Film Review: ‘Tron: Legacy’

Disney Enterprises
Garrett Hedlund is forced to put his biker background to good use during a deadly high-speed race.

Long-awaited sequel looks sharp in 3D and runs circles around its progenitor in effects and story — which isn’t saying a whole lot.

Could Tron: Legacy be the first official sequel made nearly three decades after the original film? There are perhaps good reasons Disney waited so long, beginning with the obvious matter that 1982’s Tron was an awfully lame movie. Sure, it deserves a footnote in film history for marking the beginning of the CGI era. But seen today, the film is so incoherent and groaningly scripted as to be tolerable only if watched in a rude Mystery Science Theater 3000 frame of mind.

Kids who caught the original at 12 when it came out are 40 now and might recall it through a fog of uncritical nostalgia — which might help account for Disney’s wise decision to delay the release of a spruced-up Blu-ray Disc edition until early next year. (At least in Los Angeles, DVDs of the first film essentially have been impossible to come by in video stores during recent weeks, even in the remaining specialty shops.)

The mildly surprising news, then, is that there are aspects of Tron: Legacy that actually are rather cool. Granted, these mostly fall within the realms of architecture, interior design and advanced motor-racing techniques, but they are blessed compensations nonetheless. The fact that you get two (or three, depending how you count) incarnations of Jeff Bridges isn’t a bad deal, either, though it all ends up being a half-hour too much of a just OK thing. Like the original, the follow-up should do decent business — especially in 3D engagements, where the dynamic staging of the action scenes will be seen to greatest effect — but it will fall short of the box-office nirvana achieved by top-drawer sci-fi and fantasy films.

In fact, the recent film Tron: Legacy most resembles — in its lustful embrace of high technology, the combat-game format, corporate control angle, enduring father-son allegiance and fundamental silliness — is the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer. To be fair, the premise of the new film is more intriguing as it’s built around a rescue mission on which, to retrieve Dad, the son must venture into the grid designed by his father, which has been taken over by “programs” led by his old man’s doppelganger, Clu.

That the grid is a perilous place is quickly discovered by Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), who, in his late 20s, is still pissed that his genius pop Kevin (Bridges) disappeared on him a couple of decades ago. Vengefully playing elaborate pranks on his father’s giant technology firm Encom, zooming around city streets on his motorcycle and living a cutting-edge downtown life, Sam is soon lured to his old man’s shuttered video arcade, where he finds the long-elusive key that will allow him to follow his father into another sphere.

Aping the immortal moment in The Wizard of Oz when the mundane monochromatic palette of Kansas gives way to the riotous colors of Oz, Tron: Legacy bursts from 2D into nifty 3D at the 24-minute mark, when Sam breaks through into the grid. He’s all but literally thrown to the lions when forced to put his biker background to good use (with his squinty-eyed looks and prove-it-to-me attitude, Hedlund does throw off some Steve McQueen vibes) during a deadly high-speed race in a dark gladiator-style arena seemingly big enough to accommodate the entire population of Chicago.

This sequence is not only the most exciting in the film but also provides a handy point of comparison to the original and how far digital effects have come. In the first Tron, the race was an almost entirely geometric affair, with the motorcycles traveling as if on a child’s Etch a Sketch board and crashing into opponents’ contrails. It truly felt like little more than a one-dimensional video game with no environmental component.

By contrast, compelling design elements are a hallmark of Tron: Legacy. Illuminated Philip Johnson-style glass enclosures hang dramatically against nocturnal backdrops, and uniforms and aerodynamically designed motorcycles are strikingly defined by their lights and colors: orange and red for the grid-based “programs,” blue and white for the outsiders. The streaks of light, combined with three-dimensional twists and turns by the rocketing bikes, the eye-widening way programs disintegrate upon impact and the power-techno score by Daft Punk, create a novel and fully realized action set piece limited only by the anonymity of all but one of the participants.

Before long, director Joseph Kosinski, whose background is in high-end commercials, and scripters Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz must settle down to the serious business of Sam’s reunion with his dad and figuring out how to extricate themselves from the prison of Kevin’s own devising. Turns out the inventor slipped frequently into and out of the grid for some time before his program self outstripped his own creator and gained the upper hand. Kevin has since been kept under house arrest in the company of beauteous warrior Quorra (Olivia Wilde) in an abode that, in its immaculate whiteness, looks more than a bit inspired by Keir Dullea’s elegant final home in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

With ruling the grid having gotten old, the megalomaniacal Clu craves crossing over into the real world, setting up the battle royal between him and the makeshift Flynn clan. Despite sharp effects — notably a combat aircraft that takes shape as the “pilot” zooms through the air — and a bizarre turn by Michael Sheen as an obsequious white-tuxed, cane-wielding nightclub showman, the film’s latter half bogs down in a redundancy of standoffs and multiple endings.

Bearded and looking just a tad less scruffy as Kevin than he did in his Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart, Bridges achieves many an actor’s dream by convincingly appearing much younger than his real self, both as Kevin in a scene set in 1989 and as fit, 40ish Clu. It would be ironic if the ultimate legacy of Legacy were not as a notable sci-fi achievement but as the film that convinced middle-aged actors that they should again be considered for young romantic leads.

Release date: Friday, Dec. 17 (Disney)
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, James Frain, Beau Garrett, Michael Sheen, Anis Cheurfa
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Producers: Sean Bailey, Jeffrey Silver, Steven Lisberger
Rated PG, 126 minutes