From the opening credits which segue from the virtual cityscape of ‘the grid’ to a prologue set in the real world circa 1989 that fills in the gap between the original movie and its sequel, it’s clear ‘Tron: Legacy’ is treading a careful path that tries to balance the need for a worthy follow-up to a beloved children’s film of the early 80s and a 3D IMAX spectacular to sate the current generation.
Announcing the name of the film on screen to be just ‘Tron’ (‘Legacy’ is only added to the end credits), this doesn’t bode well, as if the film-makers were trying to replace the original film altogether in a misguided attempt to make this film stand alone…
Like most belated sequels to 70s / 80s family blockbusters, such as ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘Tron: Legacy’ has the weight of history, technology, and nostalgia to live up to and like ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’ and ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’, it is a sequel that doesn’t satisfy fans of the original (by trying to appeal to a new generation and their perceived interests) or new audiences by having a confusing plot that neither makes sense or adds up to any kind of meaningful conclusion, not to mention a young replacement for the original hero who is no patch on his predecessor.
As the original ‘Tron’ is a fairly plot light movie, that relies more on spectacle (something critics might also apply to George Lucas’ franchises) and fascination with new technology than a memorable story, it seems a little supercilious to blame the sequel for not being much better in those respects, however as is the inevitable way with these belated sequels, the film is haunted by the movie it might have been rather than the film that it actually is.
Plot wise, the original film told the tale of a computer game developer who is being exploited by a multinational company and who gets inadvertently sucked into the computer to combat gladiatorial games to win his freedom, his return to the real world and the rights to his creation. The sequel sees the original protagonist’s son return to that world, to find it grown darker still due to the malign influence of his father’s evil virtual clone, before returning to our world in order to…
Well, to do what isn’t exactly clear; there’s some talk of a ultimate benevolent programme being created by Jeff Bridges’ character to help the problems in our world, but that isn’t explored or explained and a race of virtual characters who were unexpectedly generated by the grid and deemed important by Bridges but don’t have any real significance once their role in the workmanlike escape plot is used up.
This is a film that teases the audience with interesting ideas – Bridges’ evil clone, stuck at a fixed age with a young CGI face is a fascinating idea for a film that compares the real and virtual, the attraction of avatars and powers in the unreal world and their impact in the real, but is wasted in a plot that is clearly written by committee. The above mentioned virtual race are important as far as the other characters revere or vilify them, but any notions of racial identity or the difference they have to the anthropomorphic ‘programmes’ featured in the original film and its sequel, is paid lip service. The convoluted plot where the characters zig-zag across the landscape from set-piece to set-piece doesn’t actually make any sense beyond the need for cut scenes between the battles, that you might skip through anyway if you were playing an actual computer game.
The film plays its nostalgia card well – the return of the light cycles, the recognizers, the beam sailing ship and returning characters Flynn and Tron himself are very welcome – but the use of all these elements is all done in exactly the way you might expect, with few surprises apart from a vaguely fetishistic clothing scene when Flynn Jnr. enters the grid, that is more ‘Barbarella‘ than ‘Tron’, and a camp extended cameo by Michael Sheen as a club owner who seems to have wandered in from an entirely different movie (‘The Matrix Regurgitated’, perhaps).
Again, the film teases us with the possibility of more intriguing possibilities, such as corporate warfare with student hackers (very prescient for late 2010) to firmly ground the plot in the cyberpunk mythos the first film predated, but these scenes are brief (including a blink and you miss it cameo by Cillian Murphy in a board meeting) and underdeveloped and make you wish David Warner had returned also in some capacity.
While the duality of the characters in the original is developed further here – Flynn/Clu and Bradley/Tron now have evil counter parts whose lack of contact with humanity has left them cold and fuelled by empire building – Clu only fills the role of familiar movie bad guy, spouting a mixture of quotes from the original film and B movie clichés, with Tron his silent assassin (and bizarrely faceless too, suggesting only Bridges was allowed to be given a CGI facelift while Boxleitner, via his TV career trajectory, wasn’t deemed worthy).
Unlike other disappointing 80s revivals, ‘Tron: Legacy’ also has a memorable visual and aural history to live up to and at least on these counts the film doesn’t disappoint. While the visuals aren’t as startling as the first film’s ’silent movie with neon’ aesthetic and look every much the tech demo that most 3D / IMAX movies are, ‘Tron: Legacy’ is certainly eye candy and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can find.
Sonically, it’s a great shame that Tron’s original leitmotifs barely get a reference, beyond a few bars hummed by Flynn in the prologue, but at least Daft Punk’s score is terrific and makes the CD release of the score a more attractive shiny disc to own than either the eventually DVD or Blu-Ray of the film itself.
Over the last year or so following the announcement of ‘Tron: Legacy’ through its production and now cinema release, a DVD/Blu-Ray of the original film has been curiously absent from (shiny) shelves. Before seeing the new film, I wondered whether this was because Disney were embarrassed the original had dated too much and beyond its nostalgic fans, not quite as deserving as people thought for a sequel.
In retrospect, particularly since Disney’s other great live action films from the 1970s and 80s such as ‘Something Wicked this way comes‘ and the ‘Witch Mountain’ films were neglected by the company for years, it might be just because the updates and revisiting of these properties just can’t quite capture the lightning in a bottle, or digitised human on a screen, that the original versions had.