The Way of the Word

14. December 2010

Review: Tron Legacy

USA 2010. Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Starring Garrett Hedlund, Jeff Bridges, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner.  Runtime 127 minutes

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), CEO of Encom, vanished in 1989, leaving behind his little son Sam. Fast forward to the present: Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), Kevin’s friend and Sam’s one-time guardian, brings Sam news of a page from Kevin. When Sam goes to investigate those news, he is transported to the Grid, a world within the computers, where progams live and work. It is a world terrorized by the Clu (Jeff Bridges), whose mission was once to make a perfect world. Which he did, by setting himself up as dictator. Forced to fight in the Games until he dies, Sam is rescued by Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who reunites him with his father. Kevin explains to Sam that he was stuck on the Grid after the portal closed. Now Sam reopened it. For Sam, the matter is clear: make a dash to the portal, get back to the real world, and take care of Clu by simply deleting it. The problem is that this is exactly what Clu wants: he has figured out how to travel from the Grid to the User World. Now that the portal is open, Clu can bring his army through and make the world of the users perfect. It is a goal that Sam’s brash actions put Clu on the verge of accomplishing. Now Kevin Flynn is forced out of hiding in order to deal with it. Which, again, is exactly what Clu wants.

Let me get this out of the way: the original Tron was a milestone in filmmaking. I talked about it previously. Does this sequel, Tron Legacy, compare?

Not entirely. The original basically invented modern filmmaking. This sequel takes what is currently available and pushes the envelope a bit farther out. Its major innovation is the digital deaging of Jeff Bridges, who can now convincingly play his current age and his 25 years younger self. It’s stunning, but it doesn’t push the envelope as much as the original did.

That doesn’t mean that Tron Legacy is not absolutely worth your while. The movie is made of win and awesome. Because its 3D sequences (the scenes on the Grid) show even better than Avatar did exactly what 3D can do. The Grid is designed as a completely alien landscape. It is weird, it is bizarre, it is totally unique. Anyone with the least bit of design sense will probably want to watch this movie several times just for this. The movie makes perfect use of 3D without having it be in-your-face. Even less so than Avatar, which did have its “look! 3D!” moments. Here, the 3D flows naturally into the landscape and the storytelling. It actually improves some of the action scenes.

Tron Legacy takes the worlds and the characters established by the original and evolves them. It plays with them. Almost all the characters are back (yes, including Tron himself, played by a de-aged Bruce Boxleitner). Most of the effects from the original are seen in a new and improved form. The new generation of Lightcycles is breathtaking, and the new generation of Recognizers stuns the viewer with the sense of actual mass and substance it now projects. There are constant nods to the original, little things like the son of Ed Dillinger (the villain from the first movie) sitting on Encom’s board of directors. A little item that is reminiscent of the Bit that accompanied Flynn on his first trip. If you know the original, you’ll recognize them. If you don’t it doesn’t matter, all those little homages don’t impede the flow of the story. It’s a clever balancing act, successfully accomplished, that out the creators of this movie as fans of the original.

The cast is convincing. The dangers to the characters seem real, and somewhere along the way it even appears that Clu’s insane plan will actually succeed. Garrett Hedlund is probably the discovery of the year. Oh, he’s been around for a bit, but not in any way that I noticed. This is definitely his breakout part. Olivia Wilde is wonderful and charming as Quorra. Watch her eyes. Jeff Bridges manages to keep his two very different characters distinct.

Does that mean the movie is perfect? Oh now. Nothing is. If you know the original, Jeff Bridges’s Flynn is a bit out of character. If you don’t know, it doesn’t matter. What is grating, though, is that throughout he talks like a hippie who left the world in 1969 instead of a geek who left in 1989. While Clu’s younger Bridges-look is totally convincing, it is at first irritating that he still talks with an old man’s voice. You get used to it, but that’s the next thing the digital wizards need to fix. And I didn’t like the ending. The last 2 minutes or so of the movie are too kitchy. End the movie before that, and it’d be perfect. You’ll know what I mean when I see it. Maybe if they had tacked that ending on as an after-credits easter egg…

But those minor quibbles didn’t noticeably impact my enjoyment of the movie. It’s the best movie I’ve seen all year.

Oh, and: you’ll want to buy the OST CD. Trust me on this.

Verdict: extremely recommended. Go out and see it, right now.

10. March 2010

Tron’s Legacy

The second trailer for Tron: Legacy is out, and it has the internet split in two.

Those over 30 experience geekgasms. Those under 30 don’t understand what the big deal is.

Let me help you out with that. First, watch the trailer. If you don’t know the original movie, you won’t get a lot of what makes us old fogeys go “Whoa.” But that’s okay.

Done? Had fun? Now, indulge an old man and watch the trailer of the original Tron, from 1982. I promise that if you do, some of the stuff from the new trailer will make sense.

Done? Great. How did you like the second one? I know, not nearly as cool as the first one. The CGI look horrible and insanely dated, don’t they? The way Jeff Bridges stumbles on some pretty basic (almost primitive) computer-speak dialog is funny. The story is also a major case of “been there, done that,” right? I mean, some guy getting pulled into VR, what’s so hot about that?

What you need to remember is that the original Tron is from 1982. Nobody even knew what cyberspace was. Sure, the term was coined in 1982, but it didn’t enter the public awareness until William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer in 1984. CGI as we know it today didn’t exist. Sure, there had been some computer graphic effects in movies since 1971, but those had always been about someone looking at a computer screen. CGI, as we know it today, can really only be traced back as far as 1982. ILM used some CGI effects in Star Trek 2. Tron was the first movie to use extensive 3D CGI-sequences, and very simple facial animation. Extensive for the time means that 15 minutes of the movie were completely computer-generated.

That dumb shot of the huge virtual face? At the time, unique. First time ever. The first photorealistic CGI-character didn’t appear on the screen until 1985, and he only had 10 seconds of screen time.

Terminator 2? Jurassic Park? Babylon 5? Toy Story? Matrix? Avatar?

None of them would have been possible without Tron.

Regarding Tron’s story, you could say that it’s an old hat. Sure, there were some elements that were not really new. Basically, it’s a story about a god coming into a world of mortals to help fight a great evil. God being called a “user” and the mortals being “programs.” You could also say that it’s a superhero story. That works just as fine.

So what if the world is VR/cyberspace? Again, you’re looking at the wrong context. Remember what I said above, about how the word cyberspace did not even exist when Tron was made? Nobody had any concept of cyberspace. That there could be a world within the computers… at the time, it was a daring concept that boggled the mind. Matrix took it a step farther… 20 years after Tron, when it really was an old hat.

Maybe all of this will give you a certain sense of perspective. Maybe now you understand why Tron is such a big deal for those of us who are over 30.

Tron was in 1982 what Avatar is in 2010: it was the movie that redefined what movies could do. It was the big game changer. It created new possibilities and set a new standard, that everyone who followed had to try and outdo.

In 30 years, your children will ask you why Avatar, this dated movie with that dumb story, is such a big deal to you.  (Actually, considering how much more quickly technology progresses these days, it will probably be much sooner than 30 years.) Then you will explain to them, as I do here, just how different movies were before and after Avatar.

And that is why Tron is such a big deal for us who saw it when it was new. Are the effects dated? Of course. Is the story original? By now, no longer. Is the acting cheesy? Actually, I don’t think so. At least most of the time it’s pretty solid.

Do we, the over-30s, expect Tron: Legacy to be a game-changer, the way its daddy was? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t think so. It will, however, be a good showcase for the advance of CGI since 1982. It will also, I expect, be a great deal of fun, and it is the only movie coming out this year that I will actually make an effort to see in the 3D-version.

I really, really look forward to this one.

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