'Tron: Legacy' Hardly Worth the Wait
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Rare is the costly box-office flop that actually gets a sequel, let alone a sequel almost 30 years after the fact. But that's Disney, and that's "Tron," for you. The big hook for the 1982 original was that it was the first major motion-picture feature to have computer-animated effects, which now are as common as McDonald's hamburgers. But at the time, they were very novel and promised to be revolutionary ... and were, in practice, somewhat sleek but also on the rudimentary and one-dimensional side. But they did have a certain hard-to-quantify zing. The characters and story line designed to showcase these effects, which took place in a reality that was simulated by a computer itself (nice self-reflexivity there!), were pretty cheesebally, but were buttressed by a lotta fancy lingo concerning cybernetics and what eventually became known as virtual reality. The lead role was played by Jeff Bridges, not-quite-hot off of his fine work in Ivan Passer's underseen thriller "Cutter's Way." Bridges was still something of a cult favorite at the time, and some of the young, snob-aspiring movie nuts of that time -- I was one of them -- wondered what the heck he was doing in such an enterprise. Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan, on the other hand, seemed to fit right in. As if it mattered.
In any event, the reaction my 22-year-old self had to the original "Tron" was twofold, and went like this: "Goofy, but kind of neat in parts. Cindy Morgan is hot." And after that came the video game, which was, in fact, totally neat and which I believe popularized the "Tron" mythos to the extent that this sequel became viable.
The point of this sequel, "Tron: Legacy," at least from the studio's point of view, as far as I can tell, is to create a 21st-century statement on state-of-the-art computer-animation effects; hence the "grid" of the world of "Tron" is here rendered in 3-D and in some cases the huge-screen IMAX format. And Bridges is back, digitally de-aged in some scenes. In other scenes, he's his more grizzled, contemporary self and the biggest non-effects-related fun you get out of this movie is seeing him play the character of cyber-pioneer Flynn as a kind of genuine genius version of, yes, Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski. As a Zen master of cyberspace (albeit an exiled one), he has a very able amanuensis in Quorra (pronounced "Cora"), whose identity-discus throwing skills are matched only by the sexy insouciance of her perfect post-modern pageboy coif. She's played by the very fetching Olivia Wilde, late of television's "House."
Here the fancy lingo is updated to sandwich in real-science notions, notions that have the potential to put "everything," including religion and the fundamental way we understand humanity itself, "up for grabs." But the film's treatment of these ideas is not nearly as exciting as what the characters describe them as being. Aside from conceptually unimaginative, the film is also derivative (a cyber-quisling played by Michael Sheen could have come straight out of not "The Matrix" itself but one of its awful sequels) and curiously humorless: The robot-masked fellows from Daft Punk (who contribute an admittedly excellent music score) turn up in cameos as DJs, and the bit isn't played for a laugh.
It's not true, though, that the film is entirely unfunny: That the film's hero, Flynn's not-quite-wayward son, is an anti-corporate proselytizer for, and would-be provider of, "free" content is pretty hilarious, coming from a concern that likely wouldn't rule out the use of nuclear weapons to prevent Mickey Mouse from ever entering the public domain. And, truth to tell, some of the effects set pieces do get the job done, particularly the stuff with the light cycles.
So, in a nutshell, my 52-year-old self's reaction to "Tron: Legacy": "Goofy, but kind of neat in parts. Olivia Wilde is hot. "
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.