Disney has sure made some bizarro live action picture over the years. The 70's in particular was a great era for Disney's live action department, bringing us such semi-forgotten classics as The Black Hole, The Watcher In The Woods, and two entries in the Witch Mountain series. But it wasn't until the early 80's that Disney released perhaps its most famous live action picture, a little oddity known simply as Tron. Starring a young Jeff Bridges as a man who finds himself sucked into a computer system and forced to play dangerous games (which to humans simply seem like the video games they play at arcades), Tron was absolutely groundbreaking. Using all kinds of never before seen visual effects, including very early CGI, Tron has grown from an odd slice of Disney arcana to a full fledged cult classic. Much like another sci-fi film released in 1982, Blade Runner, the look of Tron has gone on to influence a whole new generation of filmmakers. And despite a video game or two trying to cash in on the film's name, it seemed like that was all we would get from Disney.
But then a funny thing happened. One year, at the San Diego Comic Convention, at the end of the Disney panel, a clip came on the exhibit hall screens. It showed two men racing each other in the distinctive Tron light cycles, only to be judged at the end of the race by none other than...Jeff Bridges! The crowd, comprised of some of the most intense nerds and geeks in the world, understandably went absolutely nuts. It turns out the clip was a proof of concept made to show Disney that aTron sequel could in fact be viable. The crowd reaction was all it took for Disney to greenlight the picture, and sure enough, we can now see the fruits of their labor inTron: Legacy.
The film opens after the events of the first film, with Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) recapping the events of Tron to his young son Sam (played as an adult by Garrett Hedlund). Flynn promises to one day show his son the wonders of "The Grid" (as the virtual world as called), but before he can, he disappears for good. Cut ahead to the present day, and adult Sam is the main stockholder in Encom, his father's company, but is at odds with their sleazy corporate tactics. He's got one friend in the company, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), the man who helped Kevin Flynn the last time things got hairy with Encom. Bradley informs Sam that he's received a page from Flynn's old arcade, and going to investigate, Sam finds himself sucked into the Grid, and must find his real dad before an evil facsimile by the name of Clu (Jeff Bridges again, but digitally de-aged) destroys him.
First, the good: Tron Legacy is a sumptuous feast for the eyes. I was blown away seeing the film in IMAX 3D, where the aspect ratio opened up to accommodate more of the stunning imagery laid before me. Director Joseph Kosinski debuts here, coming from the world of commercials, and brings the sleek look often used in car commercials to the world of Tron. In a way, the movie is the ultimate laser light show. You will not be disappointed with how the film looks. Nor will you be disappointed with how it sounds. Tron fans Daft Punk, the fantastic French electronic duo, provide the film's entire score, and it is a doozy. It manages to feel retro and new all at the same time. It feels of the world and also of the group. The score, combined with the images, are a delightful feast for the senses.
Also good is Jeff Bridges, back as Kevin Flynn. No longer the young Luke Skywalker type, he now acts as the Obi-Wan Kenobi advisor to new hero Sam. Sadly, Garrett Hedlund is not up to filling Bridges' shoes. He's not terrible, but he's simply there on the screen. For a movie like this, heck, for almost any movie, you want an actor with presence. Hedlund doesn't have it. The same cannot be said for his co-star, Olivia Wilde. For one thing, she's gorgeous. For another, she's actually quite good at playing the dewey-eyed innocent and even injecting the movie with a little humor. I have not seen Wilde on House, but she's an excellent addition to the cast here.
And then there's Clu. Named after a programming language from the 70's, Clu is also played by Jeff Bridges, but has been digitally de-aged to look like he did when the first film was released. While I'm sure this was a neat idea on paper, the reality of the current technology limits the execution. In short, Clu looks awful, as does any flashback appearances of young Kevin Flynn. It is, quite frankly, bad enough to take me out of the movie. And that's never a good thing. The problem is that no one else gets this de-aging treatment (well, except for Boxleitner in a brief cameo as Tron), and so it looks completely out of place. I could see an argument for making Clu look so artificial if every other program in the Grid looked just as artificial, because they're synthetic and not organic, but everyone else looks just as real as Sam or the modern day Kevin Flynn. And then to de-age Kevin Flynn in the flashbacks makes him look just as phony as Clu does. The effects in Tron weren't always seamlesss, but they never broke the illusion of the reality the filmmakers were presenting. Clu does break that illusion, and comes very close to ruining the film entirely.
So, that's the best and the worst of it. How's the rest? Well, frankly, kind of tame, possibly even boring. The original movie felt like it was being made by a dyed-in-the-wool idealist (and, indeed, series creator Steven Lisberger today appears to be as much of a crazy hippie as Jeff Bridges). It could hardly even be called an action movie. Tron: Legacy replaces that idealism (and the somewhat awkward but endearing storytelling that came with it) with a slick commercialism that makes for great eye candy, but doesn't elevate the material to an emotional level. The few emotional beats it does touch on is very standard hero's journey stuff, but never done in a way that feels immediate or compelling. In fact, the story feels so generic that I wondered why the filmmakers spent so much time on it as they do. Far too much of the film involves characters talking to or at each other ad nauseam. Had the movie just been images and sound, it could have had a much bigger impact without sacrificing the story. As it is, the second act drags on as everything is explained in excruciating detail, and there's simply no need. Less is more, and when you're working with the minimalist lines of the Tron universe, that axiom should have been the golden rule.
Still, the Tron fan in me found enough to enjoy here that I can recommend seeing it in a theater (in IMAX 3D if at all possible). It's not going to knock your socks off as a movie, but the sights and sounds will be enough to make this second trip into the Grid a worthwhile experience, if only for the images you'll see when you close your eyes later that night in bed.