Friday, December 24, 2010

New 'TRON' is a visual stunning popcorn film

“TRON: Legacy” is an interesting case of a major studio investing millions of dollars into a sequel to a movie that was box office dud. In the 28 years since the original, Disney's “TRON” has developed a cult following, but a large portion of the general public is probably thinking: “What the heck is a TRON?” or “Wait, there was a first?”

When “TRON” came out in 1982 it was a showcase for groundbreaking technology. It was the first film to have extended computer animated sequences and through strong editing did an impressive job integrating actors into computer generated sequences.

The original film was about how Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a video game programmer and hacker was sucked into the digital world he created. Now on the other side of the screen, the games, including the famous light cycle battle, are much more dangerous.

In this world the programs are doppelgangers of their creators, an idea that is used as a major jumping off point in the sequel. “TRON” ended with Flynn escaping from the digital land known as The Grid, but “Legacy” reveals that he became obsessed with the world and kept going back and eventually was taken hostage by his own program, Clu (also Bridges).

“Legacy” explains all this in an effective prologue and then fast forwards 20 years to reveal that Flynn is still missing and his orphaned son Sam (Garrett Hedlund, “Four Brothers”) is a mischievous rebel that refuses to take over his father's company. Inevitably, Sam is also zapped onto The Grid. The rest of the film is attempting to bringing dear old dad home while battling off the tyrannical Clu, who wants in on the real world.

The Flynns have help from Quorra (Olivia Wilde, TV's “House”), a particularly special program that has been Kevin's protege. Wilde gives an interesting performance. Quorra is a strong, confident fighter, but there's more to her than the typical butt kicking babe. Wilde gives the character a childlike enthusiasm and curiosity. There's a way she watches father and son interact that is perfect. A dinner scene between the Flynns and Quorra is a quietly hilarious awkward reunion.

As with the original, the plot is nothing spectacular, but not completely lacking substance. There is a theme that too much time spent in the digital world (the Internet, video games, etc.) can lead to a disconnect from reality. It is barely explored, but at least it is there.

The story is serviceable and engaging enough, but it is really just an excuse for the visuals and, on that basis, the film works because there are indeed some stunning visuals. This is a richly conceived universe that expands on motifs from the original. The upgraded light cycle sequence is thrilling as are the numerous disc battles. The visuals are perfectly complemented by a score by electronic music duo Daft Punk, who also make a cameo appearance.

Through digital technology Bridges is able to play Flynn at his actual age and Clu looking 30 years younger. It is an impressive, if not all together seamless, achievement. There's never any doubt that it is Bridges, and in some scenes it is amazing how good it looks, but much of the time it looks too waxy and digital, but this works since Clu is a digital clone after all.

While the process is not perfect, it is great fun to see Bridges playing off his younger self. Bridges plays Flynn as a broken man who has gone inward. There's a bit of The Dude from “The Big Lebowski” in Flynn, especially in lines like “you're really messing with my whole Zen thing, man.” Clu is a standard, but effective villain.

Hedlund is a likable hero and has good chemistry with both Bridges and Wilde, but he is easily overshadowed by both.

Michael Sheen (“Frost/Nixon,” “The Queen”) has a fantastic supporting turn as an androgynous night club owner on The Grid. Sheen has limited screen time, but steals every scene with a campy persona and high energy.

Bruce Boxleitner returns as Alan Bradley in the film's bookend scenes in the real world as well as briefly as Tron, if only since the movie bares his name. It is nice to see another original cast member and Boxleitner is good with the limited time he has. There's an implication that if there are more films in this franchise that he'd feature more prominently.

Fans of the original film will enjoy this update. It is a bit clunky in places, but so was the original. The film does work as a stand-alone piece though, so sci-fi fans should also appreciate what is on display here. It is definitely a niche film and it is a good one — not great, but, certainly good fun.

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