As a video game-obsessed kid growing up in the early 80s, Tron was a film that seemed tailor made just for me. I was only 5 in 1982, but I was already dazzled by games, especially the lights, sounds and intense gameplay of arcade machines. How cool would it be to find myself inside one of those machines, fighting alongside or against the programs within? Tron was a glimpse into another world, the likes of which we hadn’t seen before. And, in truth – at least until Tron Legacy in 2010 – we hadn’t seen much of again, certainly not in live action in any case.
The memory of Tron is perhaps stronger and more effective than the actual film. The pioneering special effects and colourfully glowing costumes gave it a unique aesthetic – and ambience – that had never been replicated, but the live action sequences inbetween rapidly became dated and uninteresting. Of course, the effects themselves became dated too – but to me at least they still have an oddly enduring appeal that surpasses the badly-aged, now cartoony look.
Tron Legacy had a lot to live up to. It does an awful lot right, though it gets quite a bit wrong too.
The story of Sam Flynn, whose search for his missing father – Kevin Flynn: head of software company ENCOM, creator of arcade game Tron and the protagonist of the first film – leads him on his own digital odyssey into the computer realm. Once inside, he finds an uprising being staged by CLU – a security program created by the elder Flynn in his own image – who intends to lead an army of soldiers into the real world with the intention of purifying it, just as his programming (accidentally) intended.
It’s all very atmospheric and has an incredible ambience, thanks in no small part to director Joseph Kosinski’s flair for moody cinematography, incredible production design and Daft Punk’s stunning score – which remains near-peerless in my opinion. The action sequences are phenomenal for the most part, with a brilliant updating of the original film’s light cycle and disc war sequences. There’s some dizzying choreography and impressive shots of combatants dissipating into digital cubes. It’s all wonderful stuff.
Yet the film takes itself far too seriously; the daft premise of Tron is treated too reverently. It’s all really silly stuff, but it could perhaps have benefitted from a lighter touch and less of the serious feel. Jeff Bridges is, as always, excellent as the older Kevin Flynn, playing him like an addled zen master – a stoned Obi-Wan Kenobi-esque mentor (“biodigital jazz, man,” he exclaims at one point – he’s wonderful). His protege and protector, the sweetly wide-eyed innocent Quorra, is played to perfection by Olivia Wilde. Even Bruce Boxleitner, on double duty here as a de-aged Tron and the real world company executive, Alan Bradley, has quite the infectious twinkle in his eye as he points Sam in the right direction to set his quest in motion. Garrett Hedlund is just a little bland as the seemingly permanently baffled Sam Flynn, though he does at least sell the physical side of the role – and his chemistry with his on-screen father is great. James Frain, as a deliciously self-serving boot-licker of a program, works wonders with a small role.
Special mention has to go to Michael Sheen, whose nightclub owner/host/shifty bastard Castor absolutely steals the show. He cuts loose and really does have some of that much-needed, aforementioned fun; it’s just a shame his presence in the film is so brief. He absolutely chews through the scenery and loves every second – it’s incredibly infectious.
Less successful – to say the least – is the de-aged Jeff Bridges antagonist Clu. Though it paved the way for so many more impressive digital transformations and was a leap forward for the tech in 2010, it’s a waxy, unconvincing effect that really doesn’t look like it was ready for prime time. It was distracting eleven years ago, now it’s just plain awful – and it’s hard to take Clu seriously at all. It really does look shoddy; little better than the oft-mocked Scorpion King that made Dwayne Johnson into a terrifyingly plasticky mannequin back in 2001’s The Mummy Returns. There’s a few shots where it works, but they’re few and far between. The decision to use white light for the ‘good’ programs is baffling too, when the blue vs red aesthetic proved so striking in the original film. White vs orange just doesn’t have the same feel; it seems really plain by comparison, though the film does have an undeniably striking and unique look despite that.
Issues aside, there’s a genuinely impressive commitment to the aforementioned atmosphere and aesthetic – and proceedings are elevated hugely by the Daft Punk soundtrack, which is truly stunning. The way I see it, there’s essentially several action-packed music videos in Tron Legacy – and it works much better as a sequence of MTV-style promos than it does as a full 2-hour narrative.
Still, all that said, it does end on an incredibly intriguing note (with one major character’s fate left subtly open ended as well), which is full of mind-boggling possibilities. The long rumoured third Tron movie sounds like it could actually happen (way before there’s the same 28-year gap we had to endure while waiting for Legacy, too!) – with Disney Plus being a likely home for it. There’s so much potential for a third film; let’s hope it isn’t squandered.
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