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In Tron: Legacy we find Kevin Flynn, hacker-turned-digital God, learning that the perfect computer world he has created can come with unexpected consequences. It's sleek and shiny and fun to occupy and look at, but the people and programs who spend too much time there wind up yearning for the tangible things in the real world above, sick of pixels and aching to see a real, live sunset.
You can see where I'm going with this, right? In making his visually spectacular but emotionally bereft film about people trying to escape the digitized world they've created, first-time director Joseph Kosinski has somehow made a movie that's a metaphor for itself, and full of handy advice for audience members who may be anxious to get out this glitzy, oppressive universe after just two hours inside. Cribbing its plot liberally, and incoherently, from sci-fi adventures of the past and treating its actors more like computer programs than human beings with independent thought, Tron: Legacy creates a computerized and dark world that's intended to be terrifying, but falls so in love with its own digital trickery that it becomes the machine it supposedly rails against. It's a good-looking machine, sure, but one that's all clicking parts and no beating heart.
It's hard to overstate how dazzling this film is, packed with machinery made of light and characters in skintight glowing suits and looming city scapes lit through fog and the weathered, endlessly amused face of Jeff Bridges. The visual effects are the main draw here, just as they were in the first film, and especially in IMAX 3D it's a pleasure to be sucked into the grid and anticipate the next miraculous thing to appear on the screen-- up to a certain point. Though the film has no lack of technical skill, what's missing is the spark of imagination that makes places like Tattooine and Hogwarts and the Starship Enterprise feel so fully realized. Unlike the world of the first Tron, a visual representation of the nascent Internet, the digitized world here is fully created by Kevin Flynn, and carries with it a cold, alien precision that's eventually exhausting.
Before you get to any of this, though, there's half an hour of setup in the real world, in which we're introduced to Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), scion of the ENCOM technology empire who we know is a rebel because he rides a motorcycle and disables security cameras with ease. There's a lot of corporate babble about the company abandoned by Sam's father Kevin Flynn (Bridges) when he mysteriously disappeared in the late 80s, what should have been a light caper scene played deadly serious to set up Sam's trickster potential, and a surrogate father-son moment with Kevin Flynn's old business partner Alan (Bruce Boxleitner), who suggests to Sam that his father might be communicating with him from across the digital divide. The prologue scenes do a nice job of connecting Tron: Legacy to its predecessor but have almost nothing to do with the story to come, and will be meaningless anyway to the 90% of viewers who never saw the first Tron and don't care to.
Once Sam enters the digital world (and the screen correspondingly pops into 3D, a neat effect) it's one big, pounding action bit after another, sensory overload that works fairly well until you realize you're an hour into the movie and your main character still doesn't have a goal or much of a personality. Eventually he's led by doe-eyed warrior chick Quorra (Olivia Wilde, showing sparks of personality despite everything) to his missing father Flynn, who's retreated as some kind of Zen master to the edge of the digital world that's been taken over by his evil computer clone Clu (also Bridges, aged down with CGI and teetering constantly on the edge of the uncanny valley). Sam's got to get himself and his dad to the portal back to reality, stop Clu from taking over the world, protect his dad's identity disc that contains all knowledge, evade hordes of ever-present henchmen-- it's every adventure movie gimmick crammed into one journey, and it's just as chaotic as it sounds.
The moments that work best in the film are the ones relying heaviest on the technical elements, from a lightcycle battle early on that feels thrilling and visceral to a similar fight in the air that has slightly less impact only because it's more of the same. Topping all, though, is a brief scene with Michael Sheen's Bowie-esque nightclub impresario and Daft Punk as the house DJ's who crank up the beat for a pretty awesome throwdown; everyone suddenly seems to be in a different movie, one with real stakes and a sense of humor, and though Sheen's wackadoo performance could have thrown a better film off the rails, it's a welcome respite from Tron: Legacy's smooth and stern demeanor. In this oppressively art-directed and slick universe Sheen introduces the possibility of a wild card, and it's disappointing to return to the basics of good guys vs. bad guys and their final, inevitable showdown.
It's easy to blame former architect Kosinski for the fact that the actors seem frozen and somewhat adrift-- even Bridges, who gave so much life to the original Tron, is just coasting with a Zenned-up take on The Dude. But screenwriters Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis do no favors either, coming up with spectacularly clunky bits of dialogue, cramming in character development almost grudgingly, and turn in a third act that's fun but repetitive. For all the narrative time spent explaining the corporate structure of ENCOM or reminiscing about Flynn's good old days building the grid, the filmmakers never manage to make the world of Tron: Legacy feel like a real place. Who are the other programs who cheer Sam in the games early on? What about the super-hot computer chicks who greet him when he first arrived? I would never ask for more exposition in a film already crippled by it, just for meaning given to what we see-- maybe a few million knocked off the budget could have tightened the focus?
Watching this movie in 2010, when the effects are laser sharp and we still can't quite believe you can de-age Jeff Bridges so convincingly, Tron: Legacy is just dazzling enough to shock an audience into submission for two hours. But just as the original Tron's cutting-edge effects have aged poorly in the last 28 years, it's hard to imagine the kids of the next generation-- or even next year-- putting up with all the clunkiness and disregard for human emotion. The cool factor may allow them to get away with it for the next few weeks of box office receipts, but once the sheen wears off-- and it always does-- we'll be left with a handful of pixels and the unavoidable memory of an opportunity wasted.