'Tron: Legacy' dazzles the eyes and ears, but the mind — eh, not so much
In 1982, Pac Man Fever was sweeping the nation. But in the Magic Kingdom, Disney executives were feeling aches and pains of a different sort. The studio's designated summer blockbuster "Tron" (which cost approximately $20 million, an impressive budget for those days) had all but short-circuited at the box office, failing to become the next "Star Wars," much less the "2001: A Space Odyssey" of the Atari generation.
Despite an abundance of pre-opening publicity about its melange of live-action and computer-generated special effects, the movie did not catch on with audiences. The creative visuals and inventive use of what was then state-of-the-art design couldn't compensate for an unfathomable plot, dull characters and the listless direction of Steven Lisberger, who gave the film's "real world" sequences an almost funereal pace and didn't work up much more excitement when the action moved into the electrified universe inside a video game.
Twenty-eight years later, Disney has done something that would have seemed unthinkable: created a sequel to "Tron," titled "Tron: Legacy." The rationale seems to be that "Tron" has always had a following among animation connoisseurs, technology geeks and admirers of all things 1980s (although even its cultists will often admit the movie itself is not very good). Even more importantly, technology has advanced far beyond anything that could even have been imagined in 1982.
See for yourself: When game designer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is zapped into The Grid in the original "Tron," much of the world he wanders around in looks like a leftover "Star Trek" set that's been weirdly lit and decorated with neon accents. On the other hand, when Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), Kevin's "orphaned" son, steps onto The Grid in "Legacy," that's the precise moment director Joseph Kosinski switches formats from 2D to 3D; it's a trick as startling as the moment when Dorothy steps out of her sepia-toned Kansas home into the ravishing Technicolor gardens of Munchkinland in "The Wizard of Oz." The Grid has been reimagined as a genuinely virtual environment that seems to pulsate with an artificial heartbeat of its own. The overriding color in "Tron" was a gravel gray, but the signature shade in "Legacy" is an otherworldly white that glows like snow in the moonlight.
There have been numerous movies in the last two years that have used 3D as little more than a flashy come-on, but in the case of "Legacy," the process actually seems essential for the movie to truly work. Many of the big set pieces in "Legacy" are inspired by similar scenes in "Tron," including a high-speed chase on Light Cycles, shoot-outs with lethal electronic Frisbees and a trip aboard the Solar Sailer, which drifts through the air above The Grid, its butterfly-like wings gracefully opening and closing. Yet the similarities end with the basic concepts: There's a vitality to the action in "Legacy" that "Tron" never achieved, and the 3D makes it a thoroughly immersive experience.
A major added bonus is the sensational score by the duo Daft Punk, which wraps strains of Tangerine Dream and Giorgio Moroder inside the frosty synthesizers of Gary Numan and the thick, vaguely menacing beats of early Human League. It's not the only element of the movie that summons up the spirit of the early 1980s: Production designer Darren Gilford works in a few subtle references to "Blade Runner" (which opened only weeks before "Tron" in 1982) that Ridley Scott scholars will instantly spot.
Take away the astonishing art direction and effects, though, and the plot holes in "Legacy" would be considerably tougher to overlook. If Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis' screenplay is slightly easier to follow than the first installment, it contains almost as much banal dialogue and nearly as many mystifying character motivations.
The set-up is simple enough, with Sam, who thought Kevin either died or disappeared 20 years ago, accidentally following Dad down the same electronic rabbit hole and winding up in an eerie alternative universe populated by humanoid programs that don't have much tolerance for "users" from the outside world. Kevin (played again by Bridges) has taken to living in seclusion on the outskirts of Techno Town, holed up in a hideaway that's a cross between the Batcave and the apartment of the old man at the end of "2001." His companion is Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a lithe warrior with the wide, come-hither eyes of a silent-film star and a slightly asymmetrical pageboy haircut that frames her face marvelously well.
It's never clear exactly what's been going on between Quorra and Kevin (he apparently rescued her from extermination and introduced her to the works of Jules Verne), or if she's a surrogate daughter, a caregiver or a concubine. But there's no missing the bad vibes between Kevin and his digital doppelganger Clu (an incredible, digitally rejuvenated Bridges, looking like he did back in his "Fabulous Baker Boys" days), who was supposed to keep the peace among the various factions on The Grid and has instead become corrupt, even entertaining fantasies of escaping into the "user" world and taking control of it.
"The guy doesn't dig imperfection," Kevin tells Sam. "What's more imperfect than our world?" (Why Kevin has seemingly evolved into Jerry Garcia, sprinkling his conversation with references to "knocking on the sky" and "messing with my Zen thing," also goes unexplained; maybe Bridges couldn't resist revisiting The Dude from "The Big Lebowski.")
There's a credible balance of tension and tenderness between Hedlund and Bridges, and Wilde brings a cool kind of zestiness to Quorra. But the movie's most notable performance comes from Michael Sheen as a leering would-be power broker named Zuse, a maniacal blend of Elton John and Count Dracula. He's not around for long, but he makes an indelible impression as The Grid's resident loose cannon.