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‘Tron: Legacy’ Review: When Beauty Met a Lack of Ambition

Tron Legacy Sci Fi
By  · Published on December 17th, 2010

Tron: Legacy is a thing of beauty. This is what everyone seems to be ignoring this week as Disney’s latest titan of budget and marketing roars into theaters, hell bent on whipping the masses into a consumerist frenzy just before ‘Oh holy night.’ But it’s true: Tron: Legacy, born of concept footage from young director Joseph Kosinski and a Comic-Con crowd who, at the time, had zero expectations for such a project, is a beautiful experience. It may be remembered as a beautiful disaster, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.

The great problem is that after several years, three Comic-Cons and millions of dollars in marketing later, it’s hard for heavily invested fans to accept that a concept so cool could yield a film so mediocre. That’s a hard notion to swallow. What we saw on that fateful July day at Comic-Con in 2008 was The Grid, fully realized in a new and exciting way. It was bold and sleek, fast-moving and exciting. It also included Jeff Bridges, our own champion du nostalgia. This final version has all of those things. It’s what’s been added that becomes problematic.

Consider the story, the woefully mediocre and repetitive tale weaved by former Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) was just a boy when his father Kevin (Jeff Bridges) mysteriously disappeared, leaving him heir to the technology empire known as Encom. Some years later, Sam is a thorn in the side of the company, playing a yearly prank on the mighty tech giant of which he owns a majority stock share. And just after his latest prank, he is visited by Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), his father’s oldest friend. A page has been received from Kevin’s office at the old Flynn’s Arcade. One fast Ducati ride later, Sam Flynn is in a familiar seat with a laser system about to put him into the game.

All at once, the beauty of Tron: Legacy comes roaring in as Sam enters The Grid. With a flash of energy – the only notable energy that the film will have in its 2 hour and 7 minute run-time – Sam is thrust into games of high-flying digitized acrobatics. Light discs are thrown, Light Cycles are raced at breakneck speeds and for a moment, director Joe Kosinski shows the world why he was chosen to take on Tron, and why Disney invested so much money into his project. A flurry of blues and yellows bring The Grid to stunning realization. It is in the most literal sense of the word “awesome.” It inspires awe. This is the version of Tron that fans have been waiting for, a rich and vibrant 3D world that will entrance kids of a new generation and have them buying toy Light Cycles left and right. Through the work of some obviously pricey digital effects, Legacy gives us something quite fantastic.

But it only lasts about 20 minutes.

Following that action scene, we learn that Kevin Flynn is still alive inside the computer, grizzled, old and trapped by a digital copy of himself named Clu (played by a young Bridges through some not-so-awe-inspiring CGI). Reunited with Kevin and his digital apprentice Quorra (Olivia Wilde), Sam sets out with a plan to stop Clu’s rule of the grid and take his father back to the real world. An hour of exposition and several caveats later, he resumes said mission.

It would be easy to make a punching bag out of the script for Tron: Legacy. It (mostly) regurgitates the Christ allegory from the 1982 original, placing Sam Flynn into the game as “son of the creator,” hero to the oppressed masses of programs. And it spends too much time talking at its audience, explaining years of development within the system since the last film. But perhaps its biggest crime is a lack of ambition. We live in a society that runs on ones and zeros, keeping us virtually “inside” our own digital worlds at all times. This wasn’t true in 1982 when Steve Lisberger and team first brought Tron into our world. Yet Legacy insists on keeping the antiquated feel. Not just inside the machine, where it makes sense, but outside the machine in the cold boardroom scene at Encom. What!? Software piracy?! How progressive…

Again, it wouldn’t be hard to make a punching bag out of this story. It’s not even worth starting in on the dialogue. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense. On the whole, just about everything that happens in Legacy fits into the film’s logic. It’s this lack of ambition and dedication to unnecessary exposition that make it bland, giving the film’s second act a very cold, sterile feel to it. The movie’s color palette is already dark inside the world of the computer, but stagnation makes the eyes go blurry. If Tron: Legacy needed anything, it needed less talk and a lot more action.

Not just because it needed to speed up, but also because that’s where the movie delivers on its promise. It delivers several breathtaking action sequences and in those moments, everything works. Stunning visuals, a butt-kicking score from Daft Punk and even the charisma of star Garrett Hedlund come bursting out of the screen in brilliant 3D. For those fateful moments, Tron: Legacy becomes an experience.

This is what makes Tron: Legacy the beautiful disaster it will long be remembered as. In one moment, it delivers visuals and action unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Then in the next, it shows us a CGI Jeff Bridges that is barely on par with what The Polar Express did for Tom Hanks half a decade ago. The world of Tron is built beautifully, but it’s also mechanical and uninviting. It’s the bachelor pad of the cinematic landscape – colorless and drab, but full of shiny toys and danger. Daft Punk scores the thing to perfection, delivering a mix of nostalgia and modern beats that may be the only thing that keeps the film moving in certain spots. The performances are solid, even when working with uninspired dialogue. And it’s got Jeff Bridges.

In the end, Tron: Legacy is one hell of an enigma. It promised us that it would be a cool movie. And it is, at times, a very cool movie. Could it have been a much better movie for the price that Disney paid to make it and sling it to the masses? Sure. Does it have a ridiculous standard built by its predecessor, an incredible legacy up to which it must live? No. We all forget that the original Tron, nerdy as it might be, was also mostly a bore with great special effects. Legacy is simply the modern day realization of that. And like that which came before, Tron: Legacy will strike geeky nerves, dazzle the masses and find its place in the hearts of a niche audience. Because when we boil it down, it’s the cool that we’re looking for.

And oh boy, does it bring the cool.

The Upside: Stunning visuals, excellent use of 3D and all the digitized cool you can cram into one film. And that Daft Punk score, oh that Daft Punk score.

The Downside: At times cold, mechanical and lifeless. Saddled with a story that lacks ambition and delivers relentless exposition.

On the Side: Unlike most of its contemporaries, this movie was filmed from the outset in 3D format, as opposed to being later converted in post production. The camera equipment used was also a generational step beyond the 3D technology used in Avatar.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)