Despite its standing as a cult classic and its place in history for introducing the world of film to computer animation—not to mention the nostalgia some have for it—the original TRON (1982) isn’t a very good movie. It’s full-on ‘80s live-action Disney, with flat direction and a hokey score. The film also hasn’t aged well, from the goofy, naïve way computers are thought to work down to the foam-rubber suits everyone wears. So what does 28 years and 10 times the budget do for a sequel? TRON: Legacy offers some of the same problems, but handled in a less corny way, and all wrapped up in a really slick package.
TRON: Legacy should get points simply for not going the remake route and instead being a full-fledged sequel. We find out in the film’s opening that after the events of the original film, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, reprising his role) became a software mogul, before suddenly disappearing 20 years ago and leaving the future of his company in the hands of his adolescent son Sam. We meet Sam (Garrett Hedlund, Death Sentence) in the present. Sam has apparently grown up to be an unmotivated rich kid. When his dad’s best friend Alan (Bruce Boxleitner, who played the same role in the original) receives a mysterious message from Kevin’s old arcade, Sam goes to investigate, only to find himself accidentally sucked into The Grid, a digital world Kevin had been building as some type of utopia. The problem is The Grid has been taken over by Kevin’s program CLU (played by a youthful, CGI version of Bridges), who, with his need to rid it of imperfections, has taken fascistic control of The Grid.
Most of the plot revolves around Sam attempting to escape The Grid with his father (yes, this is where Kevin disappeared to 20 years ago) and a program named Quorra (Olivia Wilde, The Next Three Days). For the most part, the film is like the original, but more stylized and sophisticated. The religion-versus-science bent of the original has been built into what could be seen as a thinly veiled allegory of the Holy Trinity (this is never really developed), mixed with the sci-fi topics of dystopian societies and the dangers of fascism. The things that remain iconic about the first TRON—the light cycles and identity discs—are all there, along with a handful of in-references that are thankfully never overstated. The film does assume you have experience with the original, meaning the importance of some plot points could be easily lost on newcomers—which is no good in a film that’s short on plot to begin with, but I can’t help but kind of admire it.
But really, the story isn’t all that important. The movie is meant to be a big-budget popcorn spectacle. In this regard, the film mostly works. First-time director Joseph Kosinski cut his teeth making car ads and video games, which makes sense since TRON: Legacy looks and feels like one long Lexus commercial. As awful as that sounds, if you’re in the mood for it, there is a kind of appeal. For the most part (aside from the phony-looking, occasionally bobbleheaded CGI Jeff Bridges), the special effects are top-notch. The score by electronic duo Daft Punk—which mixes electronic music with orchestral arrangements—works well at setting the futuristic mood of the movie. Overall, the film is a shiny, slick, Day-Glo vision of the world to come.
It should be noted that the film moves quite deliberately and methodically (which is probably why the action scenes come off as somewhat clunky), calling to mind Kubrick not only in the way it moves, but also in the way it looks (for example, Kevin’s hide-out resembles the old man’s room at the end of 2001). While the pacing is sure to turn a lot of people off, I found it to work because so much attention is paid to it.
But as a result, characterization takes a back seat (not surprising with this type of movie), which makes some of the performances that much more impressive. Garrett Hedlund in the lead does little more than act as your stock hero, but Jeff Bridges, playing a sort of burnt-out old hippie (think a more sophisticated version of “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski (1998)), does a better job than the movie probably deserves—the fact that he got any kind of emotional reaction out of me in his final scene is astonishing. Plus, it’s not every day you get to see Michael Sheen gnawing the scenery, channeling Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie—right down to the mullet and forehead symbol. I would never call TRON: Legacy a great film, but given the occasional surprises it holds, the movie is worthwhile as entertainment—provided you’re on its wavelength. Rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language.