I’m sure there was a generation of kids who grew up with Disney’s 1982 film, “Tron,” and that those now-grown kids were clamoring for a sequel to that first foray into digital animation. I was not one of those kids. When I saw it, as a sophomore in college, it was like listening to a Yaz record; memorable only as a curious artifact from an earlier cultural time whose echoes still resonant. And yet, I was intrigued when I heard about a sequel and positively enthralled when the first concept images first appeared online in the summer of 2009. I kept abreast of developments and trailers, and walked into the theater with high expectations, some of which were met, others not.
“Tron: Legacy,” begins in 1989, with Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) tucking his young son Sam into bed with tales of cybertronic glory. It isn’t long before young Sam is orphaned and his father’s company, ENCOM, reverts to less-than-altruistic hands. Twenty years later Sam undertakes James Bond-eqsue missions to ensure that ENCOM’s latest software adheres to the open source vision his father. The opening is one of the few action sequences not in 3D, although it may just as well have been. Director Joseph Kosinski, a commercial director helming his first feature, keeps his camera tight, focal length long, and shot length short, mimicking a 3D visual style as closely as possible. Kevin’s former business associate, and original film holdover, Allan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) seeks Sam out to tell him that a page was received from Kevin’s old phone number, disconnected twenty years earlier. Curiosity gets the best of Sam (played by the plucky Garrett Hedlund), who returns to his old man’s video arcade and workshop. From there, “Tron: Legacy” more or less follows the arc of the original film. Sam gets sucked into the original’s digitized computer programming world, but it’s a world advanced by several thousand generations. Sam is mistaken for a program, forced to compete in gladiatorial combat, fights the big program, needs to escape, etc., etc., etc. The beats between the beginning and the unsatisfying conclusion are slightly more intricate, but it’s tough to parse out nuances when they’re surrounded by such loud backgrounds.
But oh, what backgrounds. The jet-black foundational glass shimmers from the streaks of blue light that run through everything. The visual metaphor for interconnectivity is strained, but it looks fantastic. Movement is emphasized by streaks of yellow, orange, and green, which solidify into walls that cut programs in half and blow up the vehicles that appear line by line in seconds and disappear just as quickly. Everything looks great from the visual effects to the tight leather costumes to the production design in the white, Mod abode that Sam finds his father living in outside of Tronopolis.
As the elder Kevin Flynn, Jeff Bridges is campy. The goatee and Zen catch phrases he spouts off never let us forget that he will always be The Dude. He lives with and mentors Quorra, played by the doe-eyed Olivia Wilde in a charming, impressive performance as a living, breathing cartoon character. Garrett Hedlund gives a similarly solid performance in the unenviable role of straight man amongst all of this visual effect hocus-pocus. Of all of the performers, Michael Sheen, playing a Bowie-esque club owner, does the most with the mostly clunky dialog provided by scribes Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. He alone seems to realize that in order to stand out from the computer generated scenery one needs to be larger than life. It lifts up the film’s middle when it seems like everything is being taken a little bit too seriously.
But, the real star and main performer is the visual effects. They marry so seamlessly with the bass and percussion heavy score of Daft Punk and the zippy sound effects that it creates an almost perfect visceral package. It’s a moving auditorium away from being a theme park ride, which I’m sure Disney already has in the works. The only problem is the digitally younger Jeff Bridges, playing the role of main baddie, Clu. It falls in an uncomfortable purgatory, obviously computer generated but nearly lifelike.
Ultimately, the film is little more than special effects wizardry. I saw it in IMAX 3D and I can’t really imagine experiencing it any other way. The technical expertise at work is breathtaking on such a large scale. It was almost enough to make me forget my fundamental disdain for 3D filmmaking, not quite, but almost. “Tron: Legacy” makes no bones about what it is or where its influences lie. This is all about video games, from the Pong-like nature of the gladiatorial combat to the camera angles behind the futuristic motorcycles to the, “defeat the big boss,” mentality of the final scenes. It lacks the watery environmental message of “Avatar” and the Freudian pretensions of “Inception,” its two closest big budget, visual effects laden rivals. By avoiding such weighty themes it avoids equally weighty distractions, and it makes for a more involving experience.