Tron: Legacy Is About Being Trapped in a Computer, and Feels Like It

12/16/2010 2:30 PM |

Tron: Legacy
Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Tron (1982) was Disney’s attempt to recreate the blockbuster success of sci-fi spectaculars Star Wars and Star Trek. Though it wasn’t exactly a flop (grossing $33 million on a budget half the size), it fell short of industry expectations and the studio abandoned plans for a franchise. It’s sometimes referred to as a cult favorite, but Tron hasn’t really enjoyed much of a die-hard fan base. Its groundbreaking computer animation dated quickly —as did its affinity for first-generation home computers and early 8-bit arcade games —but the elements that made Tron truly inane are timeless: the nonsensical internal mythology, the embarrassingly canned dialogue, the line readings that somehow made it worse.

But Tron has lived on in popular imagination thanks to shows like The Simpsons and South Park. Its instantly identifiable style (Cartesian-graph landscapes populated by primitive CG objects and day-glow-costumed characters) became a free-floating cultural reference, ironically embraced as kitschy retro-futurism. And all for the better, really. Tron works as a vaguely recollected nostalgia item much more than a feature-length experience (which presumably is why the upcoming Blu-ray restoration won’t be released until sometime next year).

Tron: Legacy, helmed by first-time director Joseph Kosinski, is both a 3D remake and narrative sequel. It replays the structure and set pieces of the original while working in a new plotline that connects the films across the (literalized) generational divide. Our hero is Sean Flynn (life-sized Ken doll Garrett Hedlund), the only child of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, reprising his role), the slacker-hacker who first zapped into a computer three decades ago. Legacy picks up a few years later, with Kevin as a work-obsessed widower and oddball CEO given to Stewart Brand-style utopianism. (“A digital frontier will reshape the human condition!”) But one night he disappears, mysteriously and without a trace.

Skip ahead twenty years. Sean has become an unfulfilled rich kid, pulling practical jokes on daddy’s company (hacking and pirating a next-generation software program on the night of its high-profile launch) while refusing to assume the power his majority-stockholder status entitles him. A mysterious message from his father’s past (delivered via beeper page!) leads Sean to Kevin’s dust-choked video arcade. One secret staircase later, Sean is clicking through DOS screens on an old-school workstation when he too gets laser-pixilated.

It’s not until this point that the 3D kicks into gear. (Woaaah. wormhole!) Sean lands inside the computer’s techno-gothic metropolis, a neon-lit dystopia without a sun (yet somehow lots of fog) and completely devoid of organic matter (except when it’s randomly not). Legacy is technically better executed than Tron, of course, but conceptually it’s a lot less interesting. The original universe soldered together hard-drive materiality (microchip buildings, electric-circuit streets, motherboard cityscapes) with pop-software algorithms (Pong transformed into a gladiatorial arena). Legacy‘s digital universe is a mix between Joel Schumacher’s Gotham and an Apple store.

There are several sequences where sheer visual spectacle and Daft Punk’s electronic score lockstep to awesome cinematic effect. The iconic light-cycle arena of the original, where motor-racing contestants erect mazes of walls in their wake, attempting to trap and force-crash their opponents, is here re-imagined as a multilevel complex with crystal clear on-ramps. The set-piece kicks off with a slow-motion mid-air leap in which Kevin’s light cycle self-assembles, articulating a 3D schematic that rapidly materializes into a fully detailed bike. The technical details are flawlessly rendered. But for all the digital razzle-dazzle, the action scenes sometimes stumble over basic elements of craft: the failure to visually distinguish foot soldiers from key players, or to clearly establish the rules of engagement and laws of physics governing the action. When two characters wipe out and crash in identical ways, why does one quickly recover while the other literally goes to pieces, pixilated to death? It makes the whole game feel rigged. I mean, obviously it’s rigged (a scripted and storyboarded fiction) but our suspension of disbelief requires the progressive unfolding of the action to obey its own rules.

But though Kosinski has some trouble orchestrating movement, he has a richly architectural sense of space that makes seamless, expressive use of dimensional depth. He deploys 3D neither as an ostentatious gimmick (stuff flying at your face!) or a meaningless afterthought. He designs one of the film’s major settings as a mountain-retreat version of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion; its smooth, planar surfaces (plate glass windows, reflecting pools), minimalist furnishings (right down to van der Rohe’s iconic white leather chair and ottoman) and interpenetration of inside and outside space looked so real in Imax 3D that I felt I could have stepped right in.

Kosinski comes fresh from a career in advertising (the highlight of which was a series of funny, ironically lyrical TV spots for Gears of War). He brings with him a predilection for slick, hermetically sealed imagery: polished materials, clean lines, monochromatic effects with carefully placed accents (here, either antifreeze blue or magnum orange-red). But the cumulative effect of Legacy‘s visual style is too unified. Every scene looks more or less the same, icy and antiseptic, like a two-hour breath-mint commercial. There’s no sense of modulation or variation across scenes, of discrete worlds within a world. There are exactly two scenes where the colors red, green or yellow appear (in a banquet spread and a cocktail bar) and they look ostentatiously out of place —the film has become that straight-jacketed in its own style. Kosinski has a talent for composition and a facility with 3D technology (or a really great technical team), but he needs to adapt his short-form aesthetic for the demands of feature-length filmmaking: planning out an entire film and not just polishing the details.

If I’ve avoided discussing the story in Legacy, that’s because it’s a stupid mess of clich éd characters, confused and confusing narrative trajectories, and wordily overwrought exposition that makes little sense. There are four classes of beings in this universe: users (humans), programs (pieces of computer code that look and act just like humans), ISOs (isomorphic algorithms: programs that were not created by a user but spontaneously came into being, acting and looking just like everyone else) and “CLU” (a program doppelganger of the young Kevin Flynn, brought to life as a young Jeff Bridges through creepy computer animation). What this metaphysical genealogy means is totally obscure, despite many nonsense asides about its mind-blowing profundity. “The conditions were right and they came into being! Don’t you know what that means?!” I sure as shit don’t. But never mind philosophical resonance, I’d settle for a clearer understanding of the adventure-film plot. The characters’ short-term goals, overarching motives and deepest fears seem to shift arbitrarily from one scene to the next. At one point an ISO asks Sean, “What are you going to do?”

“I’m a user,” he answers. “I’ll improvise.”

That must have been the screenwriters’ maxim. This tissue of nonsense is the mythological foundation for what will someday become a billion-dollar franchise? (A Disney channel cartoon series and theme-park attraction are already under way.) It makes you wonder how well Disney learned the lessons of the original Tron.

Opens December 17

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