There are a lot of cool and interesting things about ‘Tron: Legacy’: The visual updates on the conceptualization of the digital world first presented in the 1982 original; the sound design; the fact that a completely different production team got Jeff Bridges, who doesn’t normally do movies just for a pay check, to agree to appear in a sequel; the costume design; even the fact that a major movie studio (Disney) would take on a film that toys with something as box office toxic as moral themes. None of these things, however, are the coolest thing about ‘Tron: Legacy.’
The coolest thing about the film is the hooded coat that Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) wears in the film’s third act after he leaves his remote hideaway beyond the edges of “the grid” and returns to digital society to confront Clu (a digitally de-aged Jeff Bridges) and what Clu’s desire for perfection has wrought in the system Flynn asked him to construct. Black as the darkest night on the outside yet glowing with pure light from within, this garment is the perfect metaphor for the movie’s themes, and also the perfect representation of one of the things wrong with ‘Tron: Legacy:’ The film tries to do too much.
Beginning with a backstory meant to catch the audience up on the 18 years since the first film, ‘Legacy’ opens in 1989 with Kevin Flynn putting his 7 year-old son Sam (Owen Best) to bed before he heads off to work. Senior Flynn’s stories of the digital world he’s creating with Clu and with Tron entrance young Sam even as his father promises to show him that world some time soon. Quickly we learn not only of Flynn’s disappearance but also, in a compressed, news-reel montage fashion, of all the things that have happened since the first film, including what must be the shortest courtship and quickest pregnancy in history leading to Sam’s birth and Kevin’s widower status; Kevin’s takeover of video game corporation Encom, and how the board plans to handle his disappearance.
Jump forward 20 or so years to now as Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), pays his annual visit to the Encom tower, breaks in, hacks the company’s servers, uploads the new version of Encom’s operating system to the Internet making it available for free just before the company’s stock is to premiere on the Nikkei Index, and base jumps off the tower. After his release from jail, Sam gets a visit from Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), Tron’s original programmer and the only person currently on the Encom board to raise objections to the company’s direction. Why, Bradley wants to know, if Sam cares so much about information being free doesn’t he take an active role in the company as its largest stockholder? He’s not ready he tells Alan, and are they really going to do the surrogate father thing again?
Yes, hacking, base jumping, and living in a storage container with a view of the multi-billion dollar company in which he holds a controlling share but can’t be bothered to actually run is Disney’s ham-handed way of telling us that Sam Flynn is an anti-hero.
A page Alan received from Flynn’s Arcade from a phone number that has been disconnected for 20 years leads Sam to his father’s private office where he’s sucked into the digital world of “the grid” after reawakening his father’s still running computer system.
In revealing that he isn’t a program but a user, and a user named Flynn, Sam learns that things are not all as his dad described in the digital world. Far from the utopia he envisioned, the grid is a world of savage games and neo-fascist order which Clu keeps a hold of with help from his enforcer Rinzler. The conflict between Clu and “the creator,” Kevin Flynn, becomes quickly apparent as Sam is rescued from the game grid, his life saved by Quorra (Olivia Wilde), his father’s protege.
Kevin Flynn, meanwhile, has withdrawn to the badlands beyond the grid in an effort to frustrate Clu and keep him locked inside the digital world. In his withdrawal from the world he’s created, Flynn has embraced several concepts key to Eastern religions chief among them the idea that sometimes the best course of action is to do nothing, an idea that escapes Sam.
It is in this clash of concepts, action vs. inaction (doing vs. not-doing), as well as in the exploration the nature of identity, the value and meaning of life, the definition of perfection and whether or not we should strive for it, and how strength can be expressed that ‘Legacy’ gets bogged down in its themes as the writers try to jam too many concepts into the tech/action film wrapper that they’ve chosen slowing down the action just enough to be noticeable and open that exploration up for derision. This is very bold type handling of what could have been an interesting discussion is the second of the films two biggest failings.
It’s biggest failing is a combination of authorial hubris and poor casting. When making a sequel, particularly for a cult film like ‘Tron,’ it is vital that the writers of the succeeding film pay attention to theoriginal text — the original film. Even though Kevin Flynn was a carefree, unattached bachelor in the 1982 world of the first ‘Tron’ movie, I could almost forgive compressing the time line presented by the first film to allow for Sam Flynn’s existence (Sam would have to have been born in 1982 to be 7 in 1989 when the film opens which is a pretty quick courtship, marriage, and pregnancy).
What I can’t forgive is the casting mistake that presents a 13 year-old actor as a 7 year-old character. The cognitive dissonance created in the first 10 minutes of the film was enough to make it difficult to immerse myself in the story which is really a shame considering that the ‘Tron’ films are all about immersion in another world.
Too, it’s a bit disappointing that the film’s producers chose to take a jab at Microsoft by presenting Encom as a greedy company (Alan Bradley questions the release of the new operating system by asking “With what we charge schools and students, how is the new software any different?” to which Encom’s CEO replies “We put a 12 on the box.”) committed to closed source, proprietary systems without actually fully exploring the question of whether not information, and access, should be free, a debate that is raging all over the world even as this film is released. It’s also a touch disappointing how they handled the idea of a Dillinger-related antagonist (Cillian Murphy in an uncredited role as Edward Dillinger, presumably the son of disgraced former Encom CEO Ed Dillinger (David Warner from ‘Tron’)).
Is ‘Tron: Legacy’ worth seeing? For the visuals alone I’d say yes but don’t expect to be fully satisfied.
A note on IMAX and 3D
I chose to see this film in IMAX 3D having never seen a non-documentary release in IMAX before with 3D being the rider to that. In IMAX this film’s presentation is super impressive. The visuals are sharp and stunning as is the sound design. The use of 3D is moderately well executed but over all it’s not necessary to see it in 3D. Save a little bit of cash and see it in regular, 2D projection unless you’re real computer or film geek.