January 19, 2011

Tron’s Digital Legacy

Print More

As far as movie sequels go, Tron: Legacy is in a unique and possibly unenviable position; it’s the 28-year-delayed continuation of a relatively obscure cult movie of the 1980s whose main contribution to cinematic canon was that it was the first movie set in a video game environment (and we know how that trend turned out). Tron was undoubtedly groundbreaking; but could its lasting legacy (pun halfway intended) really draw audiences to watch its sequel?

It turns out, of course, that the film’s producers anticipated that question; Tron: Legacy is undoubtedly accessible to mainstream audiences, but amidst its adrenaline pumped action scenes and unique blue-orange aesthetic, there isn’t all that much substance. It’s a reasonably competent holiday season blockbuster, but it’s no Matrix.

As far as movie plots go, this one follows a frequently used formula: father disappears, son looks for father, son finds father, but the expected joyful reunion fails to materialize due to extenuating circumstances, son journeys with father to right the source of wrongs, and – spoiler – father sacrifices himself to save son. Jeff Bridges plays Kevin Flynn, the father, and Garrett Hedlund is Sam, the son. Flynn, the CEO of a huge software company, disappears one day, leaving Sam alone to grow up into a slightly embittered, wild child Caltech dropout who enjoys sabotaging his dad’s company’s software releases (in a not-too-subtle jab at Microsoft) and pulling off death stunts on his souped-up motorcycle. A series of contentious events ensures that he inadvertently enters the videogame world of the Grid, a creation of his father, who, as it turns out has been trapped there by his very creation, his arch nemesis Clu (also played by Bridges, with CGI magic to make him look 20 years younger for plot-related reasons). Naturally, son tries to escape with father, aided by the requisite token female sidekick Quorra (played by a cute Olivia Wilde), and an inadequately explained plot McGuffin — some momentous Thing of Supreme Importance with the Power to Change the Whole World — is involved. That is pretty much the entire justification for the hijinks of the movie.

CGI buffs will undoubtedly have a field day with the movie. Part of what made the original Tron cult-movie material was its seminal portrayal of the Grid, most notably the deadly computer games that the characters played among themselves while trapped in that world. Legacy took that same vision and transformed the computer universe from a grid to the Grid — a fully-realized futuristic metropolis that perhaps surpasses every other CGI science fiction city ever portrayed on the silver screen. The deadly games have also made the leap from being played on a 2-D, isometric grid to a 3-D, fully immersive experience. It’s like vicariously playing the most fully realized video game in existence — and the CGI vistas, for all their two-tone, clinical, Spartan perfection, exude a kind of stark beauty, forming an aesthetic unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The visual template of this movie is masterful, and for once we have ourselves a movie whose existence completely justifies the incredible amounts of CGI worked into the framework of the narrative. In some ways it’s almost like a meta-CGI movie, a way for CGI production studios to show the finger to traditionalist, neo-Luddite film buffs whose Top Ten lists invariably stop after 1972.

CGI, however, is possibly the only thing that elevates this blockbuster from the mediocre cinematic dross of its contemporaries; take away the awe-inspiring Grid vistas and all that’s left is an unremarkable and derivative story held together by a mass of deus ex machina and inexpertly tacked-on gobbledygook technobabble (Google “isomorphic algorithms” for a case in point). Hedlund’s portrayal of Sam is just the latest in a long series of cocksure young male protagonists that fit a certain Hollywood cookie-cutter mold reserved for aspiring action figure stars. Consider Avatar’s Jake Sully and Clash of the Titan’s Perseus (or any character played by Sam Worthington for that matter). Hedlund exudes that same, homogenous air, as if trying his utmost best to dose his audience with his man-scented pheromones while piercing the enemy with an action-heroic Dumb Jock stare, grinding his square jaw, mouthing off some generic macho platitude, token female sidekick/love interest by his side. Speaking of female sidekicks, Wilde’s Quorra character is such a transparently obvious “protagonist-love interest” that by the end of the movie I’d forgotten her name and started mentally referring to her as “squeeze #1.” She’s another one of those cookie cutter lithe and petite Action Girl characters that have been popping up for years in a valiant attempt to empower women in cinema. However, whatever feminist goals that might have been expressed in this movie were dashed when she ultimately ends up becoming a semi-useless damsel in distress figure, constantly staring at Hedlund’s character with puppy-dog eyes.

On the other hand, Bridges in both his incarnations was perhaps the saving grace of the film. He plays the assured Zen master whose exile has gifted him wisdom, and despite his age, kicks some serious butt in a particular scene in which he displays his awesome superpowers as the Creator of the video game world, surpassing even Neo in badassery. His digitally youthful doppelganger Clu, the movie’s antagonist, roars out his god-awful villain lines (“It is … our destiny!”) with a kind of self-aware aplomb, hamming it up to the eleven to such an extent that you forgive him for ruining your speech centers with the script’s expository abominations. The secondary character Castor, played by Michael Sheen, also provided much-needed energy to the vapid dialogue that was forced into the mouths of the characters. His turn as the flamboyantly effeminate, slightly insane club owner in the Grid was handled with a hyperactive flair that’s almost disturbing for someone who played a dirty man’s man werewolf Lucius in the Underworld series of movies.

The soundtrack, all in all, was a Daft Punk-produced affair that meshed in perfectly with the movie’s CGI vistas, a portentous combination of ominous bass and high-octane techno that constitutes a perfect aural complement to the themes and aesthetic of the film.

While Tron: Legacy deserves a watch for what it achieves in the CGI department, don’t expect much in the way of substance over style, and do take it in the spirit for which it was undoubtedly designed: vapid but visually astounding holiday entertainment

2 Towers

Original Author: Colin Chan