Friday, December 31, 2010

In Theaters: Tron Legacy

Tron Legacy poster and IMPAwards link
Even though December ceased to be the chief moviegoing season well before I was born, the holidays never feel quite right without one big spectacle that isn’t for kids only. TRON LEGACY is just the right kind of otherworldly escapism for this time of year, but even with that in its favor the picture surprised me. As spectacle, there’s nothing else like it in theaters, and it also delivers on the level of an old-fashioned sci-fi romp. It’s not as satisfying as it could be, which is largely down to it telling a darker story than the original, but this also ends up giving the picture more of an emotional heft than the first. Whether it’s better or not I can’t really say, but it’s something you really need to catch on the big screen- and yes, in 3-D.

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), the programming whiz of the original, has a son Sam (Garrett Hedlund), who grew up hearing how his father developed a virtual reality Grid full of living computer programs, and his plans for the future. Then Kevin vanished into the grid, leaving his software company Encom to be taken over by corporate drones, and leaving Sam with abandonment issues that manifest in various pranks at the expense of the company he’s supposed to be running. When Kevin’s old partner Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) receives a page from the long-abandoned Flynn’s Arcade, Sam goes to investigate, and is quickly zapped by the same digitizer that nailed Kevin in ‘82, and is similarly dropped into the computer world.

The Grid, however, has become a grim place in the meantime, dominated by the tyrannical Clu (Bridges as well), a program Kevin created to help build the perfect system, who has taken perfection too far. He sends imperfect programs off for reprogramming or death in gladiatorial games, and is responsible for the deaths of the ISOs, living electronic entities who arose spontaneously from the Grid programming. In attempting to fight his creation, Kevin was trapped in the Grid and now lives a hermitlike existence on the outskirts, accompanied by the lovely and inquisitive Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who rescues Sam and enables the reunion of father and son. Sam is determined to escape with his father, but Clu is after Kevin’s identity disc, which he believes will give him not only total control over the Grid but access to our world, which he intends to remake in his own image.

My annoyance with the prevalence of blue-and-orange-only compositions in modern cinematography has reached near pathological proportions (it nearly ruined WINTER’S BONE for me until I decided to turn the color off on my TV.) But there are films in which it is actually done well, and this is one of them. The film’s 3-D vistas of neon outlined structures are not only eye-popping, they draw our attention to the shapes of this ever-shifting world. The effects are almost flawless, and especially remarkable in terms of “de-aging” Bridges as Clu; it’s an effect I’ve never seen done well before (it’s always been easier to make people look older), but it holds up here through extended close-ups and subtle changes of expression. The visuals are augmented by a truly magnificent score by electronica band Daft Punk, whose robotic visages make an appearance in a cyber-nightclub.

In films like this it’s traditional to say that the plot is terrible or not worth bothering with, but the story here holds up at least as well as the original’s. On top of the traditional good vs. evil confrontation there’s some genuinely effective and curiously moving material arising from the reunion between a father and his estranged son; Bridges plays it well (as you would expect), and there’s a superb parallel between their relationship and that between Kevin and Clu, who overthrew his creator out of a sense of duty to seek perfection. Unlike the original there’s no obvious parallel between the in-Grid action and the “real world” conflict, but some of the nods to buggy software launches and the open-source movement are amusing.

The major problem I have with this film is that it can’t help but feel a little lonely. The actual cast of characters is surprisingly small, and though I’m sure nobody wanted an annoying comedy sidekick or the like, a few more bit parts would have helped flesh out the world of the Grid. (And on that subject, where’s Bit? Sort of a one-note character but I’m surprised there was no place for him.) I understand economy of character, but epics generally have the whole “cast of thousands” thing going for them, so the relative smallness of this picture feels odd. That said, you do get Michael Sheen channeling Richard O’ Brien in a couple of scenes as a game-grid veteran turned rogue club owner, and Wilde is charming as well.

The original TRON was not a masterpiece, but it holds up well as a solid early-80s adventure movie, and TRON LEGACY not only makes a nice companion piece, it adds a little extra. With the December and January movie landscape looking to be dominated by a mixture of worthy but grim award contenders and pieces of utter patronizing garbage, it’s worth taking some time and paying a bit more cash than usual to get lost in a truly spectacular science fiction world. This film could have easily been a cynical cash-in on 80s nostalgia, but it’s made with a touching sincerity.

Based on characters created by Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird
Story by Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, Brian Klugman, and Lee Sternthal
Screenplay by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz
Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Grade: B+

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