Was any movie from the 1980s more ripe for a sequel than “Tron”? Its digital graphics were state-of-the-art in 1982, and people wondered if someday in the far-distant future movies might be made entirely on computers. The movie’s plot addressed the idea of living in a purely digital world.
Twenty-eight years later, the Internet has made it so nearly everyone lives at least part of their lives on the grid, whether they want to or not. We’re not literally in our computers yet, but some of us might as well be. And almost every film produced in Hollywood uses digital trickery somewhere, even if it’s just to put some clouds in the sky or remove an anachronism from the background of a period piece. In short, the futuristic notions that “Tron” hinted at are now in many ways a reality. An upgrade to Tron 2.0 seems perfectly logical.
So how did we wind up with something as unimaginative and flat-out boring as “Tron: Legacy”? The special effects are, once again, state-of-the-art. Most of the cool stuff from the first movie has been recreated and modernized, hitting viewers’ “nostalgia” and “geek” buttons simultaneously. The light cycles are sleeker and more dangerous; the electro-Frisbees that you throw at your opponents and that also contain all your data (I never understood that) are more stylishly Apple-esque.
But all this technology is in the service of a story that’s decidedly retrograde and formulaic, with a bland main character. At 127 minutes, the film is a half-hour longer than its predecessor, and it drags the way your old PC did when you booted it up first thing in the morning.
Thanks to some convenient exposition and backstory-reciting, we’re filled in on what’s happened since the last movie. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) became head of the ENCOM tech company, had a son, then mysteriously disappeared in 1989. The son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), now 27, is financially secure because he’s the biggest shareholder in ENCOM, but he stays away from the company that reminds him of his missing dad.
Circumstances bring Sam to the old video arcade once run by his father. He finds his dad’s office and, wouldn’t you know it, gets laser-beamed into the computer world in almost exactly the same fashion. The first half of the film is basically a repeat of the original “Tron,” with Sam taking Flynn’s place as the one forced to participate in real-life video games and seek the overthrow of the oppressive cyber-ruler. He eventually encounters his actual father, too, who’s been chillin’ in the grid for 20 years, unable to escape.
Jeff Bridges is a welcome sight. Whatever Kevin Flynn was like in 1982, he’s now evolved into … well, into Jeff Bridges, man. (Bridges also plays Clu, Flynn’s software avatar, with his face creepily CGI-ed to look younger, since computer programs don’t age.) Would that the film were centered on Bridges as Kevin Flynn, rather than Garrett Hedlund as Sam Flynn. Hedlund seems to be from the Ryan Phillippe/Paul Walker school of shallow intensity, where you stomp around looking Very Serious about whatever your Serious Business is. He’s no fun. I know Sam grew up without a father, but come on.
Michael Sheen briefly enlivens the proceedings as an Alan Cumming-esque nightclub owner in the grid, and Olivia Wilde’s enthusiasm as Quorra — a program who has never seen the real world — is another plus.
The screenplay, by “Lost” writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, goes out of its way to reverence the original, beloved “Tron” (including a cameo by Bruce Boxleitner), and then runs out of ideas altogether. The good guys’ objective is disappointingly simple; you keep waiting for complications or twists that never come. First-time director Joseph Kosinski deserves credit for overseeing the creation of a computer-generated world that’s as fully realized as anything we’ve seen before. But his film feels as soulless and automatic as the computers that built it.
Roger Ebert, who loved the original “Tron,” ended his review of it with the observation that the film was all technology, no humanity. But, he said, “maybe it’s breaking ground for a generation of movies in which computer-generated universes will be the background for mind-generated stories about emotion-generated personalities.” His prediction was right, of course. Pixar makes a movie fitting that description almost every year. “Tron: Legacy,” however, suffers from the same lack of heart that Ebert observed in its predecessor. It creates an amazing world but doesn’t populate it with anyone or anything for us to care about.
C (2 hrs., 7 min.; )