Tron: Legacy works as both a remake and a sequel, which explains why the graphics at the beginning read “Tron” while the end credits list “Tron: Legacy” as the title. It seems Disney is hoping to turn the 30-year-old property into a new series, and the result is not unlike a Frosted Mini-Wheat: my serious side can’t help noticing how much time was spent reinventing old set pieces, but the kid in me loves the way the movie expands on some of the franchise’s key themes and characters, redefining them in relation to fatherhood.
The film opens on the night before Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) disappears, as the latter explains the events of the first Tron (1982) to his six-year-old son, Sam, whose age strikes me as somewhat unlikely, given his old man was still hung up on Lora at the time of conception. At any rate, it’s a clever way to bring the audience up to speed, though I imagine newcomers may still scratch their heads at some of the visual references such as the condo above Flynn’s Arcade and Emcom Tower’s ridiculously thick backdoor.
The plot kicks in 21 years later with Sam (Garrett Hedlund) following a lead regarding his father’s whereabouts and finding his way to the Grid, an improved version of the digital universe that made Tron a cult classic. Kevin redesigned this world in the hopes of revolutionising the human condition, but his creations trapped him within because, well, that’s what happens when you play God in a sci-fi yarn. In keeping with the original, Tron: Legacy criticises man’s need to impose order on the divine beauty of creation.
At the heart of the movie lie three filial relationships, each revealing a different facet of Kevin. The first involves Sam, who refuses to take over his father’s role as CEO of Emcom. This echoes Kevin’s own passivity in the Grid, with both characters letting ruthless megalomaniacs corrupt a legacy that’s rightfully theirs. Their reunion is touching, and I like the way Kevin’s quirky speech patterns start creeping back the more time he spends with his son, as if Sam’s very presence was reigniting his sense of wonder: “Bio-digital jazz, man!”
The second child is Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a program Kevin raised as his own after losing control of his utopia. As one of the few citizens of the Grid still capable of independent thought, she represents her adoptive father’s redemption, the unpredictable gift of creation, otherwise known as inspiration, please forgive the alliteration. Plucky and childlike, the character also serves as a convenient exposition generator for the story’s more ethereal notions. “Chaos: good news,” Kevin tells her, as if speaking to a slow member of the audience.
Order, or bad news, comprises the agenda of the final offspring, Clu, to whom Kevin assigned the task of creating the perfect system. Like many zealots before him, the program somehow took it as license to commit genocide and rule his people with an iron fist. “I executed the plan,” he complains. “As you saw it,” corrects Kevin, implying that creation itself embodies perfection and that order is just a way to anthropomorphise its miracle. In essence, this is the same conflict as in the original Tron, except Dillinger partially coded Master Control Program, justifying the animated dreidel’s more worldly concerns. Clu, on the other hand, was fully created in Kevin’s image, so his mad ambitions stem from our hero’s own arrogance.
The digital puppet playing Clu is itself a fascinating creature. It sort of looks like a young Jeff Bridges if Jeff Bridges walked around without a soul. In the Grid, this proves a non-issue, since every hint of computer-generated trickery reinforces the film’s conceit. In fact, I often caught myself forgetting Clu’s virtual nature. Unfortunately, the puppet also portrays Kevin in a couple of flashbacks, and a number of shots plunge head first into the uncanny valley.
On a related note, despite the gorgeous designs, I find the digital world a bit too similar to our own, what with the clouds and dusty landscapes, and prefer the 1982 film’s more impressionistic approach. Still, I can’t deny the new Grid’s dreamlike atmosphere, owing in large part to Daft Punk’s innovative score. Consider the scene in which four women prepare Sam for the games, the way the melody incorporates their footsteps. There are also a lot of silences, moments in which characters contemplate their environment without words or cheesy musical cues.
Like its predecessor, Tron: Legacy focuses on ideas and splendour, not melodrama. Instead of yet another epic battle between two endless armies, it delivers as its climax an intimate family reunion of sorts, with Kevin and his three children each making their final stance. Even the franchise’s titular character gets left out somehow, much to the chagrin of supercilious cinephiles who all seem to forget the valiant hero was an incredible bore anyway.
Actually, I like how the movie handles Tron, providing a dramatic excuse to shove him to the side while keeping a clever parallel with his creator, Alan (Bruce Boxleitner), in the real world. Moreover, the program is conveniently positioned for major character growth, should the series continue. I just wish the designers had made his costume more distinctive, as I kept confusing him with bit players: “Oh, my God, did they just kill Tron?!” Nope, wrong program.
As I’m writing this, gleeful bloggers everywhere are panning this new Tron, calling it a story-challenged embarrassment with nothing to offer besides pretty lights. That strikes me as odd, given I just typed a thousand words or so on the film, only seventy-seven of which pertain to the special effects. I suspect critics are letting their preconceptions taint their judgment, favouring vindication over an enjoyable cinematic experience. Sure, the visuals are sweet, but the movie’s also got healthy narrative fibre for anyone willing to let go of pride and embrace creation. Ironically, that’s the whole point of Tron: Legacy. As Kevin Flynn would put it, “you have to remove yourself from the equation.”