Tron and Tron Legacy: The Secret, Scandalous Lives of Computer Programs Exposed!

OK, so maybe the title of this review of Tron Legacy isn't that inspired, but the movie itself sure is. In a nutshell, Tron Legacy is a fantastic film--both as a sequel to its 1982 predecessor and as a 3-D movie experience. I'm a big fan of man vs. machine stories, so the original Tron's ambitious idea of literally putting man inside of the machine as the setting for this conflict has been an intriguing, unusual one. Tron Legacy continues to explore this concept in engaging new ways, amongst a virtual landscape that both echoes and expands upon the ideas and environments portrayed in the first movie. Read on for my complete review, along with a look back at the first Tron movie. I suppose I could have written this review without mentioning the original film--it's pretty clear that the makers of Tron Legacy didn't want to rely too much on the first film when crafting the sequel's narrative--but it's hard to truly appreciate the significance of Tron Legacy without discussing Tron.

If anything, Tron was the most bizarre, surreal film about corporate-sponsored software piracy ever made. It was almost like a digitized Schoolhouse Rock kind of explanation of how corporate monopolies and ill-gotten ownership of intellectual property will ultimately hinder technological innovation and creativity. Tron's usage of real issues within the computer industry as the launch point for its narrative is one of the things that sets it apart from other man vs. machine narratives, as opposed to narratives where machines suddenly become self-aware without any explanation and either want to be just like people or want to kill as many people as possible.

Of course, the concept of everyday reality only goes so far in Tron. The movie quickly shifts from a tale of corporate corruption to a fantasy tale set in a neon-lit, anthropomorphized digital world where computer programs look, talk and act (sort of) like people. Essentially, Tron is the Wizard of Oz (with a few touches of Gulliver's Travels here and there) for the computer geek crowd--nothing more, nothing less. Even watching the actors in Tron who had to play the anthropomorphized computer programs is really no different than seeing the talking scarecrows, tin men and animals that populated Oz. If you approach the world of Tron--be it the original movie, its spin-off games, comic books and novels, or its movie sequel Tron Legacy--the same way you approach Oz (particularly L. Frank Baum's original books), Alice in Wonderland, or a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm (or even the Star Wars movies for that matter), you should find something to appreciate in this familiar yet alien world. For example, I’m pretty sure that South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone understand this, which explains why their recent Tron-esque parody of Facebook worked so well.

I'm convinced that many viewers and movie critics don't like Tron largely because they can't wrap their heads around the notion of using the insides of a computer as a setting for a fantasy narrative. This could be because, to follow some schools of thought in film criticism, such a "high concept" film where people are transported into machines where they can see their digital creations face to face should have intellectual ambitions akin to 2001 or Primer; if they don't, so the thinking seems to go, then these films are nothing more than empty, mindless exercises in special effects. It could also be that far too many people are still too intimidated by computers to think of them as a setting for whimsical (and sometimes dark) fantasy. For those reasons, I can see why some have summarized the Tron movies as just "people trapped in video games"; while it's not an entirely inaccurate statement, it nevertheless reflects the hesitancy (or outright refusal) of some to openly apply their imaginations to what they are seeing on the screen.

If Tron was the Wizard of Oz for the digital era, then Tron Legacy is the Return to Oz. Tron Legacy is darker and more nuanced than its predecessor, but it's still using the virtual world of computers and the programs that inhabit them as the backdrop for an action-adventure fantasy--and what a backdrop it is. Vehicles appear out of thin air, structures have transparent, layered interiors, landscapes stretch out into an infinite darkness, and the program people shatter like glass whenever they are severely injured or killed. This is one of those films that really should be seen in 3-D; it makes the world of Tron Legacy that much more amazing and engrossing, adding an deeper sense of presence to the movie's virtual reality that's more ruled by the flexible logic of computer programming and digital space than the laws of physics.

Despite its roots in science fiction fantasy,Tron Legacy does flirt with certain aspects of "serious" science fiction, particularly when the initial action ends and Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) finally finds his father Kevin (Jeff Bridges). These scenes take on a feel of melancholy and regret, an atmosphere common in other science fiction narratives where characters are forced to confront the reality that the technology that they believed would bring a new era of utopia for everyone simply cannot. (The Reavers and Miranda subplots in the TV show Firefly and its movie sequel Serenity immediately come to mind.) Towards the end of the movie, we see flashes of confused anguish in the character Clu 2.0 (also played by Bridges), the rouge program created by Kevin, that is somewhat similar to the a confused existential anguish expressed by the android characters of Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Blade Runner and David (Haley Joel Osment) in A.I. Also, the character of Quorra (Olivia Wilde) and the concept of "Isos" skirt the area of real-world computer research known as artificial life (or Alife), but only in a vague, fleeting manner.

For as impressive as it is, Tron Legacy does has some flaws. While there are plenty of nods to the first film, most of them are done either visually or through brief hints in the dialogue. In contrast, a stronger connection would have fleshed out the underlying ironic tragedy that no matter how much more noble, talented and good-hearted Kevin is than his nemesis in Tron, Ed Dillinger (David Warner), he winds up even more powerless as the result of his efforts than Dillinger was at the end of the movie. In fact, the virtual world created exclusively by Kevin evolves in Tron Legacy into something very similar to the virtual world in Tron that was ruled by Dillinger's programs, the Master Control Program (MCP) and Sark.

Bruce Boxleitner reprises his roles of Alan Bradley and Tron but both characters don't get much screen time, while Cindy Morgan (who played Lora Baines and Yori in Tron) is completely absent from the sequel. I guess it would've been too much to include some footage of the mock Encom press conference event at WonderCon 2010 last April, which featured both Boxleitner and Morgan in person as their human Tron characters, as part of Tron Legacy. (Bummer.)

Oddly, for all of its visual sophistication, one of the sequel's biggest problems is the "de-aging" of Jeff Bridges. While it doesn't interfere with Bridges' performances as Clu 2.0 or the younger Kevin in flashback scenes, it is somewhat distracting in its inconsistency. In comparison, the de-aging effects for Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in X-Men: The Last Stand were more convincing, and that film pre-dates the release of Tron Legacy by over four years.

Overall, Tron Legacy is a great 3-D sci-fi fantasy experience to see at the theaters this holiday season. For more Tron awesomeness, pick up the Tron Legacy soundtrack by Daft Punk. To learn more about the events that happened between Tron and Tron Legacy, check out the Tron: Evolution video games and the Tron: Betrayal graphic novel. Also, click here to read Wired magazine's coverage of Tron Legacy (which unfortunately overlooks Tron's other sequel, Tron 2.0).


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