It was the summer of 1983, on one of those miserably hot Texas nights which never seems to cool off, when my Dad piled us all in his beat-up old pickup truck and drove to the drive-in theater in the next town over. He paid our entry fee and pulled in, backing the truck up so that its bed faced one of the screens. Everyone hopped in back, put the tailgate down and set up lawn chairs on the Ford’s rusty metal. The feature started, it was Snow White, recently re-issued by Disney. Only 6-years-old at the time and easily bored, I wandered around in the back of the truck, eventually climbing up to stand on the lip of the bed behind everyone. There I knew I could peer over the truck’s cab into the dark at endlessly starry skies, of a kind I’ve only ever found in the wide-open spaces of central Texas, and maybe in the process get a peek at the other massive drive-in screen behind us. What I saw there blew my mind.
My family sat and watched Snow White, yet I found myself transfixed by what was going on opposite it, an unbelievable cavalcade of incredible colors and lights. There in that sleepy drive-in I saw a new world, unlike anything I’d ever seen before, in which men battled with glowing discs and raced across never before seen landscapes in cycles made of light. I spent the next hour balanced on the lip of that old pickup, my chin resting on the cab, watching a movie which my dad would later tell me was called Tron. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t hear the dialogue, it didn’t matter that it would be several years before I’d see the entire movie on a clunky VCR, rented with one of my Dad’s meager bonus checks for a single weekend of VHS heaven. Tron was instantly my favorite movie for at least the next decade and, incidentally my first movie. That hour became one of the most indelible memories of my early life, it’s the first feature of any kind I now remember seeing and, in some ways it’s responsible for my love of movies and by extension, the existence of this website.
While I stood on tip-toes in the back of that pickup truck, Tron had already the year before changed the lives of countless others, inspiring a whole generation of future computer animation geniuses who looked at it and suddenly realized the power and possibilities of a form of storytelling which had, up till then, been largely regarded as impossible at best and cheating at worst. To say that the sequel has a lot to live up to is putting it mildly but, sadly, the best I can possibly say for Tron: Legacy is that it tries. It really does. In the process it’s entertaining and, for better or worse, far more accessible to casual audiences than the original Tron ever was, even in its heyday.
It starts in the real world where director Joseph Kosinski stakes a claim as one of the first filmmakers to actually attempt using 3D as a storytelling device, rather than just a random gimmick. Think of that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps out of her black and white world into the Technicolor Oz and you’ll understand what Kosinski is attempting here. The real world is entirely in 2D and it’s only when the story enters the computer world that the film’s 3D kicks in. The 2D world is as gritty and brown as the 3D computer world is slick and filled with sharp contrast.
In the 2D real world we meet Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), whose genius father Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has been missing for decades. Sam has grown up into an irresponsible daredevil, but Hedlund plays him as a blank, block of wood. Kevin’s old friend Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) tells Sam he received a page from his father’s former office and so Sam goes snooping around, discovers one of his father’s computer programs running, and instantly and inexplicably wakes up in a fantasy world full of lights and self-aware computer programs. For some inexplicable reason we never see how Sam gets into the computer world and so we never really get the sense that he’s gone anywhere.
We’ve been told early on in the film that Sam is in the Grid, the world inside your computer as seen from the inside. We’re told that, but it never truly feels like it. There’s never any real connection made between the fantasy world of flashing lights Sam Flynn ends up running around in and actual computers. While the original Tron was filled with all sorts of fun computing references Legacy ignores them almost entirely. In Legacy one minute Sam is sitting in front of a computer, the next he’s standing in a neon world and wondering if this is that place his father used to tell him stories about before he vanished.
Koskinki’s decision to skip making those connections between what we see on screen and the data running around inside our PCs is sure to make the film more accessible to people who might be confused by references to “bits” or by characters who are actually accounting programs, but in the process this story also loses something. It never really feels like it’s taking place anywhere that might exist, or in any specific location. It doesn’t feel like it means anything and it’s not helped by the script which involves a lot of mumbo jumbo about miracle life forms and a story which boils down to computer Nazis. The broad strokes of what Sam Flynn finds inside this flashing light fantasy world never really work at all. Luckily, nearly everything else about this movie does.
Sam is quickly reunited with his father Kevin, who has been trapped in the computer world he created all along. The two of them start building a relationship and, thanks to another great performance from Bridges, that relationship becomes one of the movie’s strengths rather than just something that happens between laser light shows. Kevin made a mistake once, a mistake that has haunted him and kept him in self-imposed exile. There’s a bad guy named Clu, also played by Bridges, and he seems like a good idea that’s never really properly executed thanks to the movie’s awkward plot. Sam needs help to defeat Clu and everyone he meets is more interesting than Sam is, capable of carrying all the scenes he’s in, in a way Garrett Hedlund isn’t. Olivia Wilde in particular runs away with the movie as Quorra, a sort of Flynn superfan turned plucky girl sidekick. She’s instantly loveable, the perfect best friend, even if maybe Hedlund’s lifeless character doesn’t deserve her.
You’re going to hear a lot of talk about how good the visuals in this movie are, and it’s true, they’re good. Not just in the computer world, but in the real world too where the look of the thing has its own unique, gritty, early 80s filmmaking meets slick modern photography vibe. But it’s more than a series of beautiful images, when the movie works, when it really works, characters and visuals and sound come together, sync up and create an unbelievable, almost magical cinematic rhythm unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before.
For me that moment of stratospheric perfection happens at the End of Line club (named in honor of the original Tron), in which Michael Sheen delivers a scene stealing performance while playing air guitar on a laser cane and real life electronica group Daft Punk (who composed the film’s stunning, best of the year score) cranks out otherworldly beats as they preside over cocktails and light-powered fight scenes. In that moment and others like it, everything in the movie clicks together and the film moves beyond plot and storytelling to soar beyond imagination, flashing across the screen like lightning connecting directly with your brain. In moments like those, when Tron: Legacy stops thinking and simply exists in the world it’s created, Kosinski’s movie feels unbelievably special.
If only those moments could last the entire film, but it never quite strings them together. The rest of the time Legacy is too often driven by clumsily handled plotting, some of which is told in flash backs when they probably should have found more elegant ways of working it all in. Worst of all for me, as a fan of the original movie, it that has very little to do with the world of the first film. The plot contains all sorts of complicated connections to the original Tron but the place it exists in, for all its cinematic beauty, feels like something else entirely, something less unique and special than what Tron attempted. Back in 1983 Tron first sucked me in with pretty lights, but later in life I’d discover so much more to it beneath the surface. Tron: Legacy though? If it had been this movie I’d seen my 6-year-old reaction initially would have been the same. But within a couple of years my interest would have faded and I’d have soon recognized Tron: Legacy for what it really is. It’s not much more than pretty lights, but oh those lights.
End of Line.