The way I’ve been describing ‘Tron: Legacy’, Disney’s new mega-budgeted sequel/reboot to a terrible movie that was only half-popular 30 years ago, is that it’s the weirdest $300 million video art installation you’ll see all year. By which I mean that Joseph Kosinksi’s film is not short on wonder, especially when his majestic images are coupled with the soaring, Tomorrowland-at-night soundtrack by Daft Punk. But when it’s forced to actually be, you know, a narrative, things slip away, and all you’re left with is computer bytes in an empty mainframe.
So it’s been twenty-something years in the ‘Tron’ universe. In that time, gaming genius Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has mysteriously vanished, leaving behind a wayward son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) and a company that puts out sub-Windows programs once a year to huge profits. After the COO (Bruce Boxleitner, also from the original) tells Sam that he received a mysterious page from his father’s long-abandoned office, Sam goes there and, wouldn’t you know it, gets zapped into the computerized world from the first film.
Unfortunately, things have gotten much worse. The grid is now a sprawl of totalitarian regimes, while lightning crashes and wind whips around our hero. He’s quickly spirited away to the “Games” – arguably the only aspect of the first film that anyone even vaguely remembers. This is where he takes place in the “Disc Wars,” and where he’s forced to race the “light cycles” against the movie’s villain, Clu – a de-aged, digitally augmented version of Jeff Bridges as he was in the original film.
The first hour or so of the movie flies by, largely thanks to the gee-whiz 3-D visuals (which only activate once Sam has crossed over into the Tronworld) and the aforementioned score by Parisian electro pioneers Daft Punk. If you’re watching the film at an IMAX 3-D cinema, the music sounds like it’s erupting from deep within your chest cavity.
Once the movie takes a second to catch its breath, with Sam being spirited away from the cityscape by tough-as-nails Quorra (Olivia Wilde) to meet his absentee father in a house that looks a lot like that room at the end of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘, things start to fall apart. Bridges gives it his all, both as his power-mad computer generated doppelganger, and as Flynn, who’s kind of like The Dude if The Dude wore a neon-lined kimono. (At one point, he says, “You’re really messing with my Zen thing, man.”) But he has very little to grasp onto. The father/son bonding thing should have been the movie’s strongest element and its emotional backbone, but it mostly falls flat, aside from some nice Daft Punk cues.
Instead of the bizarre art piece that it was in the first hour, in which people in amazing costumes walk slowly around gorgeously visualized sets (both real and virtual), the movie gets bogged down in the worst kind of science fiction plotting. It’s something about Clu wanting to use a portal to enter the human world. Or whatever. A series of only moderately exciting action sequences try to keep it afloat. (It should be said that, at some point, Michael Sheen shows up as a flamboyant club owner and all but sashays away with the movie.)
The film climaxes with a pretty breathless aerial version of the light cycle chase. There are also a few surprises along the way, especially if you’ve kept up with the first film. Overall, my recommendation is this: See it in the biggest, baddest, possibly IMAX-iest theater and just get transported for a couple of hours. Don’t get too caught up with the story, or the endless series of sci-fi clichés. It’s an accomplishment, for sure, but one that you wish would make you feel something besides a burning urge to go pick up the soundtrack album.