TRON: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010): USA

Reviewed by Richard Feilden.  Viewed at West Wind Drive-In, Goleta.

Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice… or so the saying goes. If ever there was a film that embodied that little pearl of wisdom, it’d be TRON: Legacy.  Not only does it manage to build upon the flaws of the not-so-illustrious original TRON film, but it shares a lot in common with a certain CGI led epic that was doing the rounds at the start of last year.  Once again, Hollywood has delivered an expensive slice of show without any substance.

In the first TRON film, Jeff Bridges played Kevin Flynn, a computer genius and avid arcade game player, whose work was stolen by a colleague.  As he attempted to recover evidence of the crime, he was ‘digitized’ by an artificial intelligence in the company mainframe.  Trapped inside the computer, he came literally face-to-face with the programs that ran on the system.  Flynn won through a series of gladiatorial games and eventually escaped back into the real world with the help of Tron, a program written by a friend, got the evidence and won the day.  TRON: Legacy picks up the action a few years later.  Flynn, now a father, vanishes one night.  He leaves behind a son, Sam (Garratt Hedlund), and no trace of where he might have gone.  Twenty years pass and the son is in danger of losing control of his father’s company.  A mysterious pager message leads Sam to his father’s old Amusement Arcade (where, luckily, the power hasn’t been disconnected though it’s been abandoned for twenty years) and before you can say ‘that was convenient’, Sam is following his father’s footsteps down the electronic rabbit hole.  Then it’s business as usual as Sam fights for his own survival, as well as that of a new form of electronic life that his father has discovered on ‘the Grid’.

TRON: Legacy is an odd sort of sequel.  On the one hand, it contains incredibly explanation of the ideas of the original.  I can’t imagine the new film makes a whole lot of sense if you haven’t seen the first one.  It completely glosses over the process by which Sam gets into the computer, and the idea that programs are anthropomorphic creatures with free will, barely warrants a moment’s pause.

On the other hand, it’s currently impossible to get hold of the first film to fill in the blanks for yourself.  Disney is obviously trying to appeal to fans of the original with a massive viral marketing campaign, yet the company seems to be going to great lengths to make sure people can’t actually see the first TRON before they drop their dollars at the box office for this one.  Courtesy of some rather devilish on-line competitions I’m now the proud owner of a couple of rather fetching pins and a limited edition classic arcade-game poster, but I’ll be damned if I can actually buy a copy of the original film.  It isn’t even on Netflix.  It’s rather ironic really, considering that the story of TRON:Legacy revolves around the idea that information should be free!

It’s almost as if Disney didn’t want anyone remembering the problems that the original had.  And boy, did it have problems.  While its CGI world was certainly ahead of its time, the story was trite, its characters simplistic, and once you got past the ‘oooh’ factor, frankly it was dull.  Watching it now (if you can), with its technological sheen stripped by age, is a pretty boring exercise.  Lessons haven’t been learned, I’m afraid to say.  In TRON:L Legacy the computer graphics have been updated, giving us a fantastic world of neon skyscrapers and digital lightcycles, along with the creepiest CGI ‘doll’ this side of Polar Express,   but the story is as flat as ever.  Some sections (the light-cycle races for instance) have obviously been inserted solely to appeal to original’s fans, but they don’t serve the story, just the marketing and merchandising departments.  Character development is, fittingly, a binary affair.  One moment a character has one mind set, the next another.  This is most apparent with one particular character who returns from the first film.  I don’t wish to spoil anything (though if you can’t see the shift coming a mile off then honestly I worry about you!), but a change of allegiance that occurs in the last third of the film has to be the least motivated transformation I’ve had the misfortune to watch.  One moment the character is on ‘side A’ and the next, with for no apparent reason except that it had to happen, they’re on ‘side B’.  No mess, no fuss, no explanation.  No interest.

The acting is a real mixed bag.  Hedlund is passable, but suffers from a Hayden Christensen-esque lack of emotional depth, and Olivia Wilde, playing the digital love interest, isn’t a whole lot better.  Jeff Bridges seems to have forgotten who Flynn was in the original film.  He’s now a 60s hippy cliché, man, rather than an 80s computer wizz – perhaps Bridges couldn’t get hold of a copy of the film either!  The film’s saving grace, at least for amusement’s sake, is Michael Sheen.  The master impersonator (if you recall, he’s played David Frost in Frost/Nixon and Tony Blair in The Queen) has turned his eye to David Bowie.  He is wildly over the top, camping and hamming it up for all that he’s worth, and he brings a much need ‘human’ element to the proceedings.

The sequel then really does live up to its forefather’s legacy.  It shares all the same flaws and tries to get by on the same strengths. Unfortunately for Tron: Legacy, it now can’t get by on the ‘wow’ of the images the way that Tron could – we’ve already seen superior effects in Avatar.  CGI has come a long way since the first TRON film, and the sequel, while certainly a visual treat, is no longer on the cutting edge.  Sure, TRON:Legacy is stunning to look at, but the beauty queen can’t get by on looks alone any more.

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