Phil on Film Index

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Review - TRON: Legacy

The original TRON was released in the same year I was born, and I hope I've aged a little better than the film has in the intervening 28 years. When I watched Steven Lisberger's sci-fi adventure recently in preparation for the release of its belated sequel, it appeared hopelessly dated, with the visual effects now looking very creaky, and the lack of a strong storyline or characters making for an empty and dull viewing experience. However, the film still possesses one memorable sequence, the light-cycle race, and at the very least, its then-groundbreaking attempt to engage with the newfangled world of computers has the feel of filmmakers trying to give their audience something new. TRON is not a good film, but it was a bold one with fresh ideas and a unique style, and that alone is enough to set the bar at a level that TRON: Legacy doesn't come close to reaching.

TRON: Legacy has no such ambitions. While no expense has been spared in ensuring the film looks as slick and polished as can be, there's nothing inventive or imaginative under the surface of this unspeakably boring update. An early scene proves to be disappointingly self-prophetic, as software giant Encom announces its plan to release an upgrade package that has no significant improvements on previous versions, but will be presented in such a way that the masses will still buy it. Has a similar philosophy been at work behind the scenes of this movie? Almost everything that exists in TRON: Legacy has been lifted from another film, and the filmmakers appear to be gambling everything on their shiny presentation being enough to paper over the cracks.

It isn't enough, although director Joseph Kosinski does have one fairly smart idea up his sleeve, with the opening "real world" sequences of TRON: Legacy being shot in 2D before 3D is introduced as we move into the computer world. I guess this is the 21st century update on the way colour was used in films like The Wizard of Oz or A Matter of Life and Death to differentiate between realities, but this approach can't add any depth to Garrett Hedlund's strictly one-dimensional performance. The stiff and sullen Hedlund plays Sam Flynn, the son of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who was the chief protagonist in the first film. Some twenty years ago, Kevin disappeared and his son inherited Encom, although he doesn't show much interest in the business side of things, preferring instead to sabotage their plans, live in a shed, ride a motorbike and parachute off the top of skyscrapers.

All of this is very tedious to watch because it simply feels like we're marking time as we wait for Sam to enter "the grid". Eventually he does, receiving a mysterious message from the disused arcade his father owned and being blasted by a laser into the universe his father created. This is where dad has been trapped for the past two decades, after his own avatar Clu (also played by Bridges, albeit digitally enhanced to look 30 years younger) decided to elbow aside his maker and take over the running of the place himself. So, Sam's quest is to liberate his father and stop Clu from making his way into the real world, although this simple plotl leaves myriad unanswered questions and loose ends hanging. How exactly does a human exist in the digital world, and vice versa? More to the point, where does Kevin get the food that he is seen enjoying? Why are we told that Clu's faceless goons can't leave the grid, only to see them searching Flynn's off-grid base moments later? What exactly is Tron's motive? Is that really Cillian Murphy sitting there, looking bored? And what will the excruciating Michael Sheen's next biopic performance be: David Bowie, Jimmy Saville or Peter Stringfellow?

Plot threads and ideas are picked up and discarded at random. We are told that Quorra (Olivia Wilde, this film's Trinity) is the last of some kind of master race that was wiped out by Clu, although we never get a sense of what the significance or purpose of this is; the notion seems to exist solely to give the narrative a gravity that it hasn't earned. TRON: Legacy's writing is lazy, lazy, lazy. Every line of dialogue feels hackneyed and trite – including the tiresome Dude-isms Bridges is lumbered with – and the rules of this world seem to arbitrarily change according to the whims of the screenwriting team as if none of it matters. The thing is, for some viewers who will be happy to just enjoy the light show, it really won't matter.

A lot of effort has obviously been expended on TRON: Legacy's visuals, the film's chief selling point, but they seem very unimpressive to my jaded eyes. Compared to the lush, inviting world of last year's Avatar, the world of TRON – all glass, chrome and neon – seems sterile and uninspired. The novelty of the film's setting rapidly wears off, and while Kosinski ups the ante on the discus-throwing and light-cycle sequences, there's no charge of excitement because they feel so inconsequential. The whole of TRON: Legacy feels like that: empty, flat and meaningless. After years of development, backed by a near $200 million budget, and driven by the most cutting-edge technology available, we've somehow ended up with a film that feels less ambitious and more regressive than its 28 year-old predecessor. Is this progress?