My gut instinct is to advise the prospective Tron: Legacy audience member to temper their expectations, to adjust any hope of a quality film to some other outlook that would let he or she simply “enjoy the ride” and appreciate the expensive spectacle presented to them. Unfortunately though, for many viewers at least, that simply will not be enough. Why?
Because Tron: Legacy is stupid. Aggressively stupid.
Shot from what seems to be a first-draft script, or perhaps just bound and color-coded bar napkins, the plot of Tron is so middling and poorly conceived that it’s almost not worth attempting to engage the problems with the script at all. If one must, they need only look as far as the first real sequence of the film, which takes place after a painfully on-the-nose TV reporter narrates obvious facts that don’t bring us up to speed so much as highlight things that are already apparent. The film kicks off when it skips forward and the now-grown son of the long-missing Kevin Flynn sneaks his way into the headquarters of ENCOM, a company that he essentially owns but exercises no control over. This computer industry mega-conglomerate is in the final hour stretch before the release of their new operating system. We’re treated to a few moments of the CEO of the company making it clear that ENCOM is releasing the same ole product with “a new number on the box,” and that ENCOM specifically doesn’t care about children (literally, that is a thing). We then see young Flynn proceed to sneak his way into the building, hack into a random server, and upload the operating system to the web, free to download for all. The board meeting erupts into catastrophe as the evil company immediately realizes they’re screwed… for some reason. I must have missed the opening crawl that explained that peer-to-peer networks and torrent aggregators were never invented.
There are literally half a dozen insultingly dumb things that happen in this ten minute stretch, but the biggest problem -which cripples what should be one of the film’s core competencies right from the start- is that it demonstrates a profoundly outdated and over-simplified understanding of the place of technology and software in our world. Before we ever see a bit or byte of The Grid, much less our first taste of neon, the film has tried to tell us that a pirated copy of an operating system being leaked on the Internet is a catastrophe of epic proportions. For a decade we’ve existed in a world where piracy was a fact of life for software companies of every size (for the big ones most of all) so on what level are we supposed to engage a film about computers and technology that so fundamentally misjudges the first idea it presents to us on that subject? It makes it clear from the start that you’re not expected to turn your brain off, but physically remove your brain and kick it into the nearest sun.
So now we’re ten minutes in.
Flash forward to Sam finding out from Alan Bradley –former pal of Kevin Flynn, surrogate father to Sam, and ENCOM’s lone altruistic executive– that the missing inventor’s old arcade is sending out beeper messages. Mere moments later Sam stumbles into The Grid and we find that the formerly featureless, 8-bit reality of this computer world has been uprezzed to a glowing place of fully-articulated architecture and complicated mechanics. Glass and polished metal have become the dominant surfaces, endlessly bordered and accented by luminescent highlights, yet the hint of dust creeps in on the outskirts of “downtown.” The production design hints at a world that has evolved over the course of a thousand cycles to the closest facsimile of actual reality that could be achieved, one that has resolved as far as is possible without abandoning the linear perfection of the digital. It’s clear that had the script been willing or able to engage these technological concepts with anything more than its coloring-book level of sophistication, the production design would have been there to support it. Which is to say: yes, the film is pretty, or at least it’s novel and engaging for a while. Unfortunately the awe that comes with exploring this new world and enjoying this beautiful aesthetic is set on a pretty steep curve.
As in the original Tron, our hero finds himself unceremoniously dumped into a coliseum-like gaming environment where he manages to survive long enough to catch the notice of the helmeted leader of The Grid. Outed as a “User,” Sam discovers that Flynn’s digital clone C.L.U. has taken over. We hop right back into things with the big light-cycle chase before Sam escapes with the help of a mysterious figure. Eventually we meet Quorra and Kevin Flynn and learn more about the senseless and mostly irrelevant backstory behind the current iteration of The Grid, and the wild chase to return Sam to the real world (or something) begins. It’s impossible to continue simultaneously describing the plot and critiquing the film, because the volume of asininity in this film is just too daunting.
I am not exaggerating when I say this film genuinely feels like it was filmed from the 50 page kid’s storybook that is inevitably published for every blockbuster property. The rules of the film are inconsistent, the stakes simply invented in-the-moment the way children “playing Tron” in the schoolyard might make things up as they go along. Like a diluted version of The Matrix sequels, the characters just find themselves going from one place to another because they’re told to, or because one of them just knows where the next event will happen. Kevin Flynn’s identity disc is made to be an important object that must be protected at all costs, yet when it’s stolen by the villains, it’s as an after-though as Flynn runs out of a room. Location shifts and overall motivations are treated the same way, with explanations coming only as they’re needed (if at all), and in ways that only makes sense at that moment. The ending is a jam-packed procession of meaningless images and unearned pay-off that’s completely illogical- it demonstrates the difference between ambiguity and simply forcing your audience to be creative for you. Virtually every piece collapses when held up to any other part of the film! Tron: Legacy is very much a neon Phantom Menace in this way, with a story that is boring and only coherent if you’re mentally squinting.
Take Sam’s appearance in The Grid, for example, and see if you can follow/make sense of this (you’ll have to trust that I’m genuinely not trying to make the description unnecessarily complicated)… He is called there by a message sent to the pager of a colleague of Kevin Flynn. Sam takes this as a reason to investigate his father lab, screws around with his father’s computer in the precisely necessary way to be sucked into the computer, and then shows up in The Grid. Sam travels through “the portal” (which only opens briefly), no one is specifically waiting for him, and he’s haphazardly captured and thrust into the gaming arena. His luck in surviving finally brings him to C.L.U.’s attention, who then makes a genuine attempt to murder him in a lightcycle battle. We find out later though, that this page was sent by C.L.U as a means to trap Sam and incite Kevin to come out of hiding, making it possible for C.L.U. to get his identity disc. We’re told C.L.U. can’t journey to Kevin’s hideout on the outskirts of The Grid (even though he does when it become convenient to the plot), yet he tried to immediately kill his bait! Inconsistent logic such as this plagues virtually every part of Tron: Legacy.
Even though they are far more egregious than the typical stupidities of thinly plotted blockbusters, many will be undeterred by these complaints, as the expectation is of a brilliant visual show, a modern digital spectacle… Well Tron kind of fails at that too. Don’t get me wrong- I’m not silly enough to suggest that Tron isn’t sometimes beautiful or wonderfully rendered or exciting. The problem is that it is rarely all of these things at once, and rarely manages any of them for long. Visually the film is unique, but black glass and phosphorescent vehicles are only interesting for so long, and everything blends together in a relentless smear of bland action. Joseph Kosinski has a history of making incredible commercials that often cross the line and become conceptual short films about technology. Beyond his work for well-known video game ads, he has a strong resume of high-grade work demonstrating a unique sensibility that captures awe-inspiring beauty with a futuristic precision. It is this body of work that made Kosinski such an exciting choice to bring a modernized version of Tron to the screen, as he possessed the real potential to shake up the visual techniques usually present in blockbuster films. Unfortunately, none of that talent seems present in Tron and instead we get a competent and mostly effective directorial vision that could have come from any other Hollywood director with workman-level skill. I wonder if Kosinski found it difficult to bring his exacting style to a project of this scale, or if his instincts were diluted by the Disney machine, but there is no grand sense of scope or interesting futurism in his camera work or blocking. This may be the biggest failure of the film to meet its potential.
Even the light-cycle race, which is certainly the highlight of the movie, is only exciting because of speed and bright lights- not because of any extraordinarily novel spectacle. These are digital motorcycles that leave trails of light behind them, and yet that’s only maintained for a few consecutive shots at a time- there’s no higher continuity to the sequence. We should be enjoying a spine-tingling bike chase that grows increasingly full of tension and excitement as the labyrinth of light grows denser and more complex. But we’re never treated to that sense of scale, or even a wide-shot to show us the dazzling puzzle of light these bikes have created. There are red-shirt lackeys that get destroyed but there are no stakes and nothing memorable. To consider the squandered potential makes the one decent scene in the movie fall extremely flat in retrospect. The hand-to-hand combat in the film is mostly laughable and will slide right off of your eyes the moment it’s off the screen. In fact, I can’t think of a single instance of sustained exhilaration in the entire film- not one set piece that left me with my heart-pounding once it was done.
There are problem with visuals as well- settings like the End of Line club and Kevin Flynn’s hideaway look good in trailers, and they’re certainly neat environments, but when any amount of time is spent in them they cease to feel like The Grid and just become Pottery Barn twenty years from now. You can get away with clear plastic, the occasional black-leather-and-steel piece, and flashes of incongruously saturated color while still maintaining the unique Tron look, but all together it just seems hyper-designed and out of place. The costumes are the same way- something about the finely textured superhero spandex coated in rubberized plastic plates doesn’t work in Tron the same way it works for Batman. Again, it looks good in trailers, but to stare at it for an entire movie reminds you why that’s gotten so boring.
Another unexpected issue that plagues The Grid is that it feels empty. We get the impression of a massive population of programs with the single crowd shot we see in the gaming arena, but aside from the two minutes we spend at street level, and the sparsely populated End-of-Line club, there’s no indication that many beings actually live in this place. There is a point in the film when there are thousands of characters on screen, but it’s an army that’s coated in the exact same costumes and just blend together into a big mass that has no meaning. Besides, that’s an army rather than a city’s population, and if the film wanted to imply that C.L.U. had pretty much drained The Grid’s inhabitants for his army- well then it should have made that point. Once again, I’m thinking for the movie and coming to more interesting conclusions than the film itself can support.
Is there anything redeeming? The acting isn’t bad- Olivia Wilde does a lot with a little and is far and away the most beautiful thing to look at, in a film filled with +$100 million effects. Despite rumors of being unwatchable, I found Garrett Hedlund to be a fairly effective leading man, just with no movie to lead. He hasn’t rocketed to my list of actors to watch out for, but I can certainly envision him being effective under the right director in a movie with a script. Jeff Bridges is trying to have fun, and his anachronistic Dudeisms are endearing, but they clash horribly with the stilted nonsense he has to get across- piles of nonsense backstory that would have been better left unsaid in some attempt at mysterious ambiguity. Michael Sheen is awful (or he was terribly directed) as a useless character that simply mugs for the camera and plays kooky in the most obvious way possible.
As you might expect, Daft Punk are the only real winners in Tron: Legacy. I’m not kidding when I say that Daft Punk’s three-shot cameo in the End Of Line club has the most interesting physical performance of that small part of the film- though I suppose they actually should be quite practiced at being interesting behind a DJ booth. It is also Daft Punk’s pulsing, multi-genre score that gives the movie any semblance of energy or momentum it manages, even if it is fighting too much inert poppycock (I have run out of words for “nonsense”) to give the film a soul. The soundtrack is also strong, with some interesting vocal processing tricks and throwbacks to old effects included in the effects work and editing.
The visual effects of The Grid itself are impeccable, with most of the vehicle action being extremely well animated. That strength doesn’t make it to the finish line though. Due to the direction and design more than anything, the final sky-soaring set piece becomes a SW Prequel Trilogy-esque mishmash of overly-slick computerized action. The digitally replicated “young Flynn” effect is very close to being effective in the first shot or two, but the quality quickly degrades from there (they obviously spent much more time on the trailer shots) to the point where C.L.U.’s final speech is downright comedic, and when nothing in the frame is real and your only human is a poorly animated CGI face, the shots stick out like cut-scenes in a video game. A slightly digital-looking C.L.U. could have worked (he is a program after all) but when he’s surrounded by perfectly photoreal programs, it doesn’t work. The fact that the quality degrades with shocking consistency over the course of the film just marks it more and more as a poorly judged choice.
…frankly, I’m spent. For there to be so much potential in the project, between the resources and the inherent subject matter, makes it even more crushing to see such a moronic final product. Even when approached as pure spectacle it fails to be consistently entertaining, or show us anything particularly new. The trailer editors earned their pay for this one, but the rest of the decision makers and filmmakers at Disney should be embarrassed such a senseless piece of nothing ever made it into production on their watch, much less a production that consumed so much money, time, and public attention.
In an age when a trip to a 3D movie could buy groceries for a week you should demand more, even from your shallow spectacle. If you have any pride or intolerance toward being outright insulted, Tron: Legacy isn’t worth your time, and it’s certainly not worth your money.