A gigantic, expensive light show. That’s what you get from Tron: Legacy, cued to one of the best scores of the last ten years. That may not be what anyone wants out of Tron: Legacy, but then what does anyone want out of a Tron sequel? For Disney, this is meant to be a standalone adventure. To be fair, it really doesn’t matter if you’re familiar with the original or not, but this is a balls-to-bone sequel to the original.

Here’s the story: Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has continued his work with the internet world of Tron on his own private network. At the beginning of the film he’s on the verge of a huge discovery, but that night he disappears. (Unfortunately the level to which the CGI work on getting 1989 Flynn right never improved beyond the trailer footage. Bridges in 1989 looks like a cut scene. So does his doppelganger, but at least that’s a computer program. The shaky CGI sets the tone that the film is going to miss). Cut to now, and his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is the primary stockholder in Encom, but his only interest in the company is terrorizing it. Such leads to the opening set piece where he rides a Ducati fast, hacks into their mainframe, and then jumps off the top of the Encom building. Here we also get to see Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) trying to stand up for decency, while the primary movers and shakers of Encom just want to repackage Windows with a new number (well, it’s not Windows, but it is). Such also leads to a great cameo by the person who is supposedly the son of Dillinger from the first film. But Sam is a mopey rebel, and though Hedlund isn’t terrible (as the early reports suggested), he’s just called on to be glum. After the opening set piece Alan shows up to tell him he got a page from Flynn’s arcade.

Sam goes to investigate, the jukebox kicks in, and the film briefly comes alive as one’s (or at least my) nostalgia for arcade parlors and the early 1980’s kicks in with two familiar soundtrack cuts – but also anticipation, as we know that we’re getting close to the game world. Sam finds his father’s hidden workstation, and before you can say “optical laser,” he’s ported into the world of Tron, known as “The Grid.”

For the next ten or so minutes, the film achieves the levels of holy shit you want as Sam is picked up by a recognizer and fellow captives are separated out for their fate. Sam is sent to games and outfitted with his skin-tight suit and memory disc. This sequence is the film at its best as we get the deadly discs of Tron 2.0 where the gravity keeps shifting and the platforms are as deadly as the discs themselves. But then Sam goes up against one of the best on the grid and it seems to be Tron. Sam gets out of this game and is taken in by Clu (Bridges), Flynn’s old program, but Clu’s become the evil overlord of this world, and puts Sam in a lightcycle race/death match. Here also the world of Tron is taken to the next level, but the grid is so large that you never get a sense of the geography of the field of battle. It’s a big race track, but if the special rules or track are never clear, what director Joe Kosinski does with it bests what the Wachowski’s did in Speed Racer with CGI car stunts.

Watching this is Quorra (Oliva Wilde), and she rescues Sam and takes him to his father. For years Flynn has been living in the system but hiding out off the grid, and he explains the back-story of the world so the reason for his disappearance becomes mostly clear. He was building this world, making it bigger, better and more awesome, and through it a new species was created. But Clu and Tron didn’t agree with his vision, so Clu eventually took over the world, while Flynn went into hiding because he knew that his memory disc – if stolen – would make the world worse. But because the laser that ports you in only has a short window to be open, he was marooned. Sam – confronted with the idea that he’s got eight hours to get back to the real world – wants to take his father out and home, but Flynn would rather do nothing. So Quorra gives him the name of someone she thinks he can trust, Castor (Michael Sheen), who will get him where he needs to go. But as Flynn changes his mind to protect his son, the chase is on, and all parties converge.

Okay, this is supposedly a kid’s film, but the great thing about the model for these movies is characters with clear goals. Sam starts with one – he wants to find his father – but shortly after he does find his dad, he leaves him. This is partly because he knows he needs to get back to the real world to solve some of these problems, but anyone who’s got absentee parent issues will recognize this film’s heart should be about fathers and sons, and when the two see each other for the first time in twenty years, it has no weight. Nor, really, does any of their relationship stuff. As my father passed away, and spent ten years ill, I know what’s it like to want to see your dad again, and this film isn’t about that. But even worse, it uses it as a framework but doesn’t invest in it, which suggests no one involved thought to give the film a heart until it was too late. Ultimately, the elder Flynn reacts to everything based on what the script needs. Much like the powers of the Users, which was more clearly defined in the first film (albeit only slightly). Here, Sam never sees the benefit of being one, and his father uses it only when it’s called on by the script.

Even worse, the villain’s plan is nonsensical. He may have called Sam (why now? Whatever.), but his plot to use Sam to bring his father out of hiding doesn’t make a lot of sense, nor does his whole world goal (which is heightened by using easy Nazi imagery). I wrote the plot section twenty four hours after seeing the film and even then I couldn’t tell you what Clu’s end goal was or how it could work, or anything, really. And the film doesn’t care either. As such, you never have any vested interest in the safety of the characters, and it’s hard to root for them to succeed because you never have a sense of the stakes.

Because of the developmental process, it’s hard to know where to lay blame, but if Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz are going to take the writing credit and the paycheck, then it’s hard not to call them terrible writers. I have no idea at what stage this was thought to be a good script, but how what’s on screen could pass any sort of muster is beyond me, even if things got muddled along the way by reshoots or daily re-writes or actors who went their own way – perhaps it was a director who was hired more for his technical whiz-bangery than understanding of narrative. Regardless, the blueprint doesn’t look like it was all that great, and the actors are all in their own different movies. Seriously, this film is so incompetently delivered as a narrative; the plot mostly exists to give the director his big scenes but there’s no connective tissue. As such the film dies on screen, and it lends you to pick apart the universe, and how shallow it is.

There’s a great look to the film, but when it invokes the outside grid world, it has the same problem as the Matrix sequels where it wants you to care about a humanity (or programanity) you have no sense of. Tron: Legacy features cinema’s most boring genocide. It’s hard to say where the rewrites came in or out, though Bruce Boxleitner suggested it was more in setting things up on his end (the Encom boardroom scene was a reshoot, and some of the conversations between Bridges and Wilde seem added). Much of the narrative seems derived from following the skeleton of the original, except – and this is so horribly stupid – they didn’t give the third act a battle to resolve things. As problematic (arguably) as the first film is, at least Tron goes up against Sark. Here, there’s a dogfight sequence that would be more spectacular if it didn’t feel just like a dogfight sequence, and also was more than just a set piece (and another one where the only characters that are de-rezzed are anonymous).

Bridges is at least having fun, and his performance as the elder Flynn is basically Bridges set loose – for better or worse he feels undirected. He doesn’t seem to following a script other than a few notes here and there but that adds to the pleasure – he’s at least alive. I can’t confirm or deny if Bridges is a big stoner, but he definitely comes across very Jeff Lebowski. Unfortunately, his Clu is more formless. Called on to be evil, Clu is never more than a plot point and the CGI just makes him more a figure of curiosity than danger – even if he’s trying to project evil, I kept thinking “this looks like a cutscene.” It’s a huge failing; as I said before, they never got it. Hedlund became the center of concern about the film, and it’s not his fault. Granted, Hedlund doesn’t command attention. Like Sam Jones or early stage Ben Affleck, he’s a pretty face and has some range, but here he’s called on to be mopey. And these films live or die by how much fun we’re having with the characters (especially the character who is the audience surrogate), and only towards the end (and theoretically in the lightcycle sequence) is he enjoying his time in this world. He doesn’t get to stop to smell the roses, and it hurts the film.

But all rumors about Olivia Wilde are true: She’s the heart and soul of the film. Raised by Flynn, Quorra is a curious and excited character, and her mixture of innocence, and – let’s face it – being one of the most attractive women on the planet makes for a great cocktail. Once she enters the scene, her innate curiosity about Sam and the outside world take the film up a level, because you’ve finally got someone you can care about. Wilde’s mainstream career kicked up a notch when she made out with another girl on television, but Wilde is going to be around for a while, and I celebrate her ascendancy. Though she seems comfortable working in pop entertainment, I would be surprised if she doesn’t become the 21st century’s Michelle Pfiefer. Don’t underestimate her.

The film has a couple of supporting players, but the rogues gallery is too small (especially with two of the four main characters played by the same actor, and so many black backgrounds that eventually create a sense of claustrophobia): Michael Sheen plays Castor as David Bowie meets Charlie Chaplin meets (as James Rocchi has said) Joel Grey in Cabaret, with (and perhaps it’s his accent) the manic comic energy of Simon Pegg. It’s theoretically a show-stopping, great role, but – though he does bring life to the proceedings – it’s not the sort of role that brings you back into the film, so much as a relief from the grunge. James Frain plays Jarvis, Clu’s simpering sidekick, and it’s a role defined by the make-up. He’s fine, there’s just not much there. Beau Garrett made a great costume design impression, and when paired with Sheen, she looked like the weirdest cyber-punk gun moll ever. I found her desirable, but that’s what she’s there for.

Director Joe Kosinski might be a world builder, but the film never gives you a great sense of geography, and for the most part, the money shots are blown in the first two grid set pieces (which essentially dress up the set pieces of the original, the disc fights and the lightcycles), so it’s a strangely claustrophobic world that never feels as fleshed out as it should. Lucas’s great gift in Star Wars – and to a lesser extent what happened in the first Tron – suggested that there was a world going on outside of the narrative. I never got that sense here at all. But his design work is impressive, though after a while it becomes meaningless.

The real champions of the film are Daft Punk and their score (which borrows heavily from John Carpenter), because they make the whole thing that much easier to swallow. When the movie comes out, I hope there’s an isolated score track (in 5.1 DTS-HD). I want to start campaigning Disney for this now, because if I could just watch the film with the score on, I might be tempted to watch the movie again.

But – ultimately – they made a very faithful sequel to a film that was as interested in advancing technology as it was about telling a narrative, but the advancements in technology here don’t have the same thrill, nor – it turns out – logical design. Even if the first film was just a poorly done redress of Star Wars.

Oh, and Tron is completely mishandled in the movie. He’s a character, but never takes his mask off, and he’s inserted into the world in a way that strikes as a late in the game “oh yeah, he’s also the title character, so he should show up.” It’s one of those things that makes the film worse because it’s so obscenely muddled, and only exists as an afterthought. It feels like bad fan service in lieu of a good movie. Which asks the question: Who are the fans of Tron? And were they so great that someone should have made this movie, if this is the film they were going to make? As troubled as David Lynch’s Dune was, at least there you could see things that would make the film appealing to everyone involved. Here, I just don’t get the why. I guess we’ll find out, but – though the film might open (even if tracking is currently soft) – I have no idea who this movie is for, and how anyone could love it as a movie. Perhaps as a ride, and to be fair I didn’t see it in IMAX as prints weren’t ready at the time. But that doesn’t make a real difference for a movie.

5.7 out of 10