So, enough about a 28 year old move. What does the new TRON have to offer?
Well, it does succeed where the old TRON failed. It is a visual spectacle to anyone sitting in the audience. But unfortunately it fails where the original succeeded.
Where the original tried to be a good, old fashioned good guys vs. bad guys romp, the new movie strives for profundity and fails miserably. As a headline on fark.com said: "Tron Legacy Director Says He Aimed for Bold Concept- Made Tron Legacy Instead." The religious allegories take center stage instead of the passing wave the first film gave them. Flynn has become a holy man, a zen Lebowsky, trapped in a world of his own creation. This creator has two sons- his artificial progeny Clu, who has fallen from grace and decided to make the world perfect through fascism, and his human son, Sam, who holds the capacity for salvation of this microcosmic world and is transfigured into a simple program who is yet so much more. Like Satan, Clu is the ruler of this fallen world. He walks to and fro, back and forth in the earth, but his mouth doesn't work quite right and his face looks kind of freaky.
And there's the second problem for TRON redux. While AVATAR may have jumped the uncanny valley in a single bound, TRON LEGACY falls to it's death in the chasm. You might believe Clu as a soulless program, but you're never for a minute fooled into thinking he's the embodiment of a young Jeff Bridges. In TRON Bridges was funny, exciting, and droll. His face was expressive and (dare I say it) animated. Clu looks just a little bit more like a young Jeff Bridges than Jason in the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies looked like William Shatner (look it up). I never quite got away from the idea that it was somebody wearing a young Jeff Bridges latex mask. Or that rather than CGI that they had just given Bridges whole face Botox injections. It's a great idea, but everything is in the execution. And whoever thought audiences would be taken up in all this pseudo-religious claptrap or taken in by the digital youthening of the leads should be executed.
And then there's THE MATRIX.
You see, just over a decade ago they made a sequel to TRON. It was called THE MATRIX. It was about a computer uprising, where a programmer was trapped in a computer generated world, and had god-like powers. It came at a time when computers were becoming commonplace, when a worldwide network of them had entered the zeitgeist, and when pseudo-religious claptrap was becoming mainstream. THE MATRIX was the right movie at the right time to catch the imagination of the general public. And it had visually spectacular special effects. Neo fought using Kung-Fu, not day-glo frisbees. Neo lived in a completely realized computer world indistinguishable from reality, not a black light Salvadore Dali painting. Neo fought for the salvation of mankind from a monolithic, inhuman, oppressive, totalitarian state; not to prevent a bunch of 8-bit programs in an antiquated CRAY mainframe from getting into our cell phones and iPads.
And where THE MATRIX and its sequels tried to actually present some of the philosophical questions inherent in the story- mind-body dualism, determinism, messianic complexes, systems of control, whether consciousness is an emergent or intrinsic property, the nature of reality, subjectivism vs. objectivism- TRON LEGACY doesn't even give lip service to any of the ideas contained in its scenario. The closest we get to a philosophical idea is when Flynn says, "The only way to win is not to play." A bon mot so deep and insightful that they lifted it directly from another movie released around the same time as the original TRON- WARGAMES. The world Flynn built in his antiquated mainframe is a molecule deep at best. Shiny, but without substance.
And in addition to not giving the story even the depth of the original TRON, let alone THE MATRIX, they also seem to have borrowed a lot of the look of the film as well. TL's virtual world is a place where the sun never shines, where the sky is filled with roiling clouds all the time, and even interior rooms are dimly lit. It's like the "real world" from the MATRIX only with better urban renewal. The only place in the Mainframe that's brightly lit is Flynn's villa, and it resembles, more than anything else, the hotel room from the end of 2001. That's what passes for a visual metaphor in this movie.
I think that it's pretty clear that the people who made this movie knew they had been beaten to the punch.
And even the one part of the movie that was almost sure to add some depth, that it's in 3-D, didn't come off well for me. A lot of folks online have praised the 3-D effects as adding to the story. I didn't see it that way. Having the parts of the movie set in the real world in 2-D (mostly) and the parts in the computer in 3-D was a neat idea- WHEN THEY DID IT WITH COLOR IN THE WIZARD OF OZ 70 YEARS AGO! Taking a darkly lit movie and darkening it further with 3D, missing the fact that depth of field is compromised in a dark environment anyway, and still missing the fact that out of focus foregrounds and backgrounds are a way to have 2D cameras simulate depth and don't work in 3D films because in a real place your eye is able to focus on whatever it looks at automatically, whether near or far, just adds further to the feeling that nobody associated with the movie really gave a damn about anything except OOHHH LIGHTCYCLES.
The filmmakers must have known this was a problem. Before the movie started they had a disclaimer (here I quote from memory, so it may not be entirely accurate): "There are parts of this movie that were shot in 2-D and parts that were shot in 3-D. We realize this is going to be weird and disorienting to the audience so we're asking you to keep your glasses on and just go with it. Let's face it, we don't really know what we're doing. And that Cameron dude came along last year and changed all the rules and how were we supposed to know that was going to happen after we were two years into production? Anyway, we fucked up. Just go with it, like we said. You've already paid for the ticket so what have you got to lose? And by doing this little disclaimer where we claim that we meant to do it all along, we can say that it isn't us, it's you if you spend most of the movie wondering why things look shitty."
Now, don't get me wrong. I got a thrill out of seeing the old Lightcycles updated. I enjoyed seeing programs on the game grid shattered into cubes. I liked the new Solar Sailor, the dogfight with the virtual AT-10, the new lightcycles defying gravity and acting like, well, REAL motorcycles (except for the gravity defying part). I'm as much a victim of geekstalgia as anybody. And there were a couple of nice things about the movie. Olivia Wilde is pretty. And I'm a sucker for bowl haircuts. Michael Sheen was entertaining as Ziggy Stardust (the Merovingian? Oh yeah, Zuse), the bar owner. It's nice to see him getting work impersonating Brits besides Tony Blair. Garrett Hedlund is fine in a pretty flat role, although he keeps morphing from looking like Trip from Star Trek: Enterprise when shot straight on to Jon Stewart when shot in profile. Unfortunately Jeff Bridges, who was the standout performance in the original and who I like in just about everything, sleepwalks through the whole thing. Maybe he's overdosed on the Botox they gave him for the Clu scenes.
So what's left to say? TRON LEGACY isn't a bad movie if all you want is eye candy, lots of shiny vehicles going fast, and attractive people dressed up in funny costumes saying things between trips in other shiny vehicles going fast. And there isn't anything wrong with that. But if you are looking for anything more, it just ain't there.