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'Tron: Legacy' Review

I haven’t been this disappointed by a Walt Disney sci-fi movie since The Black Hole. Maybe I walked in with unrealistic expectations of seeing something as groundbreaking, and visually thrilling as the 1982 original. The trailer looked tremendous and the idea of revisiting a ‘visionary’ film (the first Tron does indeed deserve that now-overused adjective) with 21st century effects – and with the same actors playing the same characters they did in the original, only middle-aged – seemed irresistible.

Tron: Legacy. © Walt Disney Enterprises.

(Tons o’ spoilers ahead, so stop reading this right now if you want to put on your 3D glasses without my opinion getting in your way…)

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I haven’t been this disappointed by a Walt Disney sci-fi movie since The Black Hole.

Maybe I walked in with unrealistic expectations of seeing something as groundbreaking, and visually thrilling as the 1982 original. The trailer looked tremendous (as trailers are supposed to) and the idea of revisiting a ‘visionary’ film (the first Tron does indeed deserve that now-overused adjective) with 21st century effects – and with the same actors playing the same characters they did in the original, only middle-aged seemed irresistible.

The preview audience I was part of was pumped; you could feel the ‘oh yeah’ vibe run through the theater when the Disney castle logo materialized Tron-style in lines of neon blue energy. Then things started getting a little… off. Okay, so Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), son of Jeff Bridges’ character Kevin from the original film is a corporate drop-out (living in a converted cargo container with a great river view) pranking his long-lost dad’s megacorp every now and then. So far, so good.

But when his latest stunt leaves him balancing atop the swing arm of an office tower’s window-washing crane way above the city… why does the overweight security guard (evidently the only guy looking after the entire building) follow him out on the ultra-narrow beam? He’s going to have a hard time dragging Sam back to the building’s roof without both of them falling off. (Not too worry – about Sam at least; the parachute-packing hacker came prepared for his escape.)

Okay, forgive me, I’m nit-picking here, but the whole point of any sci-fi or fantasy film is to make you believe what you’re watching is real, no matter how fantastic the events or setting, and there’s no way a security guard making $14 an hour is going to risk his life like that.

Shortly thereafter Bruce Boxleitner (Jeff Bridges’ pal and Tron himself in the original) shows up in an ultra-brief cameo, sending Sam off to his dad’s defunct and dusty video game arcade. (A perfect recreation of the one in the original – a visual touch that had those of us who remember the original salivating over the trailer.)  One hidden basement command center and computer-zap later, Sam finds himself in an updated version of the first film’s electronic microcosm.

Tronworld’s been upgraded: gone is the original’s environment of pure geometry and phosphorescent day-glo tinted actors. Everything’s slick and shiny, made of black glass highlighted with touches of subdued blue – and in spite of existing in a fantasy realm, everyone looks real – like Tron fans at a sci-fi convention dressed in exceptionally on-model costumes.

Sam’s quickly scooped up by one of those double-armed flying thingies and drafted into The Games where, you get hit by one of those glowing Frisbees, you shatter into a zillion little crystalline fragments. Much way-cool action ensues: battles in floating, rotating arenas and light-cycle teams competing on transparent multiple-level race courses while tens of thousands of anthropomorphized computer programs cheer them on.

Sam’s about to go to pieces when he’s rescued by Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a Louise Brooks-coiffed gal who breaks into The Games via a cool all-terrain vehicle and whisks him off the grid to a far-away cliffside house wherein dwells…Dad. (And while here in the real world we have iPads, Nooks and Kindles, Quorra prefers actual books, antique ones as a matter of fact.)

Remember how the Matthew Broderick Godzilla started out crackling and full of action… until it got to Manhattan and screeched to a halt? Same problem here. Dad’s now a bearded Zen guru of passivity, dressed in white and subletting Keir Dullea’s end of 2001 luxury condo (where evidently suckling pig is the dish of the evening). Much, m-u-c-h backstory and father-son issues are discussed…and discussed…and discussed…

No Master Control Program this time – the main problem in today’s Tronworld is Dad’s self-created, turned-evil alter-ego Clu (a CGI face-lifted version of Bridges looking a good 20 years younger than the ‘real’ guy) and Clu has his eye on invading the real world, along with tens of thousands of his own clone warriors.

Speaking of clones, there’s more than a few homages/visual ’quotes’/unconscious borrowings (take your choice) from other sci-fi classics. Beyond Bridges’ Kubrick-designed domicile, Michael Sheen plays an albino fixer straight out of The Matrix, partying in his own white-on-white penthouse. (His brief Chaplin impression is a definite ‘where’d that come from?’ moment). Later on when it’s time for the good guys to make their escape, Bridges slinks around Clu’s fortress in search of an appropriate vehicle – in a hooded robe he must’ve borrowed from Obi-wan himself.

Apart from Bridges’ wardrobe choices, he seems to have developed the ability to manipulate the electronic energy composing Tronworld, a trick he probably learned while hanging with Neo in the Matrix, but forgets to use until the movie’s almost over. (Come to think of it, since the Matrix also exists within a computer …maybe it resides in the next server over from Tronworld.)

And look – there’s Tron himself, making a cameo appearance near the end of the film – or does he? That masked guy could have been anyone, even if he did sound like Boxleitner. How come, after making a CGI de-aged Jeff Bridges a central character, they couldn’t spare a few pixels to do the same with Boxleitner? (My personal theory: a last minute “ohmigod, how can we release a Tron movie without Tron in it somewhere?!” studio decision.)

For all its state-of-the-art effects, my heart still belongs to the original Tron. When the Master Control Program is defeated at that film’s climax and vivid color suffuses the once-dark landscape to Wendy Carlos’ exuberant score, it’s a fantasy moment worthy of The Wizard of Oz or Yellow Submarine.

And that’s the legacy this Tron has squandered.