Monday, 20 December 2010

TRON: Legacy - (2010) - Cinema Review (7/10)

Light Cycles at the ready!

1982 saw the arrival of a film unlike any other. TRON was a feast for the imagination and eyes. One of, if not the, very first film to utilise CGI (A term that hadn't even been coined then). With a mixture of computer and traditional animation, it plunged its characters into a digital computer world, where programs became humanised characters, and the laws of traditional human physics and reality meant nothing. The plot was simple yet effective, kept that way so that its audience wouldn't be alienated by the utterly alien and unique world they were plunged into. Yet it was not so simple that it neglected its characters and had a flimsy story.

Olivia Wilde as Quorra,
in TRON: Legacy
TRON wasn't a box office flop, but it was far from the hit it was hoped to be, at the time. Much of that can be blamed on it being such a unique film, introducing so many new and unusual concepts to its viewers, that the average cinema goer didn't quite know how to take it. As the years passed, it gained a cult following, and a high level of respect for its innovation and creativity.

Disney, the original backers of the first film, finally decided it was time for a sequel. A brave and welcome move, unlike the countless 'remakes' and 're-imaginings' that currently seem the norm, and then promptly fail to light anyone's enthusiasm at the box-office.

A view from the original TRON
Modern effects have reached a point where almost anything is possible, and the world established by TRON is a clear opportunity to use it to its full potential. In the first film, the lead character was computer programmer and game genius Kevin Flynn, played by Jeff Bridges (Starman, Arlington Road, Iron Man), plunged into the computer world by a sadistic artificial intelligence called the MCP (Master Control Program), originally created by his real world nemesis, Dillinger. In an effort to stop Flynn from finding the evidence of Dillinger's misdeeds, the MCP triggered a prototype digital transportation device in the real world, but instead of re-integrating Flynn, he was kept as digital information, and thus trapped in the world controlled by the MCP.

Sam finds his father's computer, in TRON: Legacy
Of course it's all fantastical, but it follows its own sort of logic once you accept that programs have their own personalities in this electronic world. Tron, of the title, is a program created by and in the image of Flynn's closest friend, Alan Bradley, played by Bruce Boxleitner (TV's Babylon 5, Heroes, Chuck). Bradley programmed Tron as an ultimate security program, which becomes Flynn's best chance for survival, as well as saving the system from the clutches of Dillinger and the MCP.

Stark, one of the main villains
of the original TRON
Why am I explaining the original film in such depth? Because while the new film explains some things for a new audience that hasn't seen the original, it neglects to explain others. For example, the transportation machine is a major plot device, and thus has a reasonable amount of explanation and time devoted to it in the original film, enabling Flynn's entrance into the digital world to seem less absurd and impossible. In TRON: Legacy, it barely garners a mention. It's a pivotal conceit of the story, even if it is an implausible MacGuffin, yet seems forgotten, except as a quick throwaway to get our lead character into the digital world. The 'Grid' (as the electronic world is termed) gains seemingly little explanation as well. In the original, it is a manifestation of the digital computer world, with its associated electronics and programming. For example, there are financial programs being absorbed and controlled by the MCP, IO towers, which of course are the input/output devices in the real world, etc.. In TRON: Legacy, it appears as though we are simply in an unusual virtual world created by Kevin Flynn.

Beau Garrett as a 'Siren', getting ready to fit Sam
into his new outfit, in TRON: Legacy
I'm not quite sure whether they thought modern film audiences would accept the conceits without explanation, or they just thought that the explanations and plotting would get in the way of jumping into the virtual world as quickly as possible, for the limited attention span (perceived by executives, and not necessarily real) of modern cinema goers. I suspect the latter.

Bruce Boxleitner stealing the show
In TRON: Legacy, Kevin Flynn has disappeared, leaving his son, Sam, played by Garrett Hedlund (Troy, Eragon), to grow up an orphan (mother having died off-screen). After this brief set-up, we arrive at the present, with a twenty seven year old Sam living a life that would seem more fitting of a rebel teen. Alan Bradley arrives to inform him that he received a message from Kevin's old Video Arcade, prompting Sam to investigate and discover his father's computers and subsequently get pulled into the digital world of the Grid...

Beau Garrett as a 'Siren' in TRON: Legacy
So how does the sequel hold up, overall? There are some great touches in TRON: Legacy. Little nods to fans of the original film, that raise a smile, such as the 'big door', and a building called 'Dumont'. There's also a possible set up for a third film, in the placement of Dillinger's son as a key employee at the ENCOM company (that created the MCP and housed the original computer world). Though this seemingly important fact remains somewhat unexplained if you haven't seen the first film.

Light Cycles in the original TRON
Surprisingly, though, apart from the advances in the effects, TRON: Legacy not only adds little to the ideas of the original, but in fact takes a step back. One of the most stunningly original factors of the TRON world, was the ability to be completely different from the real world. Things could happen that would be utterly impossible in the normal universe. For example, the original film's most iconic sequence is its light-cycle race, where vehicles can turn suddenly at ninety degrees, leaving trails of light behind them that create walls to block an opponent. This set TRON aside from anything seen before, and exemplified the originality and creativity of the film.

Light Cycles in TRON: Legacy
In TRON: Legacy, the cycles now move like normal motorbikes (albeit retaining the ribbons of trailing light). This alteration is a good example of what I consider a major flaw in TRON: Legacy. Its entire world seems far too based in real-world physics. We are plunged into a realm that has the potential to be full of impossible wonders, and instead are given one that, while impressive, has few elements that would seem out-of-place in simply a futuristic or alien world. Of course the visuals are far superior, but the imagination behind them seems to lack the originality of the first film.

a 'Recognizer' craft, in TRON: Legacy
In TRON, some vehicles existed despite parts that had no physical visual link to each other. After all, they don't exist in the real world, so why should they? In TRON: Legacy, everything looks as though it could've been constructed physically (albeit in a future, alternate or alien world). A whole host of such touches seem to have been lost. Damaged vehicles even smoke, where before they would probably have had an unusual digital equivalent. There is rain and steam, amongst other things. It's far too 'real-world'.

Jeff Bridges stares out onto a digital world,
in TRON: Legacy
Another strange alteration, is in the abilities of 'users' (The term used by programs to refer to their human masters) who have been pulled into the digital world. In TRON, Flynn discovered the ability to 'heal' or give power to things, in a way that was impossible for the programs. Not only did this set him apart and make him special in this world, it made a strange sense (given the context) that the 'creators' had a semi-mystical ability to make things work and give them life. This is forgotten in TRON: Legacy, in favour of a single unexplained moment of Jedi-like power that makes no sense.

TRON: Legacy, or 2001: A Space Odyssey?
The visual design of the sequel world, while wonderful to look at, does feel like a straight forward extrapolation of the original (mixed with a little Bladerunner, amongst others) in a very obvious and linear way, utilising the advances in modern effects. In the one area they did try to be a little different, they instead opted to go for a very direct copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Michael Sheen as the
nightclub owner
One scene with Michael Sheen (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans) playing a nightclub owner, comes over as a strange addition more in keeping with the original film's 80's roots, that the original managed to avoid. There seemed to be a trend back then, of films with either aliens or time travellers or people from alternate worlds, hearing some 80's music, and the film would then show it all as incredibly 'cool'. Such scenes can be fun in a nostalgic way, but they do date some movies badly and add to the 'cheese' factor. The original TRON avoided the trend, but TRON: Legacy has dived in with both feet, and even shoe-horned in some terribly out-of-place shots of Daft Punk (responsible for the soundtrack), to no-doubt appease their fans.

Speaking of the soundtrack, the producers decided to go an unusual route, and hire the French duo referred to as 'Daft Punk' (known for their somewhat 80's style synth/dance music), over a conventional film composer. The result is somewhat mixed. The pair have risen far above their dance-music routes to create a more orchestral score, but it still feels like something that could've been created by a good film composer on automatic. You can't help wondering if they were hired more for their promotional use (which has featured quite prominently), than their musical ability. The soundtrack is functional but often repetitive, and unfortunately shows its somewhat simplistic 80's influences and 90's dance roots in a few scenes (notably Sam on his motorbike near the beginning, the night-club scene, and the end-credits). One can't help but wonder what a seasoned composer might have been able to create with the material (personally, I think composers such as Graeme Revell or Elliot Goldenthal would have been extremely suited).

Jeff Bridges after too much plastic surgery
As for the special effects, they are, for the most part, exceptional. Everything you could expect of a modern Hollywood blockbuster. However, there is one element that stands out terribly. For Jeff Bridges' program doppelgänger, CLU, they have utilised a digitally rendered version of Bridges' younger face, having caught his performance with motion capture. The method and result are the same as films such as Avatar, but where Avatar succeeded, was in avoiding the use of actual human characters. Therefore the system's failings were not quite so evident. Unfortunately the de-aged Bridges feels like a video-game character or someone with bad plastic surgery. This would have been reasonably acceptable for the CLU character alone (albeit jarring with the completely natural faces of the un-altered actors playing the other 'digital' characters), but they used the same technique for a flash-back in the real world, which feels quite dreadful. They would have done much better avoiding his face in that scene, until the final shot, and extracted something from one of Bridges' earlier films so that it looked natural.

Quorra relaxes, in TRON: Legacy
With regards the story, it works on a surface level as an excuse for the action set pieces. It's great fun in an unfortunately forgettable way. Where the original leaves you thinking about all the ideas and concepts and possibilities it created, the sequel is content to be an effects platform and a roller-coaster ride utilising the current tend for 3D.

It may seem that I disliked TRON: Legacy, but I didn't. It is great fun, but as with so many films these days, fails by a fair margin to live up to its potential. I never expected perfection, or a film based on my own preconceptions of what a TRON sequel should be like. But is it unreasonable to wish a film could have risen beyond the level of popcorn fun, when its own predecessor has become such an iconic example of imagination, creativity and innovation?


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  1. your write-up reflects my thoughts almost exactly. cheers

  2. Thanks, Brentmcd! Glad you enjoyed the review. :)