Movie Review: Tron: Legacy
All Fathers Care for Their Sons
A Film Review of Tron: Legacy
By: Lawrence Napoli
The future of audio/visual entertainment will evolve into a virtual amalgam featuring the finest interactivity that video games have to offer with the intensified drama that well written scripts demand our collective disbelief to suspend. Franchises like Uncharted and The Matrix represent some of the best fiction conceived in the worlds of video games and cinema respectively. They also represent a progressive movement to blur, if not entirely erase the line between games and films. Why observe a fictional scenario when you can live one vicariously through a controller, or motion sensitivity, or even virtual reality? Humans have become so fascinated with the concept of “worlds within worlds” as the development of digital technology, networking and artificial intelligence continues to interweave almost everything that composes our planet. Digital reality and its function regarding physical reality is becoming an extremely complex subject to discuss because for the individual, regardless of the lens that focuses sensory input, perception is reality even if it is “false” or rather, not physical. Tron (1982) was one of the fore fathers of this particular brand of fiction which was way ahead of its time because the technology then available to consumers couldn’t even suggest such implausibility. Today, every profession and pleasure in life requires proficiency with a keyboard and a screen. We put ourselves into our computers more and more every day and as I appreciate that particular fact of life in light of this review, I’m left wondering: “Why has it taken Disney so damn long to make a sequel?!”
Tron: Legacy is a film brought to you primarily by the writing team of Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. These two are coming from a very mixed bag of success from the realm of television and their credits include Felicity (2001), Birds of Prey (2002), Back Slash (2003) and Lost (2005-2010). Suffice it to say that these men have been around the block and have made careers for themselves whether you appreciate their fiction or not. Director, Joseph Kosinski is not nearly as accomplished. His most significant credit prior to Legacy was the composition of the “Mad World” TV commercial for the very first Gears of War video game for XBOX 360 in 2007. Don’t get me wrong, that was a killer promo, but a portfolio worthy of helming this IP? In hindsight, I prefer people who are more experienced at the screenwriting end of the filmmaking process because a more polished script always yields a more polished film. That is unless a producer, director or actor hijacks the production to satiate their own ego which almost always leads to a litany of re-writes in order to accommodate. Thankfully, Legacy did not have any prima-donnas on board as Kitsis and Horowitz produced a screenplay that not only connects to the previous film flawlessly, but also explains the large time gap between them in a convenient, yet satisfying way to the audience. Mr. Kosinski allows Jeff Bridges a wide birth to foster his innate ability to infuse raw charisma into every character he plays while giving plenty of opportunities to new comers Garrett Hedlund (Sam) and Olivia Wilde (Quorra) to shine on their own.
The digital effect technology in Tron: Legacy is beautiful and clean, but by no means even attempts to reinvent the wheel. The kind of effects the audience sees from disintegrations, to lasers, to virtual vehicles performing all sorts of daredevilry are an upgrade from the progenitor effects as displayed in the original Tron, but quite frankly leaves an all too familiar taste in one’s mouth. Indeed the CG wizardry that made “The Dude,” look like a spry 30-something has progressed nicely from Patrick Stewart’s similar regression to a younger Charles Xavier in X-Men 3 (2006). This effect is far from being perfected, especially if featuring several close-ups is the order of the day for the cinematographer. Gazing at the young digital Bridges for too long harkens me back to The Matrix: Reloaded and the cartoon Neo vs. 50 Agent Smiths sequence. It looked ok, but it also looked like plastic and unfortunately digital fabrication cannot generate the image of a human actor in his or her prime the same way a camera captures an actual actor in his or her prime. Audiences have seen a fair share of good CG to distinguish between effects that are well concealed versus those that scream PHOTOSHOP! Despite these very nit-picky criticisms, the virtual world of Tron: Legacy is a beautiful 2.0 upgrade while maintaining its minimalist neon/black design concept as a nod to its predecessor. Most, if not all of the CG effects were very sharp and I applaud the efforts of the men and women at Quantum Creation FX for displaying unique creativity in producing a more futuristic look for a digital world that was introduced over 20 years ago.
I would also like to make special note of the original music produced by Daft Punk for this production. I may have been a tad overzealous in predicting that the music of Tron: Legacy would single-handedly revitalize America’s interest in techno beyond the club scene, but that doesn’t take anything away from the epic presence it has throughout the film. All of the mixes from the sublime drones of meditation to the slamming bass of combat added an extra layer of immersion to this cyber world. The quality of music is perhaps the greatest improvement from the original Tron which featured very simple scale and chord progression via synthesizer. Of course, the context of the film is what allows a soundtrack of this nature to evolve past mere ambiance and into a character unto itself. I am not sure who passed along a demo track of Daft Punk to executive producer Donald Kushner, but that person deserves a promotion for doing so and Donny deserves a hearty slap on the back for signing them!
The one thing that continues to hold the sci-fi and fantasy genres back from full and total acceptance by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is the inconsistent level of acting performances amongst these productions. There is no question that the technical professionals (crew, electricians, etc.) work just as diligently for a drama like The Shawshank Redemption (1994) as they would if they signed on for another Aliens vs. Predator film. The same cannot be said of the effort put forth by the actors: the actual faces of the franchises they were hired to sell. A perfect example of this is the noticeable difference in acting quality Natalie Portman put forth between all of the Star Wars prequels and her entrancing performance in Black Swan (2010) for which she is receiving a cornucopia of Oscar buzz over. If a production’s cast cannot sell the story to an audience, no amount of bells and whistles will save the film from bad reviews.
I am pleased to say that Jeff Bridges continues to pull sci-fi and fantasy from the quicksand of neglect as produced by the stoic snobbery of drama elitists. Films like The Lord of the Rings, Avatar and Inception had some very real and very emotional performances that demonstrated an ability to connect with audiences in very unique ways. Yes good acting still manages to kick ass when gunfire is replaced by phaser blasts. Bridges plays Kevin Flynn who was the cocky, code-writing, internet genius-type before the internet was even online. Key word of course being WAS, as Flynn’s life experiences since his first dive into cyber space in the 80s has tempered his flamboyance. What the audience is treated to is a cool, but very mellow father figure who is trapped in 80s lingo, but at the same time fully accepts the seriousness of his predicament and his legacy. At first, I felt that Bridges would maintain a stern mentor/master role throughout the film, but his interplay with onscreen son Garrett Hedlund allows a little of “The Dude” to come out and play in the film’s second and third acts. It is a subtle transition that adds immense credibility to the real care he has for a son he has not seen in a very long time. A stronger emotional shift would be off-putting to an audience. At the same time, Bridges plays the main antagonist of Tron: Legacy which is a character that is about as “un-Dude,” as they come. The maniacal Clu is, admittedly, a cookie-cutter villain, but Bridges plays this character as purposely flat because Clu is technically a shell of Flynn himself.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by balanced performances that do not hype any one character over the other. Olivia Wilde produces a quite charming performance as the innocent Quorra. Although she eventually falls into some sort of love interest for Sam, the chemistry she builds with Hedlund onscreen is appropriately playful and flirty. Olivia Wilde is a very attractive woman, but neither her performance nor her costume design over-sexes Quorra in any way. As the main protagonist, Hedlund is asked to do a little more of the heavy lifting by playing a very difficult character type: a rebel with only selective disregard for himself, others and the rule of law. The rebel without a cause that covertly has one is a tough trick to pull off but Garrett’s performance is acceptable. An additional scene that connects an adult Sam to his father before he jumps into the digital world would have helped his overall performance for the film because then the audience would be more able to understand why a child with every reason and opportunity in the world to go full blown Jersey Shore, or Lindsay Lohan, or Brittney Spears, does not. Bruce Boxleitner returns in the complimentary role of Alan/Tron and although his character is underused I expect him to have a major contribution for the Legacy sequel. I love the man’s raspy voice and his pleasing yet calm demeanor. He’s like a fun version of Alec Guinness who can play the designated leader role in just about any film.
Tron: Legacy is a very fun cyber adventure that appeals to the computer geek in each and every one of us. The film basically describes why gamers and gaming culture exist as something beyond shear escapism. At the same time, this film is by no means a game changing cinematic experience. I consider the half-hearted attempt to make this film into a pseudo 3D production to be highly dubious and a shameful money grab as only parts of this film are actually in 3D. Save your money and do not see this at IMAX, but do yourself a favor and check this film out on the regular screen because it is one of the best effect-driven films of 2010 and Jeff Bridges deserves your respect. The story fits so well with the original Tron that it is a shame Disney pulled all copies of the DVD from every conceivable retailer prior to Legacy’s release. The audience gets so much more out of Legacy when the original story is stored in your memory bank. Of course, this too was another shameful money grab by Disney to justify a repeat release of this film when Legacy gets released for the first time. Well done Disney, Michael Eisner has taught you well!