MOVIE REVIEW: “TRON LEGACY”

One part Oedipal father-son journey, one part commentary on man’s need to obsessively achieve perfection, and one part descent into a stunning digital universe of light cycles, disc battles, and neon-trimmed cityscapes, Tron Legacy is a satisfying, only slightly flawed Holiday blockbuster.

A sequel to Disney’s influential, but not terribly successful 1982 release Tron, ‘Legacy’ picks up about 5 years later, where we discover that Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), successful computer genius and CEO of ENCOM, has disappeared without a trace just days before making an announcement that promised to change technology, society, and even religion forever. Fast forward to present-day, where Flynn’s abandoned son Sam (Garret Hedlund) is now a rebellious, motorcycle-riding, tech-savvy, 27 year-old who is dealing with his Daddy issues by playing hacker pranks on the stodgy, greedy corporate stooges who now run ENCOM in an effort to keep Kevin Flynn’s free-wheeling spirit alive. Sam is told of a mysterious message that was sent from his Father’s old Arcade, and after a brief investigation, Sam is zapped into a computerized grid world Kevin Flynn secretly created over 20 years earlier, where he is mistaken for a rogue program and forced to compete in gladitorial games. He then runs into CLU, a computer program who looks exactly like a 30-year old version of Kevin Flynn, who rules over the Grid with an iron fist. Sam sets out on a quest to survive the deadly disc games, find his true father, and escape the Grid.

In his first major Hollywood star turn, Hedlund does an adequate job of balancing the role of the brash young action hero and the vulnerable son desperate to reconcile with his long-absent Father.  This character could have easily devolved into an impetuous, unlikable Anakin Skywalker surrogate (one scene in particular conjures up the character visually), but thankfully, Sam remains an affable and effective hero. Also adding a spark to the proceedings is the strikingly gorgeous Olivia Wilde as the mysterious heroine Quorra. Wilde has a natural screen presence, and her character is equal parts innocent and deadly.   However, it’s Jeff Bridges who injects the most life into the film, effectively playing both a meglomaniacal baddie, and a Lebowski-like zen master who long ago accepted the fact that his attempt to create a perfect world through technology was folly.  Bridges is the glue that holds Tron Legacy together, spicing the stew with comic relief, disturbing rage, and genuine regret  for leaving Sam behind to pursue an ideal that consumed and trapped him. When he engages CLU, his Modern Prometheus, at the climax of the film, it’s compelling as anything you’ll see in the cinema this year.

Meanwhile, director Joe Kosinski had the seemingly overwhelming task of juggling the 3-D filming process with the cutting-edge special effects, and the nostalgia-fueled expectations of longtime Tron fans, not to mention ensuring the audience connected emotionally to the characters and the film had a clear, engaging storyline. For the most part, he handles it all remarkably well for a first-time director, with only a few mis-steps along the way. The original Tron, while innovative, was a bit ponderous and left audiences with an icy, emotionally detached feeling. Legacy goes a long way to melt the icy veneer of its predecessor, with far better performances and more dynamic characters, but some clunky dialog, clumsy exposition, and muddy techno mumbo-jumbo in the plot still carry the chill of the original film.

Minor script problems aside, one undeniable fact persists: Tron Legacy is one of the most beautiful films ever produced. Production designer Darren Gilford and the special effects teams of Digital Domain and Quantum Creation have delivered a breathtaking digital dreamscape that expands upon the original’s visionary gaming grids and circuit spires. It’s a dazzling, glittering world of luminosity, buzzing with light cycles leaving blazing trails of energy that shimmer and pulse, and digital warriors that shatter into millions of pixels when defeated in the brutal disc arenas. The film also delivers on a visceral level, with an exhilarating musical score by Daft Punk that bounces between orchestral grandeur and thumping techno beats, and spectacular action set pieces that truly get the heart pumping, capped off by a spectacular aerial chase/dogfight through computerized canyons in gorgeously designed lightjets.

All of this is presented in astonishingly clear digital 3-D, which gives this glowing world a sense of depth and immersion that surpasses even the groundbreaking 3-D work in James Cameron’s Avatar. The technology is too easily dismissed by its many detractors as unnecessary gimmickry; a passing fad, but Tron Legacy makes a compelling argument for its continued development as a unique cinematic attraction.

Unfortunately, not every visual creation in the film is convincingly realized, as evidenced by the de-aged version of Kevin Flynn, and his virtual doppelgänger CLU.  This particular effect is a double-edged sword. In the digital world of the grid, CLU’s appearance and not-quite-right facial animations work in the context of that environment. He is, after all,  a computerized construct, and it makes sense that he would be an unnerving, mechanical representation of the human Kevin Flynn was in his early 30’s. It’s a creepy, off-putting quality that adds to his villainy. However, when the effect is placed in the real world, and we are supposed to accept this stiffly animated simulacrum as the living, breathing Kevin Flynn, it falls apart. It’s astonishing that CGI can even get us this close to a fully realized, de-aged actor in the year 2010, but the technology is still five or ten years away from being truly believable.

Tron Legacy falls just short of being one of the all-time great Hollywood epics, but it’s certainly a groundbreaking visual masterpiece with more heart and soul than the original film. It’s a spectacle that far outshines any gaudy Christmas display, and is well worth your 3-D theater dollar this Holiday season.

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