Monday, 20 December 2010

Tron: Legacy aka there's nothing creepier than CGI Jeff

She’s not creepy. She’s lovely.

Okay, so I'm a Tron geek. Have been since the original movie came out in 1982.

Back then, when I was twelve, I fell in love with light cycles, identity discs, game grids, IO towers, Space Paranoids...all of it. I had the books, the toys, the posters, the soundtrack. As soon as the 20th anniversary DVD came out in 2002 I bought it. Tron was and still remains one of the most original and distinctive looking films of all time. Sure, the script is pretty basic and unoriginal in its storytelling, but what the script provided was a framework, a context to show us something quite unlike anything we'd ever seen before or since. Though nowadays it's beloved by a small proportion of geeks, Tron was at best only a modest success upon its original release and was widely ignored by moviegoers and critics alike. Even the Academy snubbed it for a best visual fx nom due to it using computers which back then was considered as cheating. My, how times have changed. At the time, almost everyone failed to see Tron for what it was: a major evolutionary step in filmmaking. Over the years the cult of Tron has remained fairly small but always alive with its original followers having grown up and infiltrated the filmmaking establishment. So much so that for the past ten years Disney have been actively considering a sequel. And after a couple of aborted attempts they've finally gone and done it with the result being TRON: LEGACY.

Set in real time circa 28 years after the first film, TRON: LEGACY follows Sam Flynn, grown up son of Kevin Flynn, hero of TRON who suddenly vanished in 1989, as he receives s mysterious message from his missing father and sets out to find him. Said message leads Sam to his dad's old arcade and the hidden lab beneath it where Kevin was secretly building a new computer system, one he believed could change the course of humanity. Pretty soon, Sam presses a wrong button and ends up zapped by a laser…only to wake up inside his father's computer system. Faced with this weird alien world, Sam is soon confronted by its deadly overlord, Clu, a digital copy of his father originally created to help build the perfect system. Like in the original film, Sam then has to fight through various deadly video games including upgraded disc fights and light cycle races before escaping out in to the wider system where he will try and find the answers he seeks as well as a way back home.

Look, TRON: LEGACY is not a perfect movie. Far from it. The pacing is off in places with the film virtually grinding to a halt for a long stretch in the middle. The script is often clunky and is hugely exposition heavy; it keeps telling us stuff instead of showing us stuff. Talk, talk, and talk. Far too much talk that often veers from the corny and cheesy to the overly pompous. Also, some of the scripts many ideas and themes become a tad muddled at times with the entire movie trying to be a lot smarter than it really is, or actually needs to be.

But where TRON: LEGACY succeeds it does so big time.

Apart from one major issue hinted at in this review’s title, quite simply this is one of the most awesome looking films I've ever seen. For pure on screen beauty and imagery and spectacular use of 3D this is living in AVATAR territory. Director Joseph Kosinski is a genuine visual artist. Every frame is exquisitely designed, lit and shot to maximize its impact on your eyeballs. The first sight of The Grid is gob smacking in all its vast dark cyber-stormy glory. Sam being outfitted in his new duds is gorgeous (and the girls aren't half-bad either) with the exciting and inventive disc fight that follows being gleefully giggle-tastic. And by the time the light cycle chase/battle came around my inner twelve year old was jumping for pure adolescent joy. And the spectacle never lets up. Even when the story grinds to a halt mid-way through, the film is still something to behold courtesy of Kosinski's sharp eye for exquisite shot composition, the great sound fx editing and an instantly classic score by Daft Punk, a score that’s so cool and effective it keeps your neck hairs constantly raised.

So, apart from the obvious, what is TRON: LEGACY actually all about? We’re talking themes and subtext here.

Well, its been said that it is a story about fathers and sons. And that's true. It is. But its also about parenting in general and about children's relationships with their primary role models i.e. their parents. Both Sam and Clu are essentially Kevin Flynn's children. Both feel betrayed and abandoned by him. Both feel he broke a sacred promise he made to them. But whereas Sam’s held on to the positive memory of his father and finding out the truth frees him to be the man he needs to be, Clu has basically thrown the mother of all spoiled brat tantrums that only seems to get worse as time goes on. But possibly the film’s strongest theme is the obvious one reflected in its title: what we leave behind us, what effect we’ve had on the world, and primarily how we've raised our children who will, after all, become our ultimate 'Legacy'.

But the film also touches on several other themes. The hubris of man, knowledge versus wisdom, control versus freedom – specifically the freedom of information (very timely in these days of Wikileaks). Also the unpredictability of life and how perfection is a pointless and unattainable illusion. There’s also a fair amount about religion and spirituality and its role in the world. And the religious allegory is piled on rather thickly throughout. For example you could see Clu as Satan to Flynn's God with Sam as Jesus. Clu became bitter and angry over Flynn appearing to sway from the original plan of a perfect system, especially when the new life form, the ISO's, came in to being. Flynn saw them as a miracle to cherish and to learn from. Clu saw them as a dangerous aberration that needed to be destroyed. In the Bible it was God's love of man that made Satan angry and jealous and what started his revolt against Heaven. In TRON: LEGACY, Flynn's affection and wonder at the ISO's is what pushed Clu over the edge and in to rebellion. Clu has since been corrupting the other programs on The Grid (as Satan is supposed to corrupt people’s souls) turning them away from Flynn and the Users, making them in to an army which he intends to use to attack and take over ‘heaven’ i.e. the real world.

Yep, there is a lot going on under the surface of this film. Many will sell it short by saying it is all snazzy visuals and nothing much else. Yes, the subtext and allegory may get a tad muddled at times but it is still there and it is enough to keep the brain ticking over and for most people with half a brain to pick up at least the odd smidgen amidst all the CGI loveliness.

You’ll notice that so far I haven’t mentioned the cast, concentrating instead on the story and the visuals and the technical elements. That’s inevitable because TRON: LEGACY is primarily about the visuals and the techno thrill. But having said that the cast are all fine. To be honest they don’t have much to do as they are all pretty much archetypes with no real depth of character to explore. Jeff Bridges as Flynn is as good as you’d expect the Oscar winning pro to be. He can do this stuff in his sleep and it doesn’t tax him one jot. Garrett Hedlund as Sam is solid and does the job in running and jumping and fighting and delivering the odd dewy eyed moment with daddy as well as innumerable if rather flatly delivered one liners. Michael Sheen gets to have whale of a time camping it up something rotten as a gaudy club owner on The Grid. But of the main cast it is only really the gorgeous Olivia Wilde who gives something a bit more in her role. As Quorra, Wilde is ridiculously sexy and can convincingly kick ass and drive fancy vehicles to the max. But she is also wonderfully innocent, curious and vulnerable in a very childlike way. It is to the credit of the writers that she is never made the love interest for Sam, but is rather treated as a little sister who needs help and protection.

And a special mention must go to the great Bruce Boxleitner, Tron himself.

Bruce is back and plays an important role as Alan and is also very briefly glimpsed in flashback as Tron. Now I love Bruce. He has been two of my greatest on screen heroes ever: Tron and Captain John Sheridan in Babylon 5. Boxleitner’s an old school American TV actor and one time leading man. He’s a good dependable actor with genuine charisma and an always likable and appealing onscreen persona. I rarely see him anymore as he seems to have been consigned to the hell of cheap direct to cable/DVD exploitation movies from the likes of The Asylum. I think the last thing I saw him in was a short guest spot on Heroes a couple years back. And it’s a shame. Bruce deserves better. In fact, one of my major criticisms of TRON: LEGACY is that we don’t get to see more of him as Tron. After all, the film bears his name yet the Tron character stays faceless and seems uncomfortably shoehorned in to his own movie. Surely could have de-aged Bruce ala Jeff Bridges as Clu, couldn't they?

Okay, well, maybe not.

Which brings me on to my final point and probably my biggest problem with the film. Clu.

Jeff does a good job playing his evil alter ego.


He is let down by some of the worst and scariest CGI de-aging ever. Clu appears as Bridges circa 1989 and the likeness itself is very good. The problem is when he starts moving, speaking, looking at things. Clu is a lifeless plastic puppet with the deadeye syndrome times 100. He’s like an Auton from Doctor Who. His eyes are small and dull and dead. That whole part of the face around the eyes doesn’t move right. It doesn’t just look fake it looks downright creepy. Small kids might get nightmares. I know I had to look away a few times. When briefly he is shown in shadow or at an angle then it just about works. But as soon as he his required to act up close to camera (which is a lot) then it looks awful and the creepy shivers started running up and down my spine. Brrr. God knows how they dropped the ball on this. Why couldn’t they just have de-aged Jeff how they did Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in X-Men 3? That looked really good. But, no, they had to go and make a full on CGI creepy Jeff head. Yikes!

So, to sum up, I loved TRON: LEGACY despite its creepy CGI Jeff Bridges and its many shortfalls. Because all of that is more than made up for by the good solid story, interesting underlying themes and the astounding and eye popping visuals and equally eye-popping Olivia Wilde. And the sheer geek factor at seeing light cycles again and me giving a little silent cheer at the fab Bruce Boxleitner co-starring in a $200m blockbuster. But I have no idea how the film will play to mainstream audiences. I mean, this is nerdy, geeky stuff that despite the awesome 3D visuals will probably leave most people cold. It’s sci fi action, sure, but with a bizarre, slightly muddled concept and a strong and precise visual style that borders on the experimental/art house. I expect only middling box office returns as this is definitely not the big rousing crowd pleaser that AVATAR was last year. TRON: LEGACY is, frankly, just too odd and too nerdy to be a huge success, just like the first Tron was. How fitting. 4 (out of 5)



  1. Great review mate. I couldn't have said it better myself (which is why I'm gonna have to direct people from my review to yours). Cheers...that saved me some typing!

  2. Ta. Glad I've saved your fingers some work. :)