As a two-hour music video set to a kinetic Daft Punk score, TRON: Legacy is mesmerizing. It’s a triumph of art design that’s fully captivating on style alone: pulsating and hypnotic, the music and visuals grab hold of you in a way that feels fresh and new, enveloping the senses for a full two hours.
It invites comparison with the best of science fiction throughout cinema history, from Metropolis to Blade Runner to The Matrix; unlike the original TRON, which employed state-of-the-art (for 1982) special effects inside a more traditional frame, this is truly a visionary work.
There’s just one problem: the story. Clunky, uninvolving, and mostly dull. Four credited writers have delivered an incredibly flat story that is as far behind the original as the visuals are ahead.
Director Joseph Kosinski, in his feature debut, seems to have lifted Christopher Nolan’s tone while missing out on his craft: his TRON is dark, brooding, joyless, and de-humanized, but also devoid of suspense or story tension. It’s impossible to deny the problems with the script and direction here, but Legacy is likely the best film I’ve seen to come from such problematic elements.
It’s comparable to last year’s big December tentpole, Avatar: visually dazzling, potential story concerns. But Avatar, with James Cameron at the helm, clearly worked in conventional terms whether you found it simplistic, hackneyed, or cliché.
TRON has quite the opposite problem: there are plenty of interesting and unique ideas in here, somewhere, they’re just not presented in any tangible way, leaving us feeling disinterested and cold. For this story to succeed, the viewer will have to do all the work; under the influence of psychoactive substances, it could be quite a ride.
Legacy is less of sequel to TRON than a rich re-imagining of its digital landscape; a few characters return, but otherwise this is a wholly new affair. Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) has grown up without a father: dad Kevin (Jeff Bridges) vanished twenty years ago, leaving Sam a highly successful software corporation that the boy couldn’t care less about.
But when old partner Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) receives a page from Kevin’s old arcade, Sam is off to search for his father. Soon, he finds himself transported from his reality into the Grid: a literalized world of the computer, dark and ominous, where computer programs – represented as sentient beings – battle it out for control of the city.
He finds his father, twice: first, as the young CLU, the program his father created years ago who has assumed control of the Grid (Bridges is de-aged to play the ageless part; his waxy, airbrushed features look fine on the grid, less so in real-world flashbacks). Eventually, he finds his real father, an older Obi-Wan-meets-The-Dude Bridges, who has been trapped in the world of the computer for the past 20 years.
Despite the radical story differences, the original TRON is mandatory viewing before seeing Legacy. So little of the philosophy – the relationship between users and programs, the logic of the digital world – is coherently explained here that virgin viewers are going to be straight-up confounded.
Not that Disney wants you to see the 1982 film; an expected blu-ray release didn’t happen, and the DVD is out of print and fetching prices north of $100 on Amazon. I’ve gone back and forth on TRON: Legacy since first seeing it. Is it good? Is it bad? I’m not so sure. It is, as Richard Dreyfuss instinctively declared of his mashed potatoes in Close Encounters, something.
Legacy has rattled around in my brain for days, time during which I’ve re-watched the original and listened to the Daft Punk soundtrack a number of times. I look forward to seeing it again as soon as I can. That’s gotta be worth something.
I do know this: the visuals are stunning. Fetishistic cyberpunk bodysuits, electric lightcycle bikes, giant mechanical devices that dwarf their surroundings, neon identity discs that become deadly weapons. It’s CGI beyond eye candy: an artistic expression that uses computer graphics to stimulate the mind rather than simulate reality.
And the Daft Punk score (the electronic music duo also appear in the film as masked DJs) is something completely new in cinematic terms: part techno cyberpunk, part 80s John Carpenter synthesizer horror, and a track that riffs on Zack Hemsey’s Mind Heist, which notably featured in the Inception trailer, it’s electrifying stuff that runs right through your veins and transforms the cinema into a techno club.
Rarely have feature film composers (this is Daft Punk’s first soundtrack) been given so much creative freedom. How’s the 3D? In a word, worthless. A message before the film begins asks us to put on our 3D glasses while informing us that portions of the film will be in 2D, “as the filmmakers intended.”
The film begins in 2D, then switches to 3D as Sam enters the Grid. Not all of the cyber scenes are in 3D, however, and many that are barely register: at worst, this becomes a distraction, and I frequently found myself lifting my glasses to discover a brighter, more vivid experience. TRON: Legacy is screening in both 2D and (partial) 3D versions, and I’d recommend catching it in 2D.