Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tron: Legacy

The modest but devoted fanbase for Tron alleges the 1982 film was ahead of its time, referring to its extensive and pioneering use of computer-generated imagery. Unfortunately, one could not say that its sequel, Tron: Legacy, is even of its time. Caught between presenting an updated version of Tron's computer world that better reflects the compounded evolution of digital technology or simply wallowing in the dated vision of futuristic cyberspace interaction offered by the original, director Joseph Kosinski opts for the latter and cements the insular pointlessness of the whole exercise. The Lawnmower Man has more to say about the possibilities of cyberspace.

Tron: Legacy opens with swooping, animated crane shot that plunges the film into the Uncanny Silicon Valley, where an artificially young Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, who spends half the film creepily animated) talks about his creation with 11-year-old son Sam (Garrett Hedlund in the boy's adult years). Flynn promises to take Sam with him to the Grid the next day, but he never comes home after leaving that night in 1989. Twenty years later, Sam abandons his father's company, profiting as the principal shareholder but spending most of his time slyly undermining the profit-driven number-crunchers who took over for the more idealistic Flynn. When Kevin's old partner (Bruce Boxleitner) gets a page -- yes, a page -- from Flynn's old office in his abandoned arcade, Sam heads there in the faint hope that his father might finally have returned from wherever he went. He discovers a hidden room with a strange device attached to a computer, and, well, you know the rest.

Inside the grid, so little has changed that one might assume Kosinski feels the biggest advancement in design over the last 30 years has been rounded corners. Where light cycles once traveled in straight lines, now they curve, and that's about it. Tron: Legacy might as well have been a reboot than a sequel, doing nothing more than updating the famed graphics of the original. (That is the double-edged sword of special effects pioneering: great stories live on forever, but effects are always being outdone. George Lucas has alienated nearly his entire fanbase by grappling with that problem.)

Kosinski's vision hedges closely to Steven Lisberger's, using neon chiaroscuro of plunging blacks offset by bright, pale blues and throbbing oranges set against a pixellated world. The souped-up visuals sure do look incandescent, including a few moments here and there that make good use of that most unnecessary of gimmicks, 3-D (though I can think of no better story to be told in 3-D than that of a film that likewise concerns stagnation and horizontal, not vertical, development of technology). Without resorting to a barrage of quick cuts, Kosinski manages to craft sequences of pulsating frenzy, as the colors bleed and swirl until downed programs dissolve and shatter into pixels. But it gets old so damn fast, a repetitious blend of blue and orange that dips into a sad nadir with a fight in a club that dovetails into absurd, cringeworthy cutaways to Michael Sheen hamming it up as a Bowie-esque club owner who contorts his face and body into odd configurations as if the director included only the shots of Sheen horsing around on-set. (The cutaways are a problem in general, such as a strange close-up on Sam's dog early on and a few awkwardly inserted fluff scenes that break the flow for no reason.)

If the original Tron suffered from a lack of narrative momentum, its successor is overloaded with a surfeit of plot. Discontent to simply give the audience what it wants -- mindless, sparkling action -- Kosinski and his writers, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, insist on forcing some kind of emotional connection by taking the most outlandish, shameless approach possible to wring a mass reaction without a personal bedrock.* Flynn never returned from his visit to the Grid 20 years previously because the program he created to fashion the perfect digital world, Clu (Bridges with the digitally young face), naturally turned on its maker, and it also set about destroying a new type of program spontaneously created by the system. "It was genocide," solemnly sighs the aged Kevin when he fills his son in on the gaps. Every fiber of my being wanted to shout, "No it goddamn wasn't." Aware that Clu could use his identity disc to break into the real world -- don't even ask -- Flynn hid out for 20 years with the last remaining isomorphic program, Quorra (Olivia Wilde), attaining a Zen-like calm that offsets the severity of the Holocaust allegory with a Dude-esque performance. "Biodigital jazz, man," Kevin unhelpfully says when describing the isomorphic algorithms, his vague, hippie speech tragically serving as the logical foundation of the film's plot.

Meanwhile, Bridges' performance as Clu may be the first time I have completely failed to buy the greatest living American actor in a role. Part of this can be explained by that damn uncanny valley he has to carry on his face the entire time like a digital albatross, forcing all attention away from one of the best faces in the biz onto the horrid, plastic stiffness of the cheek muscles (this crime is particularly egregious, as few smile like Jeff Bridges; see the ones he gives with his proper features as Flynn for proof). But he is also forced to act essentially as a Hitler substitute, obsessed with purification and perfection under his rule. Bridges has been a capable and believable villain before, but Hitler? That aggression will not stand, man.

I found the anti-corporate attitude of the first Tron a bit on-the-nose but refreshingly cheeky. It is not inherently hypocritical for big budget movies to resent a capitalist attitude, and the first Tron cared enough about advancing the medium to give its idealism a certain pluck. But the lazy application of that same philosophy here seems nothing more than a cynical appropriation of elements of the first film without a moment's thought for context. Tron: Legacy is one of the most transparently for-the-franchise movies I've ever seen, something that exists solely to cash in on nostalgia and sell a new crop of toys and video games. The film even makes itself willfully irrelevant to better ensure it doesn't rock the franchise boat.

I would have liked to see a modified vision of cyberspace, one in which the power is now disseminated among millions of users instead of a single mastermind. But Tron: Legacy has nothing to offer. It does not even work as a mildly experimental music video for Daft Punk, whose soundtrack is a notable step down from the inventiveness of their usual work, a driving but soulless buzz of squall that serves as the de facto plot momentum given how leaden the actual structure is. Having listened to the soundtrack before seeing the movie, I can say that the above-average electronica works much better in the context of the film, but it too is a disappointment.

If anything, the grid animated through modern graphics is less imaginative than the one rendered on early animating computers. The programs tend to just act like people, as if the filmmakers realized that any real focus on the aspect of a machine's "soul" would raise too many philosophical questions that would limit box office appeal and steamrolled over the subject. And where and how is there food inside the computer world for Flynn to eat? Proving the point that this movie is about nostalgia, nearly all the plot is delivered through flashbacks and reminiscences, as if we're watching the third planned film in the series after the original idea for the darker middle movie fell through during production, leaving enough completed scenes for recycling.

Tron: Legacy is a hollow, clanging piece of capitalist opportunism, a spectacle that wears out its welcome for the rigid repetition of the grid's stunted possibilities. That, in a nutshell, is the film's chief failing: even after nearly 30 years of rapidly accelerated technological advancement, computers still offer the same vastness of potential for growth. If only anyone involved cared about showing that instead of making a $170 million video of a middle-aged person finding and playing with his childhood toys. A single shot in Tron: Legacy fully caught my eye: as Quorra and Sam sit at the front of a transport ship, a POV shot of Kevin looking at them from the far end temporarily overcomes the shallow focus of 3-D and pulls the two characters out of the screen from a the middle plane of a long shot and communicates for a few seconds the kind of possibility and forward-thinking vision of user-program harmony the rest of the film brushes aside for its empty regression. What a tantalizing and frustratingly teasing three seconds they are.


*Cheap emotional manipulation without sincere character development? Wait, let me check...yep, Horowitz and Kitsis were Lost writers. Of course.

3 comments:

  1. Great review, sir. It seems I enjoyed the film a little more than you, though I felt it coasted along on nostalgia and almost nothing else. I also really dug the Daft Punk soundtrack. But other than that, can't disagree with your critique.

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  2. I really dug the film, audio-visually speaking, but that's unfortunately all I got out of it. And who thought it was a good idea to "CGI-ify" Jeff Bridges' face? It would have looked more convincing if he wore a rubber mask, would have cost a lot less too.

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  3. i can't say i like this one in any way.... just a reason for them to bring in more cash!
    regards, eva

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