Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, Beau Garrett, Michael Sheen, James Frain, Daft Punk
The sequel to Steven Lisberger's 1982 genre-defining film TRON has been a long time coming. The original movie was one of the first films I ever saw in 70mm at a cinema in Leicester Square in London, and the cinematic experience doesn't get much better than that, even now. Understandably then, the film made a huge impression. I loved its unique look; I loved the cast; I loved Wendy Carlos's extraordinary score. Every time since then when rumours surfaced that Disney was considering making another TRON film, I would get excited. Each time, however, the folks at Disney got cold feet and up until 2008, all that had come to fruition was a videogame in 2003 called TRON 2.0 (which didn't do that well, as far as I'm aware).
But then some footage was shown at the 2008 ComicCon of a computer-generated, young Jeff Bridges on a slick, updated version of the game grid. The bootleg footage of that screening is electrifying, because the audience watching it go apeshit. Clearly, a sequel to TRON was something whose time had come. And in December 2010, TRON: Legacy arrived in all its three-dimensional glory. How could I not go and see a movie that featured so much of what I knew and loved from one of my favourite films?
The story bears a close resemblance to the plot of the TRON 2.0 videogame: the son of one of the characters from the first film finds himself back on the grid and has to stop a nefarious plot that threatens the future of that world, and our own. In the videogame, the player character was the son of Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner); in the movie, we meet the son of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) - Sam, played by Garrett Hedlund.
In the opening scene, Kevin Flynn is telling a young Sam (Owen Best) about the amazing discovery he's made, and in tediously formulaic fashion he doesn't tell Sam what it is; instead he rides off into the night on his Ducati and disappears for the best part of thirty years.
Smoke and Mirrors
This was the point where I began to suspect how many corners this film was going to cut, because for almost the entire duration of the scene our view of Jeff Bridges is conveniently obscured by the window frame, by the doorway, or by some other tweaking of the composition of the shot. When Kevin Flynn does occupy the frame, for most of the time we only get to see the back of his head. This is not done subtly, and it really grates.
Although much has been made of the fact that the 1982 version of Jeff Bridges has been digitally recreated, either the director wasn't confident enough in it to put the recreation up in plain sight for more than a few seconds, or Disney didn't want to spend enough money to make it happen. The composition of those shots that feature digital characters is profoundly jarring throughout the movie, like the misdirection of a clumsy stage magician who, rather than making his art look effortless, merely ends up drawing attention to the shortcomings of his act instead. When Kevin Flynn smiles at his son from the doorway at the end of this first scene, his face looks wrong, inanimate. His gaze reaches us from well inside what robotics researchers call the uncanny valley, and it is deeply unsettling. It's also a disappointment, given how convincingly human expressions were modelled in James Cameron's Avatar.
Sam grows up a major shareholder of his father's company, but by the time we rejoin the story in the present day Encom has become a sort of Microsoft parody, issuing meaningless new versions of its operating system (Bradley asks what's new about the latest version to be told by the CEO, "It's got a number 12 on the box!") They even have the son of the bad guy from the first movie as a board member (an uncredited Cillian Murphy, subbing for the original's wonderful but sadly absent David Warner.) In another right-out-of-the-book plot stereotype, Sam has refused to act as part of the company, choosing instead to pull outrageous heist set pieces every year that stretch the film's credibility to breaking point. Can you imagine a company like Microsoft tolerating the release of a DRM-free version of Windows 7 out into the wild without carrying out some form of retribution? I can't.
I have to admit I chuckled when Sam breaks into the building, though; the line "Now that's a big door!" is straight out of the original movie. It's one of a trail of breadcrumbs thrown to members of the audience throughout the movie as if to say, "Look, we're trying to honour the memory of the first film, OK? Don't be too hard on us!"
But then Alan Bradley receives a mysterious message. He heads over to Sam's inner-city hideout (which bears the name "Dumont" - another breadcrumb referencing the original film, although TRON geeks like me should point out that Dumont (Barnard Hughes) actually started Encom from his garage, not some fishing shack down by the docks.) Alan dutifully passes on the message to Sam, and Sam heads over to his father's old video arcade to investigate. In short order, he finds himself somewhere else, and the film wheels out its full 3-D technology as we realise we're back on The Grid. Although to be honest, if anyone in the audience hadn't figured out that fact immediately, they must have been asleep; each plot development is so tediously obvious that it's pointless labelling any discussion of them as "spoilers." In fact, it doesn't deviate at all from Joseph Campbell's monomyth.
All too normal
Once we arrived on The Grid, we reached the point in the movie where my heart really sank. To explain why, I need to tell you about how the footage of actors on the Grid in the original film was made. Everyone in the cast who had to appear in the world inside the computer wore a white leotard or suit designed by one of my all-time heroes, Moebius. Each frame of footage from the original movie was then printed out as a black and white print about two feet across and one foot deep. All of that paper was then shipped to Korea, where a team of illustrators painstakingly coloured in all the lines on the suits and the sets to make them look like they were glowing. The finished artwork was then shipped back to Disney, where it was reshot on a stop-motion rig in exactly the same way as one of the old cartoons. The result was a unique look that often made the characters appear to have stepped straight out of a Rudolph Valentino adventure. Sadly, the new film makes absolutely no attempt to emulate any of this. Instead, characters dress in motorcycle leathers or body armour with strips of electroluminescent tape woven into them. This approach is, of course, far less labour intensive. Not only is the effect much cheaper to achieve, it's also far more realistic, as the light emitted by the tape actually existed on set and all the reflections and radiosity are therefore spot-on. But the point of the first movie, and the thing that made it so visually appealing to me, was that the world on the other side of the screen wasn't spot-on. The all-new, high definition and 3D version of The Grid just looks like a cheap knock-off of the original, made by a company that didn't want to go to the expense of ensuring authenticity.
Despite the fact that life on The Grid is portrayed with far more realism than it was back in 1982, the dialogue uttered by the characters is anything but believable. The path of conversations frequently veers towards incoherence, exchanges between people are just a collection of words thrown together to act as the barest possible trigger for Sam to get to the next step of his monomythic journey. CGI-Jeff rapidly becomes a bit of a problem, too; when CLU walks up to Sam and says "I'm not your father, Sam," I was nodding, thinking "No you're not - you've mysteriously turned into Val Kilmer." Talking to several people I know afterwards I discovered that they'd had exactly the same thought!
Much of what The Grid was back in 1982 is either ignored or contradicted (for example Sam gets to have dinner with his father, complete with green beans and a roast pig, rather than drinking electricity like Flynn and his pals used to have to do). There are further breadcrumbs to throw to fans of the original film, including a cameo by director Steven Lisburger, but by the time we'd arrived at the nightclub scene, things had stopped making any sense whatsoever. Programs need to go to a nightclub? What for, other than to provide an opportunity for a Daft Punk cameo? This was the low point of the film for me, and I found it even more misjudged than the notorious rave scene in The Matrix: Reloaded.
Even though I spotted all the plot twists as they were set up, I completely failed to recognise the usually reliable Michael Sheen as the club's proprietor. It's a very strange performance, and he both looks and acts as if a young David Bowie and Simon Pegg had been involved in a transporter accident on Star Trek. It was painfully obvious that he'd turn out to be Zuse but even so, his line of "You already have... (significant pause followed by jazz hands) It's me!" was so embarrassing I was squirming in my seat.
When Flynn reminisces about his early days on the grid, we were back to the smoke and mirrors approach again - the CGI team produced a young Bruce Boxleitner in the same way as they'd produced a young Jeff Bridges, but he's hidden behind some clumsy video processing effects and it's clear the director didn't think it was convincing enough for us to get a good look at TRON himself - despite the fact that he's the title character of the movie. (And as an aside, what was TRON's legacy, exactly?)
But the worst smoke and mirrors approach of the lot has to be when CLU begins his speech to his gathered army. Dramatically, it's the revelation of the threat to the hero's world; emotionally, it's the scene that sets up everyone's motivations in the last act of the movie. You'd think, therefore, that the scene would revolve around the oratory of CLU as he sets out his vision. But no, instead we are treated to one shot after another of the back of CGI-Jeff's head. I was sitting in the audience shaking my head at this point, because it was a blatant cop-out. It's the fundamental failure of the film, caused by an inability to show the audience what the story demands.
It's telling that when the last set piece began the first thing I thought was "Thank goodness, it must nearly be the end of the movie." However, so many loose ends are left for a sequel that despite this when the credits rolled I felt cheated. I don't know whether my irritation was down to the perceived cynicism of this or just the movie's general incoherence, but if they do make another TRON movie they need to try a lot harder next time.
Chris's rating: Two Stars