper the film, adding something to its weight. For example, clever End Of Line nightclub owner, Castor, is a reference to the Greek myths of twins Castor and Pollux, one of whom was a son of Zeus (or Zuse, here). (Query: Is there a Pollux waiting in the wings for the sequel?) Quorra shows Sam her favorite book, Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, in which American Civil War POWs escape in a hot air balloon and are stranded on a remote Pacific island, where they manage to survive with the aid of a hidden helper–Captain Nemo, first introduced in Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. (Does Nemo, here, relate to Flynn, Sr.?)
And here’s where the curse comes in. If your characters aren’t grounded enough for us to care about them, all the allusions in the world aren’t going to get you anywhere. Instead of laughing knowingly when Castor makes reference to a famous line from Casablanca or Kevin Flynn repeats a key phrase from War Games (“The only way to win is not to play.”), we end up rolling our eyes in annoyance. These characters aren’t acting as if they think themselves worldly because they’ve gained this knowledge from the Grid (or, in Kevin’s case, from a real-world movie), they’re just randomly coughing it all up.
The fact that Kevin Flynn changes from white clothing and disc (an absence of feeling, striving for pure enlightenment) to black (taking on the mantle of his dark imperfections) is a significant part of the development of the theme of accepting and embracing our essential humanity as a guard against the vagaries of technological advances. Jeff Bridges’ acting is so nuanced that his internal struggles to make that change are clear early on, though the surrounding circumstances don’t give them the weight they deserve. Even a concept as heavy as genocide falls flat because we haven’t been given the keys to care about the people being massacred; they are nothing more than light-as-a-feather, expository backstory.
Neither Kitsis nor Horowitz have ever produced more than one made-for-TV movie between them and it shows. The “all is lost” moment of standard screenwriting is so obvious it’s laughable. The film ends with a story canon so open (a whole world full of interesting programs to explore!), I’ll be surprised if a flood of fan-fiction as wide as the Sea of Simulation doesn’t begin pouring in through the holes. But perhaps that’s what they’re hoping for–the kind of fan buy-in they managed to foster during their stint on LOST.
While both men have the distinction of having worked on one of the most enigmatic television series ever produced, a film has to wrap up enough threads to keep from unraveling when you shake it out. TRON: Legacy‘s script comes off a bit frayed along the plot points, which somewhat reduces Kasinski’s amazing visuals to something approximating a really expensive pilot. I’ll be honest, I’d watch that series in a heartbeat, if Kasinski was leading it. But it’s going to need a higher thread count to keep me wrapped up for long.
The idea of a pilot, or at least a lengthy franchise, may not be too far from the truth. When Cillian Murphy (Inception) turns up in the ENCOM board room, in an uncredited cameo, playing a young techno-wiz named Edward Dillinger (son of deposed ENCOM CEO Ed Dillinger of the original film), it’s clear there are plans afoot. According to Production Executive, Brigham Taylor, “If we tell more stories, he’s the guy that could be involved.” A Dillinger-Flynn struggle for the ENCOM empire would be worth watching, given that the two young men are so computer savvy.
Wherever this franchise is headed, I hope that Kasinski continues at the helm. The director has an incredibly rich way of drawing us in and there remains a lot more of this bedtime story to tell. A few flaws here and there are part of the process and something to embrace as we learn from them. They remind us that we are human.