Film Review: Tron: Legacy

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Together in Electric Dreams

(Tron: Legacy, Joseph Kosinski, US, 2010, 127mins)

Some may call it an invidious comparison, but I suspect this once in a generation Tron sequel will be regarded thirty years hence, and possibly a lot sooner than that, as many see the original film now – threadbare, not particularly memorable and heavily reliant on its design and visual effects for impact, a crutch that will only turn brittle and snap with the passing years.

Steven Lisberger’s 1982 original was a toothless simpleton when it came to anything approaching story and character, but in fairness to him, he was more interested in tapping into the then novel universe of arcade games rather than writing a parable for the ages, placing his protagonist inside one of those chunky coin-ops into which we’d sink our Mother’s giro money and when that was gone, the “emergency” fund which was supposed to pay for food in the event that Daddy’s maintenance cheque once again bore its rubber soul.

Lisberger had little or no interest in getting his hero involved in a polygon-ic spree only to then subordinate the experience to something as bland as the human condition, or drama, or humour, instead gambling that the electronic backdrop would more than sate his audience’s techno-lust. Consequently, the memory of Tron and its iconic images of light cycles and Space Invader style 3D ships has become more loved than the film itself. Pop culture cultivated the brand and where there’s a brand there’s a big fat cash cow waiting for its teats to be yanked. Go on, yank a teat!

One can understand the attraction of revisiting Tron for today’s filmmakers, technology now allowing the experience to be credibly resold. In 1982 the notion of a digital world in which scanned humans took their place amongst the CG bric-a-brac was a fantasy. In 2010 the promise of the original movie can be literally fulfilled, including a rendering of Jeff Bridges’ fate from the first instalment, in which he’s reproduced within the simulation in his Eighties’ guise to creepy and lifeless effect. The spectacle’s the thing, and all else can quietly fuck off while it’s masticating each frame.

As with the original film, it’s possible to admire, maybe even love the world that’s been created while despairing of what goes on therein. Version 2.0 is retro chic and quite beautiful – clean lines, neon strips, backlight and strong colours; it’s cold and utilitarian, much like the screenplay, a world of glass and electricity. Augmentation comes in the form of a heart pumping soundtrack by French electro-pop outfit Daft Punk; the perfect compliment to these plugged-in vistas.

If apologists for the original film could explain away its join the dots narrative by noting the relative simplicity of its parent games, then the makers of Tron: Legacy would be conscious that modern gamers expect a great deal more from their simulated adventures. Consequently there’s a conspicuous attempt to add emotional, philosophical and mythological layers to this second outing deemed surplus to requirements in the first; a father/son arc, a fascist allegory involving the extermination of electronic lifeforms and a lot of staring into the middle distance and realising the folly inherent in subordinating the human to the machine. A blink and you’ll miss it reference to John Badham’s Wargames, another Eighties tech-flick that explored the contrast between Mother and Motherboard with greater success, only serves to remind us that the theme’s been explored with greater warmth and humanity elsewhere.

Jeff Bridges, returning as both Kevin Flynn and a digital likeness of his thirty something self, has been imprisoned inside the grid since 1989, leaving behind son Sam, not to be confused with the Son of Sam for legal reasons. Having these two users trapped on the grid carries with it the promise of an explorative relationship between the man and his most successful ejaculation, an emotional arc between a character that’s been cut off from humanity for three decades and the boy he left behind. Unfortunately, said backstory is little more than a device to get us to cue up Digital Domain’s newest showreel and keep watching. Thirty years ago, Bridges’ Flynn was a cocky but likeable young programmer, more a type than a man but watchable nonetheless. In contrast his son, manifestly not brought to life by Garrett Hedlund, seems to have been cast solely to moisten vaginas. He’s an insufferable bore, seemingly disinterested in the circumstances of his Father’s disappearance, superficially curious at best when he learns the truth and afflicted with a malady that prompts him to speak exclusively in action movie clichés.

Bridges, to his credit, modulates his performance, contrasting his despotic double’s calculating coldness with his human counterpart’s mix of The Dude and the AC-DC messiah from Peter Medak’s Ruling Class. He even manages, with scant support from the clunking words that have been stuffed into his mouth, to wring a moment of pathos out of the final confrontation between Flynn and Clu, in which the bad program’s status as the evil son, perhaps the true legacy of the title, is addressed to good effect.

If you’re minded to play mythology bingo while you watch, there’s plenty of mileage to be had from the biblical undercurrent. Flynn’s referred to as “the creator” throughout, and manages to look suitably Nazareian. Clu and Sam might be Cain and Abel, though it wouldn’t do to kill the good son in this version of course, and much is spoken of Flynn’s new world posing a threat to accepted scientific, philosophical and religious ideas. Still, thank God there’s no prophecy to contend with.

Unfortunately the main existential question for cinemagoers is what, if anything, is Tron: Legacy actually for? The sequel’s filmmakers haven’t managed to solve the problem that blighted the original – namely once we get our characters on the grid, then what? There’s more incident than before, the action flitting between more locations, though one of them is best avoided as it contains a woefully camp Michael Sheen, but it sticks closely to the original film’s trajectory, never developing its own ideas and consequently, though the senses are aroused, the mind is left to wander, lamenting why a screenplay twenty eight years in development is so badly underwritten. The game may have changed, so says the marketing, but it’s still being played by Robots. If we’re ever to return to the grid, let’s hope it’s had the benefit of a human touch while we were away.

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