Thursday, December 23, 2010

TRON: Legacy / *** (PG)

Kevin Flynn/Clu: Jeff Bridges
Sam Flynn: Garrett Hedlund
Quorra: Olivia Wilde
Alan Bradley/Tron: Bruce Boxleitner
Jarvis: James Frain
Gen: Beau Garrett
Castor/Zuse: Michael Sheen

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Joseph Kosinski. Written by Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz and Brian Klugman & Lee Sternthal, based on characters created by Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird. Running time: 127 min. Rated PG (for sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language).

Almost 30 years ago the motion picture business was revolutionized by a little movie called “TRON”. It was a confusing movie to the public at large with its techno-babble dialogue involving “programs” and “users,” but it gave us images unlike any we’d seen before. Many weren’t sure what to make of it. Some praised it as revolutionary. If you look back at it today, it may still seem strange, and it certainly won’t look like an amazing technical achievement. But, that’s what it was.

The original “TRON” marked the birth of CGI as a filmmaking tool. In so, it gave us just about everything the modern special effects driven blockbuster depends on today. That’s a lot for a sequel to live up to 27 years after the fact. To most of today’s audience, some of whom may not even realize that “TRON: Legacy” is a sequel to anything, the new movie will far surpass the original. To those who understand the term ‘legacy’ a little better, it’ll be a hell of a lot of fun to look at, but somewhat lacking in the substance department.

“TRON: Legacy” looks magnificent. It’s one of the rare 3D movies that actually uses 3D as a storytelling element. It involves the cyber world of technology mogul Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges reprising his role from the original “TRON”). As a child, Sam (Garrett Hedlund, “Friday Night Lights”) listened to the stories his father, Kevin, told him of entering the “grid”, in literal terms, of a technological world of programs and games. Kevin was actually able to visit the personified programs in the computer world he had created. Sam was in awe of his father, but one day the elder Flynn disappeared.

Twenty years later, Sam is more interested in perpetrating cyber crimes against his father’s company than he is in running it. When Kevin’s former business partner, Alan (Bruce Boxleitner also reprising his role from the original film), receives a page from Kevin, he gives Sam the keys to Kevin’s secret office. There, Sam is transported to the very cyber world his father created and finds that his father’s stories were true. . This is when the 3D kicks in, improving upon a virtual cyber world that is already far more impressive than that of the original “TRON”.

Sam soon learns that his father’s world was taken over by his own program, Clu (also played by a digitally altered Bridges to look younger). Clu sees Sam as the same threat that he did Kevin and places the real human in the games played by the programs. All the games are based on the same models as those seen in the original “TRON”, but they’ve been amped up by thirty years of special effects developed from the same technology that the original film introduced. The light bikes are spectacular improvements upon the original, involving a multi-leveled arena that brings a new complexity to the game of riding your opponents into an inescapable corner.

Sam is saved from the games by the tough and beautiful Quorra (Olivia Wilde, “The Next Three Days”). She brings him to his father, now an exile in the very world he created. Sam is surprisingly accepting of all the events that take place in these early passages. Kevin seems just as unimpressed that his son has shown up in his cyber world after twenty years. But then, when you’re trapped in a virtual reality where programs combat each other in the form of video games, why should anything come as a surprise?

As has become apparent in this review, “TRON: Legacy” is a bit heavy on plot. As action plots go, it does a good job getting the movie from one effects sequence to the next. The storyline works and the visuals will thrill audiences going to see an action extravaganza. What this sequel lacks are the solid story themes of the original. It doesn’t have any problems presenting ideas, like the Savior theme for Sam, or a twist on the Prodigal Son theme by turning the father into the prodigal figure. But, we’re presented with too many different thematic possibilities and no overall defining theme. By the end the filmmakers can’t decide whether father or son is the Christ figure and they miss a large opportunity to fulfill the Creator/Creation storyline provided by the dual Bridges roles.

“TRON: Legacy” has been called a let down by many critics. While it does present a passable action storyline and employs some incredible special effects, it’s a let down in terms of science fiction themes. The fact that Jeff Bridges is able to play the misguided program Clu here, looking the same way he did more than twenty years ago is an amazing cinematic feat with implications this film doesn’t even begin to explore. The fact that the same actor can play a role in his twilight years looking as he would’ve at an earlier time in the same film career is… well, quite mind boggling. Here, it’s handled as if Bridges is just playing another villain; with a demise not unlike any villain, despite the fact that it is at the hands of an older good version of the same actor. Perhaps, I make too much of this particular aspect; but, something beyond great action and special effects could’ve elevated this film from merely good to great.

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