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Entries in TRON: Legacy [2010] (1)

Saturday
Dec182010

TRON: Legacy (2010)

Code Violation

Never has a movie that inspired so many smart people resulted in a sequel aimed only at satisfying idiots.  The original TRON was, to some nerds, the pop cultural equivalent of Star Wars (the difference between nerds and geeks is subtle, but very important).  It arrived at the dawn of video games and home computers, and set young imaginations on fire.  Today, it has a strange reputation as being boring; after having watched it recently, I can only assume that’s because audiences have a problem with dialogue scenes that favor ideas and big words over cutesy one-liners.  That’s certainly who Disney is targeting with TRON: Legacy, a flashy, state-of-the-art movie that squanders every great idea that slinks across the screen. 

As you may recall from the first film, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) became CEO of ENCOM after destroying the nefarious, power-grubbing Master Control Program.  In the sequel, Flynn has vanished, leaving his son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) as the majority shareholder in a company that now values profit over innovation.  Sam never got over his mother’s death or his father’s disappearance, so he spends his time drifting about and not being involved in ENCOM’s day-to-day operations.

One night, Flynn’s old friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) pays a visit to Sam and tells him that he received a message on a pager that Flynn had given him years before; Sam stops by his dad’s abandoned arcade and discovers a secret lab behind a TRON console.  A few keystrokes and one laser zap later, and Sam is transported into the digital world.  It’s unlike the simple gridded landscape of the first film; in fact, it looks an awful lot like The Matrix: Reloaded.  Sam is met by a cadre of robotic Revlon models who deck him out in a black leather jumpsuit with white neon detailing; they also give him a data disc, which in the previous film looked like a papier mache Frisbee, but now has the badass styling of an Alienware cock ring.

Sam leaves his costume fitting and finds himself on a version of the street outside Flynn’s Arcade.  He’s picked up by a Recognizer and forced to compete in disc battles and light cycle races to the death.  Presiding over the games is CLU, a program that Flynn created in his own image to help him build the ultimate computer paradise; the two had a falling out, and now CLU rules the land with a Pentium fist.  In the middle of his battle, Sam is rescued by Quorra (Olivia Wilde), the last of a race of self-created programs called ISOs that CLU exterminated.

Quorra takes Sam to the rocky wastelands beyond the city to meet Flynn, now an aged, New Age philosopher-type.  Flynn explains that he was trapped inside his computer after CLU  went rogue and killed TRON, the super-police program who’d helped him restore justice to the ENCOM system.  The one-way portal to the outside world had shut, but was re-opened with Sam’s arrival.  Sam figures that if he can escape back to reality with Flynn’s data disc, he’ll be able to stop CLU and use the ideas Flynn and TRON developed to revolutionize modern living.

The film ambles along with lots of ship fights and chases and data-disc-martial-arts shenanigans as Flynn, Sam and Quorra make their way back to the city in the hopes of launching the disc into the narrow portal and blowing up the Death Star (um, I mean, the city).

In the process, we learn that TRON is not dead—he’s just working for CLU now—and that CLU’s ultimate goal is to bring his army of program drones into the real world to conquer our reality.  We also discover that the people behind TRON: Legacy have learned nothing about solid filmmaking in the twenty-eight years since the original.  And with this six-hundred-word pre-amble out of the way, I’m proud to present The Legacy Lack List—six major problems that prevent this movie from being even mildly stimulating:

1.  Copy/Paste.  The original TRON was influenced by Star Wars, as was a lot of sci-fi in the Skywalker era.  But the key word is “influenced”; TRON had its own voice, and it’s arguable that the similarities were as attributable to Joseph Campbell as to George Lucas.  With TRON: Legacy, the theft is undeniable.  From the aforementioned rebel raid to destroy the powerful fortress; to the ship battle in which Sam mans a gun turret to fight off CLU’s fighters (I was just waiting for Flynn to yell out, “That’s great, kid!  Don’t get cocky!”); to the daring escape from the police raid on the quirky bar; to the smuggling of the information that will be used to vanquish evil; to the climactic fight between two old masters in which the noble (pinball) wizard sacrifices himself so that his protégé might save the universe—nothing is left sacred.

Worse than that, screenwriters Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz (and the two other writers who helped develop the story) venture into Star Wars prequel territory with their cosmic nonsense about the ISOs; they posit that the secrets to technological innovation lie not in human imagination, but in self-created spirit programs—like circuit board midichlorians.

In addition to Star Wars, there’s a near-direct rip-off of the key line from War Games (“The only winning move is not to play”), and the writers’ idea of shaking up the big Flynn/CLU face-off is to pay homage to the climax of Star Trek V.  Way to go, guys.

2.  Brought to you by Windex!  For all the crap that the original TRON gets about hokey costumes, primitive landscapes, and stilted action, it at least had a distinct visual point of view that was clear to the audience.  I couldn’t tell what I was seeing during half of Legacy's action scenes.  The digital-world-palette is mostly de-saturated, resulting in two looks: one, a green fluorescent-bulb nightmare; the other, a mélange of black-clad characters against black backgrounds, with only those neon reflecting strips and the red detailing of the storm troopers’ uniforms to break up the composition.

The worst part is that most every surface in this world is shiny and ultra-reflective.  Since there’s no real sky in, say, the games arena, we just get guys jumping and dodging neon discs on glass platforms whose reflections contrast with the neon stripes—making it impossible to tell how many people are competing, which ones have been taken out by the discs (which makes them explode into more reflective, shiny glass), and how or why suddenly everyone’s fighting upside down.  If TRON was minimalist, TRON: Legacy is maximalist to the nth degree.

3.  Shut up and smile!  Jeff Bridges rocked the original TRON.  The young Kevin Flynn put the “smart” in smart-ass, and his trip down the rabbit hole provided the perfect catalyst for a character arc.  He began the movie as Han Solo and ended it as Obi-wan Kenobi—which is to say that he realized he needed to help the main hero (TRON) and then get out of the way in order for everyone to succeed.  What I love the most about that film is Bridges’ smile—its infectiousness lent an optimism to the rest of the good guys that made the movie a fun adventure (you could even call it “family friendly”, which is not always a bad thing).

That confident, curious attitude is sorely missed in the sequel.  Flynn is now a bummed out recluse who can’t get over the fact that he screwed up his relationship with both of his sons (Sam and CLU); Sam is a mopey late-twenties slacker who would rather die than crack a joke or a smile.  Even Olivia Wilde, who has been a vibrant, interesting actor in movies like Alpha Dog and on TV’s House, is reduced to literal eye candy here.  I get that Quorra is a blank-slate program, and that her function as a character is to look around in big-eyed wonder at everything—but because I know what Wilde is capable of, I couldn’t help but be frustrated at how colossal a waste of her time and talents TRON: Legacy is; it’s a part better suited to Miley Cyrus or one of the Jonas Brothers.

So you’ve got three dour characters standing around black rooms under cloudy black skies talking about their family issues for five and ten minute stretches.  Did someone say “action blockbuster”?

4.  Holy shit!  It’s Cillian Murphy!  That was my reaction in the opening boardroom scene at ENCOM, when I recognized the sinister-looking engineer who the CEO called “Ed Dillinger”.  You’ll recall that in TRON, David Warner played ENCOM CEO Ed Dillinger, who was exposed as a fraud and ruined by Flynn.  Now we have Ed, Jr. working as ENCOM’s top engineer, sitting across the table from Flynn’s best friend, Alan Bradley.  What fantastic possibilities this poses!  Will Ed join forces with CLU to keep Flynn locked in the Grid?  Is he planning to sabotage the company that destroyed his father from within?  Will Ed venture into the computer and try to establish his own evil empire?

The answer to all of these questions is “no.”  Murphy’s uncredited cameo was the biggest surprise of the movie, and one of the most egregious wastes of a storyline in the history of film (there’s a chance that his character is being groomed for a more prominent role in the sequel, but who knows if that’ll even happen?).  He mumbles three lines of dialogue and then disappears, never to be brought up again.

5.  Bridging the Uncanny Valley.  There’s a term used to describe artificial reproductions of the human likeness called the Uncanny Valley; essentially it describes the weird “off” feeling one gets when looking at an artificial human face that is presented as being real.  Disney screwed up big-time by releasing TRON: Legacy with the shoddy looking CLU, a CGI construct of Jeff Bridges from twenty years ago.  At first, we’re asked to believe that this really is a young Flynn during a batch of flashbacks.  His face is obscured and it sort of works; but then we get a full-on hero shot of his face, and my immediate reaction was “Gah!”

I can’t blame TRON: Legacy for not being Avatar, but now that Avatar is the standard for all effects spectacles (it even opened on the same weekend last year) it’s impossible not to draw comparisons.  CLU is integral to the story, which means he appears in many, many scenes—which means we are forced to look upon his flawed, cartoon face and wonder, “Am I really supposed to buy this shit?”  And the poor quality can’t be explained away as CLU’s being a representation of Flynn because all of the other humanoid characters in the film are played by real people (with the exception of the equally horrendous CGI Boxleitner as TRON).

This could have all been fixed by simply making CLU not in the image of Flynn, but in the image of young Sam.  That would’ve brought a level of pathos to the script that’s very much absent, as well as allowed Bridges and company the chance to act against a non-distracting flesh-and-blood villain (how creepy would it have been to see a cute little twelve-year-old kid acting as a super-smart, all-powerful dictator?).  But, no, instead we get this weird thing whose every word I found impossible to process because I was too busy noticing the grotesque, unnatural mouth from which they came.

6.  Intranet vs. Internet.  So, Kevin Flynn has been stuck inside a computer since 1989.  Before that, he spent seven years revamping his digital world.  I get that.  It’s a neat idea.  How, though, does one explain the fact that his flawed paradise looks like it was designed by European Apple interns last year?

And which computer world are we dealing with, exactly?  It’s suggested that this is still the ENCOM world of the first film, but the computer is inside Flynn’s arcade. No one inside this world has heard of the Internet or Wi-Fi technology.  In TRON, it was made very clear that in order to get inside the ENCOM computer, you had to be on an ENCOM computer inside the building.  Yet Flynn now has a completely separate version of it in his basement, and TRON’s running around in there.  In other words, it’s a closed loop, except when it’s not.

What’s going on inside the real ENCOM computer, which has, in the years since TRON, become a global force that ostensibly uses all the powers of the Internet?  What are foreign systems like?  What does a virus look like?  Wouldn’t it be great if CLU got wind of this new world and wanted to conquer it—instead of plotting to somehow become human?  Nah, let’s just stay inside this little box and fuck around; we’ve only had thirty years of technological wonders to consider, after all.

TRON: Legacy, like Avatar before it, is part of a disturbing new trend called the Winter Blockbuster.  The cold season is Oscar season, when studios are supposed to put their best foot forward and leave the popcorn-munching mindlessness buried under autumn leaves.  The fact that TRON: Legacy is coming out now might fool some into believing it’s a thinking-person’s action/adventure, but it’s really not; it’s the opposite of that—to the point where if you keep your brain running past the previews, you’re likely to emerge with a headache that has nothing to do with the 3D glasses.

Sidebar:  There’s a fantastic disclaimer at the beginning of the movie; it informs us that parts of the movie will be presented in 2D.  “Parts” is being really generous, considering you’ll get maybe twenty minutes of mileage out of your up-charged plastic specs during the whole two hours.

To sum up my beef with this film, it’s that the creators not only had more than a quarter-century of fan expectations to live up to, they also had at their fingertips millions of dollars and the entire rich history of moviemaking.  And the best they could come up with is a cold kaleidoscope of action-movie clichés?  TRON: Legacy has nothing to do with the legacy of TRON, which inspired innovation and imagination; the sequel feels like something spit out by a computer program, based on box office calculations and focus group data. 

Note:  I was just reminded that Sam's costume fitting happened after he left the arcade, and just before he entered the games.  It's a minor point, but an important one when trying to accurately describe the movie.  Special thanks to Marwan for policing the grid.