Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tron: Legacy Fun but Doesn't Live Up to the Legacy of the Original

Warning: Spoilers

I can't say I've been waiting for 28 years for a sequel to Tron. It was an amazing movie by itself, and that was enough for me. Besides, it never presented itself as a story that wanted or really needed a sequel. That being said, when word came out a couple of years ago that Disney was going to continue the story in some way, I was cautiously optimistic and, admittedly, over the past couple of months, fed some cool teaser trailers and the odd tidbit from the rumour mill, I've been pretty excited about Tron: Legacy.

Did that anticipation and excitement pay off when we went to the midnight premier on Thursday? Yes and no. Tron: Legacy is a fun action flick, but it's nowhere near as good as the original.

I tried to go in with an open mind, prepared to give this belated installment to the franchise a lot of leeway in terms of telling its own story and standing on its own feet, but in the end, Tron: Legacy just doesn't have the intelligence, heart, or character development that Tron had.

The basic plot is similar to the original: man goes looking for something, gets sucked into the electronic world, then has to find his way out, in the process saving the residents of said software realm from an evil tyrant. But the protagonist in the original was much more complicated and ultimately realistic than in this newer film.

In Tron, Flynn's motives are pretty self-centred - at least in the beginning. He's out to clear his name and get some revenge and compensation. That means hacking into the Encom system. When the evil Master Control Program uses a laser to send him into the Game Grid, Flynn's still focussed on getting his data, but now he's added escape to his list. Helping the programs overthrow the MCP is something he only engages in because he knows it will increase his chances of achieving his own goals. Their struggle isn't something that really matters to him until its reality is brought home when Ram dies (you might argue that it starts when Crom dies, but that's not about the overall struggle for freedom so much as it is about the seriousness of the situation being brought home to Flynn). It's then that Flynn starts to get an inkling that creators, in this case human users who are seen as gods by the programs, have a responsibility to their creations. But even then, he's still pretty focussed on getting home with the goods. It's not until the end, after he's had to revive Yori and is watching Tron fight a losing battle against the MCP and Sark, that Flynn makes the decision to put the needs of the programs above his own. Despite his brave words to Yori, you can tell that Flynn knows that throwing himself into the beam to distract the MCP is a gamble that's likely to get himself killed rather than a ticket home with his stolen data. Luckily for Flynn, it turns out otherwise. The point is that over the course of his journey, Flynn undergoes a very real transformation of his character.

Sam, on the other hand, sets out in his journey in Tron: Legacy determined to find his father, and that never really changes. He goes into the new Game Grid and is faced with life-threatening challenges, but he deals with them to look for his father. He then finds his father and tries to bring him home. But there's no change in same over the course of this adventure. He's the same dude in the end that he was in the beginning with the exception that at the close he's decided he's got to take a hands-on role in running Encom now, and I would argue that this has more to do with wanting to hold on to something that his father shaped (and thus metaphorically a piece of his father) than it does with any significant character development.

There's another, more unsettling difference between the characters in these movies, and that is how they deal with killing. In Tron, the first death Flynn has to deal with comes during the ring game with the accounting program Crom. Until this point, Flynn's been waiving-off the whole experience in the electronic world as likely being a dream (if one that is occasionally painful when it involves a jab from a guard's shock stick). But when Flynn's shot leaves Crom dangling over the abyss and Sark removes the support, killing him, the reality of the situation is brought crashing home to Flynn. Sure it was Sark that finished Crom off, and it's obvious that Flynn hates him for it, but it's pretty clear from the look on his face that Flynn's feeling the responsibility of firing the winning shot of the match and Flynn has to deal with that. After that, he seems to kill easily enough in the lightcycle match, but remember that this comes immediately after the ring game, and he's probably angry enough to be looking for revenge on Sark and his lackies, and once he's engaged in the match, he's also defaulting back to his game-winning mental zone, and focussed on the escape. By the time he kills one of Sark's men outside the tower, it's a matter of being puzzled at his ability as a user to simply derez a program by copying his colour signature.

But with Sam, killing seems so easy. He's got time to adjust to the seriousness of the situation in transport to the arena, and he's been briefed by his father's stories about the reality of the electronic world, but when he's thrown into the arena in a disc fight, he's got no problems taking out the opposing program. Sure he's confused about how to orient himself properly on the floor or roof and how to use a disc effectively, but derezzing his opponent (which one would assume is hopefully the first time Sam has had to kill someone) doesn't seem to faze him. And that's how he continues through the story, knocking them all down and not really thinking about any of it.

And in terms of what we, as the audience, have to think about, Tron: Legacy falls short of the original. For an hour-and-a-half Disney movie, Tron had a lot to say. It asked us to think about who should control information and creativity, individuals looking to innovate, or the big all-powerful corporate entity only sanctioning what's in its own interests. It took a mature look at the Frankenstein fear of things that man creates going beyond his control - mature in that it didn't just point a frightened finger at the MCP as the example of the only and monstrous ends to man's attempt to make things that think (and this is only as far as most movies - even to this day - go when it comes to examining the possibility of artificial intelligence), it also held up the programs as a counterpoint - creations that thought and cared about each other and their makers. It asked us to consider that humans were on the threshold (and have now more-or-less accomplished) of constructing other levels of existence beyond the physical world. And, as I've mentioned before, it examines the relationship of creator and creation and what responsibilities gods might have to the things they create.

Tron: Legacy, on the other hand, primarily concerns itself with a simple look at the relationship between fathers and sons. With Sam and Flynn, it's a very simple look. There isn't any significant conflict and no examination of the nature of their relationship. Sam wants to find Flynn and wants to know why he was gone all those years. Flynn explains he got shanghai'd by Clu. Sam's fine with that and wants to go home. End of line. The father-son relationship between Flynn and Clu (and don't lecture me about how Clu is part of Flynn himself, a program reflection, rather than a literal son, because metaphorically sons are the reflections in one way or another of their fathers - Clu is just as much a child of Flynn as Sam is - Cain to Sam's non-murdered Abel - although Tron acts as a stand-in for this in a way in being transformed into Renzler) is more complex because Clu's brutality is something that he knows Flynn doesn't approve of, he actually tries to lure Flynn out of his retreat to kill him, he tries to kill Sam, and yet in the end all Clu asks of Flynn is for validation that he followed his programming correctly. But the film never gets into why Clu thought totalitarianism was the way to go, or how his need for Flynn's approval seemingly turned to hate even when things were supposedly hunky-dory between Flynn, Clu and Tron as they built the new world. Nor does the movie explore much in the way of Flynn's feelings towards Clu aside from a quick shot of fear when Tron is apparently murdered and then pity and apology at the end when he merges with Clu (which in and of itself was odd when you consider that in the original the programs resembled their users, but were not in fact the users and thus could be deleted without any apparent reintegration with the users or death on the part of the users).

Through Flynn and Clu, the movie also makes a pithy, shallow statement about the road to hell being paved with good intentions, but there's no real thought put into this because the action is moving too damn fast. As is the growing trend with Hollywood action movies, Tron: Legacy rarely slows down enough to catch its breath, let alone think about any philosophical questions it may raise. Remember that scene in the original Tron where Flynn sits with a dying Ram in a damaged recognizer, and there's a long, quiet moment where Ram studies Flynn's face, realizing at last he's in the presence of a user - one of the gods? Admittedly, that shot may have lasted a second or two too long, but it was a good shot, and a very necessary one for the story. You'd never get anything like that in Tron: Legacy, because it would mean stopping the action for a moment and running the risk of aggravating the ADD that directors, writers and producers in Hollywood seem to now assume that everyone in every theatre audience suffers from.

Beyond these major issues, there were other problems with Tron: Legacy. One of which was the fact that there were plot points that got a fair amount of screen time even though they did nothing to advance the plot itself. One was the whole digression into the bar owned by Castor/Zuse. While his Cabaret-style camping around was funny for a little while, it didn't add any significant element to the story. He was another obstacle, like guards searching on the street or a piece of rock in the landscape, nothing more. And he was totally unoriginal, and not interesting enough (or important enough) as a character to make up for this lack of originality. Sorry, Disney, but we've already seen The Merovingian in the Matrix flicks.

Another irrelevancy was the Iso people. Clu's genocide of them is terrible, but by the time we hear about them we already know he's a homicidal asshole. Besides, up to this point there has been no mention of them and no physical traces of their civilization that would make their loss poignant in anything other than a simply moral sense - we've seen nothing of them to really make us, as an audience, care. Near the end we learn that Quorra is an Iso, but so what? She hasn't demonstrated that she's significantly different than other programs/electronic forms of life. For all that Flynn talks about how the discovery of the Isos could revolutionize human life and philosophy, he hasn't said how that's any different than his discovery 28 years ago that programs, in their own world, are self-aware and have culture. Quorra's ability to come into the real world doesn't seem special either, since it's pretty clear that Clu could have brought himself, his army, and his wacky New Game Grid vehicles into the real world through the uplink in the same manner that Quorra came - it's not like Flynn just brushed-off Clu's advancing army by saying "don't worry - they're only regular programs, they'll never make it through" - he indicated they were a real threat. So why even bother with the Isos?

Something else that didn't work for me was the Daftpunk soundtrack. It had its moments, but after a while, really, it just became a monotonous background of audio oatmeal. It all sounded the same after a while, like background music at a club or rave, as opposed to a real movie score with variety (like original, which also combined electronic with symphonic music - it just did it well). This is even putting aside the fact that the much-lauded "Derezzed" track sounds a lot like the stuff John Carpenter cooked up himself for some of the escape from the Wing Kong Exchange scenes in Big Trouble in Little China (not that I have a problem with Carpenter's electronic score, just that you'd think Daftpunk could do something original maybe). What I did like was the use of the 80's music that kicked in when Sam turned on the power in Flynn's arcade, especially the faint strains of "Sweet Dreams" by the Eurhythmics as he was heading downstairs, about to be zapped into the electronic world. The Daftpunk tracks though... let's just say that by the end of the movie, when Sam, Quorra and Flynn are in the lightplane trying to elude Clu's fighters, the Daftpunk score seemed to actually make the scene less exciting.

I had a few visual nitpicks too:

Why didn't we get to see the laser zap transporting Sam from Flynn's basement to the electronic world? All we had was now he's in one world, now he's in the next. No transition. What a missed opportunity to show off some funky SFX. The abruptness of the change of worlds could also could leave new viewers who haven't seen the original wondering if "it was all a dream", especially if they picked up on the Eurhythmics song just prior to the transition.

Then there were the vehicles. The first one (and admittedly it was a fitting visual bridge to the original movie) was a recognizer. The new look for the recognizers was cool. But it was a bit of a disappointment that these models are clearly smaller than their predecessors. It also appears that they're only being used as transport. In essence, the once feared recognizers are now merely transport helicopters rather than gigantic, weird, stomping attack craft. And what's with the engine wash? Especially with engines that look like they give vertical thrust even though the vehicle moves horizontally? Lots of vehicles seemed to have exhaust or to kick up dust in the new film, even though others, like Clu's command carrier, didn't. Why no consistency?

The clothing was odd too in that is was more-or-less normal (if limited to black and white and orange only for colour and motorbike or space-age chic designs). In Tron, the clothing seemed, for the most part, to actually be a part of the programs. When Flynn arrives on the Game Grid, he's already suited up, and there's no change of wardrobe for him or most of the programs (with the exception of the tower guardians, but that always seemed to me more like they'd been removed from machinery consoles or cockpits than disrobed). In fact, when they're feeding on the liquid energy, or when they're feeling strong emotions, the energy lines (whatever) on their uniforms brighten, and correspondingly dim when they're being derezzed. Here, the clothes are simply... clothes, and the energy lines are merely decoration.

It was a little odd to see Flynn's banquet too, given the liquid energy (electricity?) seemed to be sufficient for the programs in the original film.

And there was far less variety to the landscape in Tron: Legacy. Lots more detail to the buildings in the city, but the surrounding landscape was just jagged black mountains and black ocean with more jagged black mountains. No variety, and so black I couldn't really make out much in the way of details. At least the original, for all its crude, limited texture, tried to present different landscapes with weird creatures and a little colour (red or blue to accent the grey).

The real key to accepting all of the minor differences in the physical forms of things in the film is to remember that 'Legacy isn't happening in Tron's world, it's happening on a New Game Grid - presumably the place next door. Flynn gives us this info (crucial to an existing fan's ability to reconcile the story with the original, but largely irrelevant to a new viewer) midway through the film when Sam finally catches up with him; Flynn telling his son that he brought Tron from the old Game Grid to help him run the new one with Clu. So we can probably infer that when Flynn & co built the new world, they based some of their designs on the old one but made aesthetic changes. But while this accounts for physical differences like clothing, vehicles and landscapes, it doesn't make up for the plot or character weaknesses.

What did work were the action sequences and special effects. The lightcycle match in the first half of the movie alone was worth the price of our IMAX tickets to see it on a huge screen in 3D. The aerial chase in the movie's finale sealed the deal. Throw in some cool disc fights where gladiators have to constantly re-orient themselves around the inner surfaces of their arenas, and catchy new vehicle designs (I wasn't a fan of the new lightcycles, but Flynn's retro bike, the solar sail freighter, Clu's updated command carrier, the wing packs, and the light planes were pretty impressive), and you've got a stunning collection of visuals.

Other sights I really enjoyed included the loving restoration of Flynn's arcade, complete with bachelor pad upstairs and his favourite hand-held videogame (in this case lying down in the basement lab as opposed to up on the couch). Sam's waterfront garage home was cool not merely for being an ultimate rough-and-ready bachelor pad, but most especially for the faded "Dumont" sign on the front of the building - a nice nod to Walter, the character from the original Tron who founded Encom and rhapsodized about the good old days when it had only been in his garage, and who was represented in the Game Grid by his program Dumont the Tower Guardian. Best of all though was the Black Hole poster in young Sam's bedroom. I make no bones about it, I'm probably one of the few people you'll run into who likes that old Disney SF flop, and I'm really hoping that the Mouse, as reported a while back, will take a crack at rebooting that movie if Tron: Legacy does well enough at the box office.

There's also the exterior shot when Sam is at Flynn's retreat that worked really well in my opinion, where the audience sees the lair seperated by a black gulf of wilderness from Clu's city - a nice nod to The Two Towers. Speaking of allusions, I also liked how Flynn's apartment was reminiscent of Dave Bowman's holding quarters at the end of 2001.

It was great to have Bruce Boxleitner come back as Allan Bradley/Tron. He created a nice continuity with the original film, and besides that, Tron, being the title character, had to make an appearance at some point. Given the direction of the plot, I'll even go so far as to say that I was okay with Tron getting Darth Vadered against his will by Clu, especially since he manages to reassert himself at the end (and, from the looks of it, survives his crash and swim).

Another slick little bridge to the old movie that worked really well for me was the board meeting scene where we find out that Dillinger's son has worked his way up the Encom ladder. Seems to be a very clear indication of where future sequels will probably go.

And no fan of the original could help but chuckle at the rehash of the "Now that's a big door!" joke.

So with all of its flaws taken into consideration, is Tron: Legacy worth seeing? If you're looking for a simple action flick with great special effects, yes. If you want a truly worthy successor to the original Tron, one with a smart storyline and interesting characters, you'll probably want to wait a while and rent it at your local videostore or from iTunes or some other online service. I had fun watching this movie, but Tron: Legacy just doesn't measure up to the original.

End of line.

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