Thursday, December 23, 2010

review: Tron: Legacy

Tron: Legacy (2010, Joseph Kosinski)

Hollywood often reserves movie lovers a significant blockbuster gift for the holiday season. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), King Kong (2005), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and Avatar (2009) are some of the more memorable ghosts from Christmas past. Big actors, big special effects and big, big hype during the months leading up to each and every one of the films mentioned above. Now comes Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy, a movie whose marketing and fanboy buzz alone are legacies in of themselves, what with the first ever footage emerging at the 2008 Comic-Con convention. That’s right, 2008, a cool 2 ½ years ago. A unique aesthetic design which stays true to the 1982 original, a story involving computers and state of the art technology, IMAX, 3D, etc. with the cherry on top being logo of the company promoting this mammoth: good old Walt Disney studios.
Our tale begins in 1989, as world renowned computer programming genius Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is having an intimate moment with his son Sam in the latter’s bedroom. Kevin is sharing the stories of some of his amazing adventures inside his marvellous computer world with creations such as defence mechanism Tron and virtual alter ego Clu (also Jeff Bridges). Days later, Kevin mysteriously disappears from the face of the earth, shocking his admirers, his company Encom, and most of all Sam, who grows up (played by Garrett Hedlund) as an outsider from his father’s company, basically trying to sabotage some of its projects. An unexpected and bizarre message that may or may not have come from his father leads Sam to the family’s old arcade shop, where, after discovering a hidden computer lab and fondling with the system, he is transported from our world to that of his father’s creation. The quest to find Kevin and stop his now evil computer twin Clu from taking over the real human world begins.

Granted, this movie could have been shown interest in developing a provocative dissection of our frequently criticized reliance on technology and how such dependence can destroy us in the end, or a psychological thriller about the value of life in artificial creations, but that is clearly not why Tron: Legacy was made. Its purpose is to entertain, plain and simple. To that extent is succeeds well enough. Most of the pleasures that are to be plucked from seeing Tron: Legacy are the fruit of the film’s aesthetic. The world Kevin Flynn created is a dance of light and darkness, where the blacks are very rich and the lights are distinct shiny, sleek rays of blues, oranges, whites and yellows that run down walls, the sides of flying vehicles and skin-tight leather clothing. One could say that the movie can only go so far as its production design and computer graphics carry it. Thankfully they do some solid mileage. There is a simplicity to the world’s presentation that enjoyed very much, that the world Kevin gave birth to, this ‘grid’, both a dreamlike quality but also something that indeed can associated to the perfection of a computer.  I never once grew tired of the visuals and, quite honestly, they kept my eyes firmly glued to the cinema screen. I cannot help but wonder how viewer’s at large will react to the movie’s eye candy. The universe of Tron: Legacy is beautiful, but admittedly cold. Much like computers themselves, it accomplishes a lot of storytelling in providing the world its own sense of place and character, but it it is a cold place. With Disney’s logo splattered across the marketing campaign, I’m assuming the studio wants whole families to enjoy the picture show, but how will the little ones react? Those seeking the sort of adrenaline rush only quickly paced action sequences can afford should leave pleased however. There are multiple elaborate set pieces that all avoid repetition. Gladiator battles involving discs that cut challengers into small bits, motor cycles races and a chase involving aircraft are among the highlights, although I’d wager that the last one is the least inspired. There is only so much one can do with the millionth aircraft chase in cinema history, but it’s still a satisfying climax. I was somewhat puzzled as to how Sam Flynn adapted so quickly to the disc battles given that he had essentially been thrown into the gladiator ring a mere 10 minutes after inadvertently plunging into the computer world. My brain told me that given how his father was a video game programmer, Sam would be accustomed to these sorts of challenges, but I dare presume that pressing some buttons on a remote control as a kid is slightly more manageable than jumping and flipping around trying to avoid death while tossing a disc that bounces off walls. Of course, I only have limited experience with the video game remote control part, not the ‘avoid death via flipping’ part, so what do I know…

The issue with so many of these blockbusters rests with story and character development, the former which often feels uninspired or middling (or both) and the latter which feels flat. I’d be lying if I said that Kosinski and the screenwriters have concocted a brilliant satire or commentary on computer technology, or even an emotionally gripping tale about a father son reunification. There is indeed a father and son reunification, but it doesn’t hold the level of interest I would have liked. That’s not saying it’s bad, period. In fact, there some decent moments, such as the awkward silence at a dinner table shortly after Sam and Kevin embrace (they haven’t seen one another in 20 years, after all), but nothing was especially touching. The villain of the piece, Clu, has plans to invade our own world by acquiring the knowledge stored in Kevin’s memory disc, which echoes many dastardly plots of Bond films, at least the world takeover part does, but it comes across very much as an afterthought. In fact, there is mention of a past genocide executed by Clu on a particular kind people in the computer world, which is when I thought the film’s story was really getting pertinent, but it was only that, a past genocide never mentioned again.

Olivia Wilde, who plays a computer character named Quorra, gives many of her scenes a bit of a lift. A review of the film I read a few days ago mentioned how her character, born in the computer world but gifted with some knowledge of the human world since she lives with Flynn, is both feisty and naïve. It’s an apt description. She has a lot of guts, is pretty, and has a few genuinely funny moments.  It was nice to see that Wilde was more than a pretty face, but can also give a good performance. Her character couldn’t have been easy to play given how her particular upbringing in the Flynn’s apartment meant that she often refers to an outside world she has never seen (hence the naiveté) all the while rocking around in fancy vehicles, but it works. It’s tempting to say that she steals the show in fact. Jeff Bridges is the one most would expect to own the film, but I thought he thought he was merely okay. An ‘okay’ Bridges is typically light years ahead of most ‘okay’ performances, but it was still merely ‘okay.’ Computer wizardry has enabled the filmmakers to craft a performance featuring a younger version of the same actor. Kevin Flynn is essentially whatever age Bridges is, but Clu is still 20 years younger. The result is pretty darn good, even though there are some slight details which computer graphics still have trouble replicating (eyes mostly) that hint at the character’s artificiality. A lot of reviews I’ve come across have really frowned on the CGI Jeff Bridges, but I applaud the filmmakers’ efforts. That could not have been easy to pull off, imperfect as it may be. Garret Hedlund is alright, showing the sort of cockiness one might expect from a young buck who thinks he has everything figured out. Nothing to write home about, about a serviceable performance nonetheless. 

A somewhat rushed and at times incomprehensible plot, some decent performances and fantastic visual effects and action, those are what await audiences who pay to see Tron: Legacy. That’s not a bad deal per say given how brilliant everything looks and sounds, including the Daft Punk score which has a charming 80s electro sound to it. I’m still playing a slightly different movie in my head however, one that had a more sophisticated and meaningful plot, but I’d be lying if I wrote that leaving the IMAX room I was dissatisfied. Nay, I had fun. I might not remember much about the movie in a fortnight other than the design, but I had fun nonetheless.


Ryan McNeil said...

Good review!

Despite the film's soft opening, I wonder if it will ultimately still rake in the loot based on next to nothing standing in its way between now and THE GREEN HORNET.

I liked it a little bit less than you did, but if you click over to the Matinee, I've posted a pretty cool conversation with a friend who liked it a lot more and reminded me of a few things I might have glossed over.

edgarchaput said...

@The Mad Hatter: I'm anxious to see this weekend's numbers for 'Tron: Legacy'. What will the drop be? as I wrote in my review, I have doubts as to its mass appeal.

Anonymous said...

I think there's more to this film than entertainment. I think it brings up some interesting ideas about the notions of trying to create a perfect world and the repercussions that might have.