Sunday, December 19, 2010

Movie Review: "Tron Legacy"

When I was a high school freshman, my family took me on a trip to Disney World. I haven't had the opportunity to go back since the early 1990s, but I remember it being unlike any other theme park I'd been to before or since. The production design on every ride made it feel like you were zipping through another world. There were stunt shows with fantastic sets, special effects and characters dressed in outlandish clothing. It was like spending the week experiencing the highlights of a movie without having to check out and be bothered by things like plot or character.

I thought about that several times when watching "Tron: Legacy," Disney's sequel to its cult-classic 1982 hit, "Tron." The film is a loud and stylish adventure with incredible special effects, some thrilling set pieces and a pulsing, theater-shaking soundtrack by techno band Daft Punk. Seeing it in Imax 3D has moments that are thrilling and borderline epic...but then the characters start speaking. And they rarely stop.

Full disclosure requires me to state that I haven't seen the original "Tron," in which (according to Wikipedia), Jeff Bridges played computer hacker Kevin Flynn, who was sucked into a digital world where he had to engage in deadly light cycle chases and throw colored discs at his enemies. The film didn't exactly set the box office on fire, but it's groundbreaking use of computer generated special effects captured the attention of nerds and future filmmakers, who made the film into a pop culture staple in recent years.

"Tron: Legacy" takes place a few years after Flynn has disappeared again, leaving behind son Sam (Garett Hedlund). Sam has refused to take up his father's mantle as head of ENCOM, a software company that has grown from making video games to becoming a Microsoft-level corporation, with its future hinged on a young mogul (Cillian Murphy--in a 2-minute sequence that basically just exists to let us know the character will play a major role in a third film). Sam spends his days using his trust fund to hack into ENCOM's system and give away free software--his way of honoring his late father's wishes.

When a mysterious pager message sends Sam to his father's defunct and abandoned arcade, he finds himself zapped into a bizarre cyberspace world where computer programs--who look just like people--are forced to compete in gladitorial races and matches. He meets a mysterious and beautiful program (Olivia Wilde) who takes Sam to meet his father, who has been trapped in the computer world for decades, growing a long beard, speaking in hippy-dippy dialogue and basically turning into a digital Buddha. The cyberworld itself is ruled over by Clu (a digitally made character of Bridges' younger self)--a program created in Flynn's likeness to shape the computer world into perfection, although doing so means some sort of compu-genocide. This all somehow devolves into a standard "beat-the-villain/get-to-the-portal/grab-the-disc" thriller that fuels every big budget adventure.

Having not seen the original film, I find myself without the nostalgia that fuels many fans' desire for this movie. And I find myself pretty baffled about the whole concept--having seen "The Matrix" and "Inception," I am not averse to characters' minds being trapped in fantasy worlds. But I'm a little more curious about "Tron," where it seems an entire physical self is digitized. How does that happen? Is there oxygen in the computer world? We see food that Flynn and Son eat...but how did it get in there as well? Is there a laser at the grocery store that zaps ham and fruit into the cyber realm? Much of the plot concerns evil programs trying to get out into the real world--how does that happen? Why is there water in this cyberworld? I get that the people in the computer are programs and not actual humans...but programs exist to serve a function; do computer programs really have the free time to go watch gladitorial matches?

It's best not to think about this and just accept the world of "Tron" as a fantasy world, not a science fiction one. The problem is that the film keeps grinding to a halt to explain the world's history, rules and the other complications that the characters find themselves facing. In a world so full of amazing visuals and ideas, violating the "show, don't tell" rule is unthinkable--but this film keeps stopping to explain everything time and again, with probably a quarter of the film's run time given over to plodding exposition.

The cast is fine, although Hedlund has a bit of the same problem that I have with Sam Worthington--he strikes a good hero's pose and can angrily spout dialogue, but I don't really see much depth to him that makes me want to see him in another role. Wilde plays innocent and excited very well, and her character has a nice moment at the end that is the film's most human moment. Bridges is fine, spouting hippy dialogue ("you're messing with my Zen thing, man") and does a good job playing both his current age and a soulless younger version of himself; but, truthfully, if you want a good Bridges performance, just check out "True Grit."

Most bizarre is Michael Sheen, who channels his inner Bowie for a role as a flamboyant club owner. Putting aside the fact that I don't know why a computer world would have recreational nightclubs, Sheen struts and preens like some sort of glam rock star in a role that he must have thought would be the flashy, funny centerpiece of "Tron: Legacy." But he dials his character's quirks so high that he drowns everything else, making his moments grating and bizarre instead of humorous.

That said, the film isn't without its merits. The cool black and neon computer world is a sight to behold and the action sequences are flashy, fun and exciting. I particularly liked the multi-level, ever-shifting arena where the disc games are held. Daft Punk's score is propulsive and there are times when the movie can be purely enjoyed as a visual and aural spectacle, kind of an abstract music video/stunt spectacular. In theater-shaking Imax 3D, it has moments that approach epic scope, even though in most epics I care about the characters and their quest.

But there's too much confusion and self importance to make "Tron: Legacy" truly memorable. It's best enjoyed as a sensory experience. When the characters open their mouths, you'll want "game over" to come quickly.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.