YEAR: 2010 ~ CAST: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, James Frain, Beau Garrett ~ WRITERS: Edward Kitiss & Adam Horowitz ~ DIRECTOR: Joseph Kosinski
The Backstory: In 1982, videogame designer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) tried to break into the system of his ex-employers ENCOM, but instead was transported into the world inside the computer – a realm of adventure and danger, where he fought against the Master Control Program with the help of a program named Tron (Bruce Boxleitner).
What’s it About?: Twenty years after Kevin Flynn vanished, his rebellious 27-year old son Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) follows a possible clue to his disappearence, and ends up inside another world. Flynn has created a self-contained digital universe – the Grid – but he’s been trapped inside it for twenty years by his alter ego, the program CLU, and now there’s very little time before the only escape route closes forever…
The Film: We are quite definitely living in strange times. The quest to re-sell and repackage the 1980s (whether it’s TV series or resurrected movies) over the last few years has been an exceptionally bizarre experience, but nothing so far has been quite so odd as Disney’s decision to do a massive-budget, 3-D blockbuster sequel to – of all things – Tron. The 1982 cult curio has built up a strong reputation thanks to its kooky story and the fantastically stylised early-CGI visuals (which, despite the technical limitations, seem to somehow get more stylish the older they get), but it was a box-office flop at the time, and nobody’s idea of a dead-cert for a major-league franchise revival.
That we’ve simply gotten a TRON sequel is strange and wonderful enough – but after watching the film in brain-scrambling IMAX 3D, I can’t help feeling that we’ve ended up with this generation’s version of the 1980s screen adaptation of Flash Gordon. That’s not exactly what Disney set out to acheive, admittedly, and it’s also true that TRON: Legacy isn’t anywhere near the campery or sheer unadulterated fun of Mike Hodges’ absurdly colourful 1982 spectacular (partly because the central concept of TRON is, to be honest, so wonderfully ridiculous that it does need to be taken very seriously in order to work).
TRON: Legacy is, however, the closest anyone’s come in a long time to the style of pulpy adventure films that were so common during the 1980s, managing to be thrilling in a way that isn’t quite the usual adrenaline rush that modern Hollywood specialises in. TRON: Legacy is absolutely an Adventure film, rather than an Action film – in the same way as Avatar, it’s all about the worldbuilding and the environment (with story and character coming a slightly weak second place), and both films also use a hefty dollop of classic Joseph Campbell-style storytelling in order to transport us to into their universes.
It’s true that TRON: Legacy doesn’t manage this as succesfully as Avatar did (with one of that film’s true strengths being the fact that it is a deeply immersive spectacle), mainly thanks to some very clunky storytelling. It’s also true that Garret Hedlund largely falls into the same category as Flash Gordon’s Sam J. Jones in being a slightly engaging but mostly rather oaken lead actor. In fact, TRON: Legacy is packed full of problems, and frequently feels like it’s only a couple of scenes away from collapsing in on itself, while being as unlikely a franchise-starter as I’ve ever seen. The occasionally sluggish pacing combined with some very incoherent story choices don’t help in the slightest, and TRON: Legacy is certainly a long-way from being a top-notch blockbuster film.
And yet… it’s actually stuck with me a lot longer than Avatar did, and I’ve got the odd feeling that I actually prefer it, despite Cameron’s 3-D opus undoubtedly being the more polished and well-structured film. Much of this is that TRON: Legacy is such a tremendous visual spectacle, one that really needs to be viewed on the biggest screen available, while also being a film that does take us somewhere new, even if it’s just in terms of style and visuals. The way it expands and realises the world of TRON is never less than impressive – there’s a lush, faintly ludicrous and yet undeniably sexy style to the production design and costumes, a European comic-book visual sensibility that keeps the eye candy at a truly glorious level, from the head-whirling disc combat to the climactic air-battle. The look of the film is backed up with the sound – and again, as with Flash Gordon and its timelessly over-the-top Queen music, TRON: Legacy would be much weaker if it wasn’t for the sharp, driving and surprisingly powerful score from Daft Punk, a soundtrack that’s snapping at the heels of Hans Zimmer’s work on Inception for the ‘Best of 2010’ award.
Ultimately, what I really liked about TRON: Legacy is that it’s actually trying to tackle some interesting philosophical questions about life, creation, freedom of information, and the kind of future the digital world offers us. Yes, it’s doing it in a frequently garbled and half-baked way, but the screenplay does a good job of mirroring certain aspects of the real world in the universe of the Grid, and the apparent ‘Hey kids- Piracy is cool!’ subtext in its first twenty minutes isn’t anywhere near as simplistic as it first appears. It’s true that much of the ‘meat’ of the film is thrown at the audience in a single massive flashback sequence, and there’s so much thematic material in the screenplay that I can’t help wishing screenwriters Edward Kitiss and Adam Horowitz could have managed another rewrite, or at least smoothed out some of the clumsier dialogue and exposition (especially in the extremely weak opening sequence, where Kevin Flynn explains the Grid to the 7-year-old Sam as a bedtime story).
However, for all its flaws – the occasionally hard-to-follow battle scenes, the overplayed one-liners, the fact that the CGI used to de-age Jeff Bridges to play CLU is still a few years from being consistently photorealistic – I’d still far rather see a film like TRON: Legacy aim high and fall short, than just getting another immersive yet unsurprising fantasy journey like Avatar, no matter how well-executed it is. A continuation of the saga seems deeply unlikely (and slightly frustrating, considering a couple of very deliberate flapping plot threads at the story’s climax), but despite all its flaws, there are kids out there whose minds will be blown by TRON: Legacy – and I can’t help feeling this is yet another slow-burning cult movie just waiting to happen.
The Verdict: Ignore any of the Star Wars prequel comparisons some negative reviews have thrown around– TRON: Legacy may be loaded with issues in its storytelling, pace and dialogue, but it’s also one of the strongest visual experiences to hit the screen in a long time, backed with the brilliant Daft Punk soundtrack, and a story that’s smarter than it first appears. Plus it’s got Olivia Wilde looking hot in a rubber catsuit, which simply can’t be a bad thing…