Back in 1982, Tron zapped us into a whole new world of storytelling. You can still feel the love, and excitement, on every frame of that movie. So it's sad that Tron Legacy turns those thrills into snoozes. Spoilers ahead.
Update: I saw Tron Legacy a second time last night, as part of the io9/Gizmodo meet up, and liked it a bit more. I still don't think it's a good movie, but I can understand why so many people are saying it has cool eye candy and a lame story. The critics screening was in non-Imax 3D, and seeing it a second time in 3D Imax, I could tell what was supposed to be happening a lot better. A lot of the action scenes still seemed a bit flat, but at least I could make sense of them. And the visuals which looked sterile and boring in non-Imax 3D did look a lot more impressive and beautiful in 3D Imax. So while I still don't think Tron Legacy was a good movie, I no longer think it's a total disaster. It's this year's The Matrix Reloaded.
Tron didn't just help to pioneer computer-generated special effects in movies — it did a lot of other things to transform the way in which we think about movies and technology generally. The original Tron has a striking look, and exciting visuals that were created frame by frame, layer by layer. It's an optimistic movie, a fantasy about a world in which computer programs worship us, the "users," and enjoy doing things to help us. There's almost no mumbo-jumbo in the original Tron, but there's still a clear message: Technology has a soul, and it's crafted in our image. And when technology gains sentience, it's going to want to play games.
Tron Legacy takes the opposite approach to the original, in almost every way, even while trying to copy it. This time, there's loads of mumbo-jumbo, but none of it means anything. And there's no joy, no fun, in the Tron sequel. It's technically a nice-looking movie, but the visuals aren't really that interesting after a while, and even most of the action sequences are dull, and filmed in a way that drains a lot of the excitement out of them. Where Tron got you pumped up about the thrilling world inside your computer, Tron Legacy just bombards you with crap.
In the original Tron, of course, computer nerd Kevin Flynn got digitized by a laser and zapped inside the mainframe of his former company. This time around, Kevin Flynn has been zapped inside the computer again — and he's been missing since 1989 as a result. Kevin's son, Sam Flynn goes looking for him and discovers that Kevin's computer alter ego, Clu, has turned evil and is trying to eradicate any program that stands between him and some sterile idea of "perfection."
There's a bit, late in the movie, where Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and Quorra (Olivia Wilde) are flying in a digital airplane of some sort, and Kevin says "I don't think this is a good idea." I could not tell what was going on at that moment. I couldn't tell what he thought wasn't a good idea — I think it had something to do with the way Quorra was flying the light-plane. I did not believe for a second that Kevin Flynn had strong feelings one way or the other about whether this was a good idea — whatever "this" was. There was just Jeff Bridges looking apathetic in the middle of an incomprehensible special effect.
That pretty much sums up the movie.
I am a huge fan of action movies, including dumb-but-fun action movies. I would watch Vin Diesel make a sandwich. I thought Gamer was a blast, and Dragonball Evolution was surprisingly fun. I called Avatar a "nearly perfect movie," except that I thought the Na'vi were silly. I loved J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, and quite liked the first Transformers. And I lowered my expectations a lot before I saw Tron Legacy, thanks to some bad early reviews — but, even with ultra-low expectations, I still found Tron Legacy a horrible letdown. It's not a fun-but-dumb action movie, it's a lifeless mess.
(To be fair, a lot of people — including friends whose judgment I generally trust — have come away from this movie with a more upbeat assessment. But I walked out of the film feeling shocked at how bland and uninvolving it all seemed.)
People are going to blame the boringness of Tron Legacy on poor Garrett Hedlund, who stars in it. And it's true that he wanders through the movie with the same vaguely bemused, slack-jawed expression on his face, as though he's not sure what he's doing here. But Jeff Bridges, who usually makes any movie a thousand times better, is at his absolute worst here as well — Bridges pretty much has to carry the movie, as Kevin Flynn and his digital alter-ego Clu, and Bridges brings absolutely no conviction to either role. As Flynn, Bridges is sort of doing a riff on The Dude from The Big Lebowski — I can't wait for the inevitable video mash-ups — but it doesn't quite work here. And as Clu, Bridges seems relentlessly ironic. Bridges just doesn't bring much energy to either role. Of the main stars, only Olivia Wilde occasionally injects a tiny amount of life into the film.
But first-time director Joseph Kosinski has to take a lot of the blame here — because there's just no energy in this film generally. That's the best way I can think of to put it. Especially in the second half of the film, the action sequences feel as dynamic as the sequences where everyone's sitting around drinking glasses of mysterious blue liquid. It's like the whole film takes place inside a computer whose processor is overclocked.
It honestly never seems to have occurred to anyone making this film that they might want to make it, you know, fun. Instead, they want it to be a touching father-son story, in which a second Flynn generation goes inside the machine to search for his dad. And the dad, meanwhile, has become some kind of computerized mystic, who spouts off lots of stuff about how he can end disease and stuff, using digital miracles. Jeff Bridges has a few thousand scenes where he rambles about the cyber equivalent of Yerba Mate and how it's improved his cyber-digestion. The son never seems that interested in finding his father, and they don't really seem to have strong feelings about each other once they do connect.
Occasionally, the movie does get silly and campy, which does help to lighten the boredom. There's a cute dog who seems to be bringing his whole personality to bear. There are the women in the skintight white jumpsuits who prance around. Michael Sheen (aka Tony Blair from The Queen) plays a version of Frank N. Furter who vamps in a few scenes and bosses Daft Punk around. On the one hand, these silly interludes are more fun than the rest of the movie — but they also feel a bit out of place.
The interesting thing about Tron Legacy is, we're not really going inside a functional computer world this time around. Spoiler alert: After Kevin Flynn liberated the Encom computer from the MCP, he took a leadership role in Encom. But meanwhile, he built his own private mainframe in the basement of Flynn's Arcade, where he created his own cyber-playground, until Clu betrayed him. This isolated system (which isn't on the internet or anything) is just sitting in the basement for 20 years, like a computerized Galapagos. So in fact, there are no users, and the programs have no functions to speak of. Remember in the original Tron where Flynn meets a poor actuarial program that enjoys helping people get insurance, until it's forced to play games? There's none of that this time around — this computer world never had a function, other than to be Flynn's playground, and he created or imported all the programs in it.
So this sterile computer world, which hasn't had any outside input in 20 years, is sort of a metaphor for Tron Legacy itself — this is not a film about the world inside your computer. It's not a film about how you interact with technology, or how you use technology. Instead, it's just a mindless update of the original Tron, except with a ton of buggy code installed on top of it. Everything is copied straight from the original Tron, but it's cut off from the inspirations that fueled the original Tron. So it feels pointless — like a computer in someone's basement that was built for no purpose other than noodling on, twenty years ago.
Maybe if somebody had actually thought about how to make a movie that's a metaphor for our relationship with technology, or with games today, you'd have gotten an interesting film. Think about it — when Tron came out, very few people were on the internet. And only a tiny minority owned their own computers. Home gaming consoles were in their infancy, and arcade games were still pretty two-dimensional.
What would a movie about someone going inside a computer, physically, look like today? In a world with Twitter and Facebook and e-banking and OKCupid? We've already put a lot of ourselves into the computer, and the idea that there are cyber-entities out there that wear our faces and carry some of our personalities doesn't feel too far-fetched, really.
And I feel like we needed a movie with the optimism of the original Tron. This year, more than ever. We've seen so many ways that technology can fuck us up, from spewing on the Gulf to creating garbagey mortgage-backed securities. And I'm sure that everybody can think of a few ways we've discovered lately that putting too much of your personal stuff into a digital world can bite you in the ass. So I, for one, was really hungry for a fun, goofy tribute to the ways in which living inside a computer can enrich us. I could really have used a new movie in the spirit of the original Tron, in which cybernetic good will wins out over control-freakery. I didn't need it to be clever, I didn't need it to be deep, I didn't really need a moving father-son story, although I wasn't opposed to any of those things. I just needed something as fun, exciting and affirming as Tron was.
Instead, we got a movie that feels like it was made by the MCP.