Thursday, December 16, 2010

Review: "TRON: Legacy"

The thing everyone remembers about 1982's "TRON" are the light cycles and the discus fights. I watched it again recently (having barely any memory of it) and was surprised to find these action sequences -- which represented some of the first computer-generated imagery -- comprised barely five minutes of the film.

"TRON: Legacy," the much-delayed sequel to the original that flopped at the box office but became a cultural touchstone, is all about the toys. There are light cycle duels, discus fights, some aerial dogfights, and about a dozen other new kinds of CGI mayhem.

Of course, with the benefit of nearly 30 years of technology, everything looks waaaay cooler. The special effects of "TRON" are laughably crude now, while those of "TRON: Legacy" are cutting edge.

The movie aims for a little soul, too, and that's where it gets self-indulgent and silly. The first film seemed to poke fun at itself a little, or at least recognize its modest ambitions as lite sci-fi for kiddies. But the sequel has to go all save-the-world apocalyptic on us.

Still, it's an undeniably entertaining flick, a cornucopia of eye candy and family-friendly violence.

If you don't remember the plot of the original, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) was a rebel video game designer who got zapped into the world created by computers. It's a place populated by Programs, who here are thinking, sentient beings trying to carry out their intended function. As a User, Flynn is essentially a god, and uses his powers to tumble the reigning tyrant.

No doubt you've heard about the new movie's big trick, which is that Jeff Bridges plays dual roles as Flynn and Clu, the program he created to run things in a more benevolent fashion. Clu took over and remade things in his vision, and Flynn's fate has remained a mystery for the past 21 years.

All things now rest in the hands of his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund), who is officially the inheritor of his corporate empire, but is more interested in pulling a little cyber-terrorism on the company. That, and leading the police on chases aboard his Ducati motorcycle -- boy, I wonder where that skill will come in handy!?!

Sam has serious abandonment issues, so when his dad's old partner Alan (Bruce Boxleitner, who also plays the briefly-seen title character, Tron) says he got a message from Flynn's old arcade headquarters, it piques Sam's interest. Needless to say, he soon finds himself transported into his dad's digital world and forced to fight in the gladiator-style games.

The look of everything in rookie director Joseph Kosinki's world, from the costumes to the vehicles to the buildings, is sleek and shiny. As before, everything is edged in colored lights to announce its allegiance -- white for Sam and other good guys, red for the baddies, and Clu gets his own special burnt orange to let you know he's in charge.

There's a lot of other gobbledygook cluttering things up. Something about "Isos" -- isomorphic algorithms, or special programs that weren't created but just spontaneously evolved. Flynn, eventually tracked down in a self-imposed exile that's part Zen warrior and part Jeff Lebowski, says these Isos are the panacea to all mankind's ills, and will solve healthcare, science and philosophy conundrums.

Old Jeff Bridges looks great, haunted and resigned to his fate, but the young version represented by Clu isn't so convincing. The eyes don't read quite right, maintaining a doll's placidity, and when Clu attempts a smile it looks like someone slipped a switchblade between his ribs.

There's been a lot of talk from technology-embracing directors about using CGI to allow older actors to play their younger selves, or vice-versa, or even digitizing John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart up from the grave. For a movie that makes pretensions at warning us about the limits of technology, "TRON: Legacy," while indisputably fun, still shows a few of its own.

3 stars out of four

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