Tron Legacy is, in many ways, an absolutely perfect sequel. It’s a perfect sequel because, like its predecessor, it pushes the boundaries of visual effects, is bursting with interesting ideas, expands upon the world established in the original, and features another great performance by Earth’s Favourite Human Being, Jeff Bridges. It continues the story almost at the point the original left off, choosing after a short prologue to fast forward from 1989 to present day, melding the stories together almost seamlessly. Unfortunately, it’s also the perfect sequel to Tron because just like that film, it never really knows what to do with any of its real strengths; it relies too heavily on spectacle to worry about, say, emotionally connecting with its audience and, for all of its big ideas, never really amounts to much more as a plot than a ‘chase this, now chase that’ type of affair. What makes it so frustrating is that when it works, it really works. The real shame is that it just doesn’t do it often enough, and falls into exactly the same traps that the original did.
Picking up shortly after the events of the original, Kevin Flynn (Bridges) – now CEO of Microsoft ENCOM – suddenly vanishes, leaving his young son to be raised by grandparents. Twenty years later, that now-adult son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is technically in charge of the same company but plays no part in their business, save for a prank he plays on them every year. Following a visit from his father’s trusted friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, also reprising his role), he decides to investigate a mysterious page message which seems to have been sent from Kevin Flynn’s long-defunct arcade. It is here that Sam finds an underground computer lab, and is unwittingly pulled into The Grid, a dense cyber-world populated by programs on the brink of a revolution against users, from which his father was never able to escape. To avoid the same fate, Sam must not only fight for survival in The Games – gladiatorial combat for the Xbox generation – but also try and find out exactly what became of his dad, and overcome his captor: CLU, the leader of the electronic revolution, a program made in Kevin Flynn’s own image.
Hold hands if you want dudes, no one’s judging.
Let’s face facts for a moment. We can’t pretend that there is a single reason that the original Tron has endured besides the iconography of its design. The story is equally as flimsy as the one I’ve just described but the look of the thing was, especially in 1981, incredible; the look of the costumes, of the ships, of the Disc Wars and, of course, the Light Cycle races have remained in the public’s consciousness for 30 years, and here’s why – regardless of anything else, they’re just fuckin’ cool. If there was ever a reason to see Legacy, it was to see how these amazing concepts could be realised using today’s technology and to its credit, it delivers a visual experience quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Director Joseph Kosinski creates an electronic wonderland, every surface as smooth and shiny as a new Mac and mysteriously black-lit, with fizzing neons illuminating every contour. While the environment of The Grid is quite breathtaking itself, it’s perfectly complimented by its peripheral designs. The updated costumes and vehicles are amazingly realised, not so much outright changed as simply layered with a level of beauty and detail which is quite breathtaking to behold, and while the film is far from perfect – it barely scrapes by as ‘good’ – it’s worth seeing just to experience The Grid as a world because it truly is like nothing cinema has ever seen. And as we all know by now, this bold vision is exquisitely complimented by a mesmerising score courtesy of French dance supremos Daft Punk, and besides convincing Bridges to return, this may have been the masterstroke of the filmmakers – their epic, pulsing soundtrack is perhaps the key to the whole film, undercutting every beat of the story with exactly the right tone, and defibrillating the film to life whenever it threatens to become stale. It’s a stunning fusion of cinema and electronica, and it’s absolutely exceptional.
Shiny Unhappy People
The key cast members, too, are generally good (with two exceptions which I’ll get to momentarily); I feared Garrett Hedlund would prove to be not much more than a dull pretty-boy, but he manages to carry the film as its lead with the same curious mix of charm and confusion mined by Keanu in The Matrix. Olivia Wilde is also good as Quorra, a rogue program who is aiding Flynn – besides her stunning looks, she projects an adorable naivety into a character fascinated by ‘reality’ as a concept as well as bringing the required amount of badassery, and I’m keen to see how she fares in this summer’s ‘Cowboys & Aliens’. And Bridges is, of course, wonderful as Flynn Prime. While I’ve seen some critics accuse him of simply rehashing his legendary ‘Dude’ persona, I think there’s much more to his performance than that; while his dialogue is drenched in hippy-lingo and often very humorously archaic, there’s a subtle, inherent sadness to Flynn – a man completely out of touch with reality, and filled with both joy and regret that his young son has become a 27 year old man without him, a prisoner of his own creation. It’s pretty damn great.
“That glow I’m basking in? It’s called UNIVERSAL ACCLAIM.”
Not so stellar is Michael Sheen as Castor, owner of the ‘End of Line’ club in The Grid, who the characters must meet on their journey. As an actor he’s usually on the money, but he does a woeful turn here, pitching Castor as an effete OTT Brit and chewing scenery like he hasn’t eaten for months (with the possible exception of ham). It’s a glaring misstep which undoubtedly shows Kosinski for the young, debut director that he is, because for all of the wonders of the world he creates, I’m not entirely convinced he’s figured out how to direct actors yet, and maybe a more experienced hand would’ve helped Sheen rein it to something more befitting Legacy’s overall tone. And lastly, unfortunately, we come indirectly back to Bridges. As well as playing Flynn, Bridges is also CLU – a mirrored version of Flynn from the 80’s, and therefore much younger than Bridges is now. The decision to make the character’s face completely CGI may have been a reasonable one (after all, a similar effect was achieved to great effect in 2006’s X-Men 3) but it is, sadly, largely unconvincing here. It looks fine as long as CLU isn’t speaking, but as soon as the mouth and eyes have to mimic the expression of the dialogue, the whole effect falls apart and leaves the viewer feeling more like they’re watching an expensive videogame cutscene than a living, breathing character. This could perhaps be forgiven if CLU was the only program character to expose their face (most of them wear sinister black helmets) and was intended to be a middle ground between program and human but that blatantly isn’t the case, and while the rest of the visuals are outstanding, CLU is an unfortunately dominant presence throughout the film which never persuades the viewer it’s anything more than pixels.
I guess CLU stands for ‘Creepy, Largely Unimpressive’
And that, I suppose, is the biggest failing of Legacy – that for all of its psychological musings on creation, existence and sentience, it never elevates to anything more than a showcase of dazzling images and sound, and falls flat whenever it does try to say something. The Disc Wars and Light Cycle battles and airbourne chases are thrilling, sure, but when there’s no real pounding heart for the audience to warm to, it genuinely hurts the overall experience. The irony here is that the story is essentially about the triumph of the human spirit – of the soul – over autonomy and reason, and ultimately Legacy proves to be rather shallow and soulless itself. It’s spectacular but ultimately empty, a theme-park ride of a film; it has its thrills, but you’ll probably only take the ride once.