Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Hi-Rez Review of TRON LEGACY ...!


- We live in a world where once-futuristic technology is commonplace. We carry super-powerful computers in our jeans pockets. We play games on consoles powered by chips wielding once-unimaginable processing power. We watch movies where all manner of fantastic worlds are brought to life with stunning realism via computer-generated imagery. And yet, even as we are surrounded by so much fantastic techno-wizardry, the magic and mystery that once made computers and technology so captivating to our imaginations, so intrinsic to our hopes and fears, has largely faded. To most of us, tech is everpresent, 24/7. We spend our lives plugged-in, and yet the means by which we interface with machines are simpler and more user-friendly than ever. Whereas computers once required knowledge of arcane command codes to operate, today's systems operate with the touch of a finger. Whereas games were once near-abstract collections of pixels, requiring mastery of button inputs and knowledge of tricks, cheat codes, and zen-like concentration, today's mainstream games can be mastered by the most casual of users. Once upon a time, we watched movies and marveled as f/x opened our imaginations and expanded our idea of what is and what could be. Today, we see all manner of incredible imagery on-screen, and yet we aren't moved by it. The images are technically impressive, but the heart, the soul, the craftsmanship isn't there. Technology is everywhere, but the magic, largely, is lost.

And perhaps, that is why, now more than ever, a new TRON is needed. Because the original Tron - while not the most tightly-scripted or superbly structured film of its time - was all about capturing that sense of awe and wonder that was inherent in the technological revolution of that era. TRON came out in 1982 - the year of E.T., the year of Blade Runner. It was a year when movie magic was plentiful. And it was, I must of course mention, the year that I was born. I was lucky to grow up in an era when there was still so much magic in the air. I didn't need to nitpick the f/x in E.T. - I just sat back and let myself believe. I slid a boxy gray cartridge into my prized NES system, and I didn't care that the graphics on the TV were boxy jumbles of pixels. I let myself be transported to the strange sci-fi dreamscapes of Mega Man, Contra, and Super Mario Bros. In those days, stepping foot inside a video arcade was something akin to a religious experience. Armed with a fistful of quarters, we'd walk into a giant room of bright, flashing images and bleeps, bloops, and blips, and it was magic. How did those games work? Who made them? Why were the concepts so strange, so out-there? We didn't know. We just went along for the ride. And computers? Computers were the realm of geeks and nerds only. They were strange, mysterious, even scary. They could play games or start nuclear wars. Take your pick. But computer technology still felt like a brave, uncharted new world. Who knew what these machines were capable of? Who knew what really made them tick? There was this concept of the ghost inside the machine, a palpable sense that inside these devices lay some hidden universe of bits and bytes. The screen was our gateway into this strange, other world. We were the users, but what if ... what if even as we gazed into that screen, what if something inside was gazing back at us?

I remember as a kid being at Disney World in Florida, on a family vacation. At Epcot Center, there was an exhibit where you stood inside a recording booth, and overdubbed your voice into a scene from a Disney movie of your choice. I remember cycling through the choices - the cartoons didn't appeal to me so much, but then ... something caught my eye, something different. I stood in the booth and read the lines on the screen, spoken by an ominous looking polygonal villain. I was captivated -- what *was* this? This was a Disney movie? I saw that the scene was from a movie called Tron, and immediately, I was fascinated. I had to know more about this. Sometime not too long after, I remember flipping through the channels at home and stumbling across Tron on TV. The movie was probably half-way over, but I didn't care. I was enthralled by the visuals, the concept. A man, a "user," had gone *inside* a computer, inside a game. From that point on, I would always catch the movie in bits and pieces on TV, but I don't think I was ever too concerned that I wasn't getting the full story - I just got lost in the vector-graphics visuals and let my imagination run wild. I didn't know if anyone else had ever heard of this movie. I didn't know there was a cult following. I didn't know that the star was a young Jeff Bridges or that the movie had underperformed at the box office in 1982. All I knew was that Tron was awesome, it was unique, and that it had wholly captured my young imagination.

And now, here we are, and it's December of 2010. Twenty-eight years after the release of Tron, and both it and I are the same age. Twenty-eight years later, and there is, incredibly, a TRON sequel. But how could a new TRON movie ever hope to recapture the magic of the original? Tron was a movie that worked because it captured the zeitgeist of the time. It struck a chord because it was a movie about technology, made with then-cutting edge technology, that captured that sense of techno-magic that has since all but evaporated in our culture. I can only imagine what kids today might think of Tron - outdated, silly, primitive-looking, weird. And I'll admit it - when some friends and I recently rewatched it, well, after all these years, those same dismissive notions entered my mind. In some ways, it was hard to believe that this was the movie that, in 2010, Disney was hoping to turn into the next big multimedia franchise.

Still, in defense of the original Tron - while you can knock the dated visuals and clunky script, you can't deny that the movie had style. It had imagination. It was like nothing else before it or since. And ironically, those are exactly the qualities missing from so many of the blockbuster adventure movies of today - movies that are technically impressive, but at the same time, generic. No imagination, no sense of wonder, no magic.

But here's the amazing thing: TRON LEGACY is in many ways exactly the cure for the bigscreen blockbuster blues. It has style, it has action, it has character. It swept me away into another world and it left my jaw on the floor. It was visually stunning, and looked like no other movie, felt like no other movie. This was something new, something to get excited about. A new mythology, a new universe.

Most of all, though, Tron Legacy pulsates with electronic energy. It revisits the themes of the original Tron, and in doing so it brings that old magic back. It brought me back to a time when technology *was* magic. It made me feel like a kid again, walking into that expansive arcade and going into a fever-dream state of sensory overload. Tron Legacy is cutting edge, to be sure. The visuals pop off the screen in an explosion of gleaming neon and lazer light. The music of Daft Punk lends grandeur and future-shock atmosphere, and it just plain rocks. But, Tron Legacy is also a throwback. It took me back to the days when blockbuster movies were about awe and imagination. It reminded me that you can have a great cinematic adventure sans cynicsm, without irony. It made me remember how great visuals can create new worlds, show us something we've never seen or imagined. I know this sounds like high praise, but Tron Legacy to me evoked films like Blade Runner, Alien, and the original Tron - movies that use visual storytelling in a way that's unique to film - taking us to another world via images, sounds, ideas, and letting our imaginations fill in the blanks.

Maybe that's why some critics have been hating on this one? Maybe people are so un-used to a story told visually that they get too hung up on the intricacies of the script? I mean, I'm a writer - there's nothing I appreciate more than sharp dialogue and a tightly-constructed plot. At the same time though, I can recognize that this is a different sort of movie. It has its own semi-detailed mythology, sure, but it paints its world in broad strokes. Not everything is explained, not every character is fully fleshed-out. But every image makes you want to see more. Every character is interesting enough that you want to know more. To me, it works. If anything, the movie nails all the right story beats in a way that schools most other modern blockbusters in terms of how this kind of thing should be done. There's a great ebb and flow to the storytelling, in my opinion. Yes, there's a pretty heavy amount of exposition to get through at times, but the info-dumps help to give important context to this universe. But the big moments - the character introductions, the major conflicts, the climax - are all impecably staged. The movie progresses in a way that's very satisfying, ultimately reaching an applause-inducing finale. To me, that's good storytelling, plain and simple, and it makes it easy to forgive the occasional cheesy line or overlong expository scene.

And aside from all that, there's so much in Tron Legacy that they got right ... it's actually kind of a minor miracle, in a way. I mean, take the casting of Garrett Hedlund in the lead role, as Sam Flynn. Here was a big x-factor, and I'm sure many people cringed thinking that this was Hayden Christiansen as Anakin Skywalker, part two. Well, Hedlund is pretty damn good in the role, and he may just have a bright future as an action star. He has a good screen presence and is a believable action hero - and he holds his own with Jeff Bridges. No complaints, and I hope we get to see Hedlund really stretch even further if there are, in fact, future sequels. And hey, who knew Olivia Wilde would end up pulling off her role as rebel computer program Quorra to this level of near-perfection? Wilde really nails this part. She's got the look, she's got the partly-human, partly-artificial construct tone down to a T, and she helps make Quorra into a great new character in the Tron universe.

Also -- how great is Michael Sheen in this movie? A total scene-stealer as the flamboyant, Bowie-like program known as Zuse. Man, Sheen just owns it in this part. He is funny, crazy, and slightly-sinister. A scene in which Zuse looks on gleefully while all hell breaks loose in his club (yes, even computer programs like to party) is one of the movie's highlights. As the throbbing tones of Daft Punk ring out, Zuse is the glam-rock ringmaster of a violent techno-circus. It's awesome, to say the least. It doesn't hurt that Sheen always has the alluring Beau Garrett by his side. As the enigmatic Gem, she is sure to join Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner in the upper-echelon of artificially-intelligent futuristic fanboy fantasies. Digital Love, indeed.

How about Jeff Bridges? One of the great joys of Tron Legacy is seeing Bridges reprise his role as Kevin Flynn, founder of Flynn's Arcade, currently moonlighting as the reclusive zen-master of the artifical world known as The Grid. In the film, Bridges plays the aged Flynn as well as Clu - a mirror-image AI construct once tasked with turning The Grid into a "perfect world." As Flynn, Bridges channels his character in the original Tron, and also brings a little of The Dude's stoner wisdom to the table. Seeing Flynn with his Dude-like beard and Lebowski-esque witticisms is a bit jarring at first, but it makes sense given where the character is at when we rejoin him all these years later. Back in 1982, Bridges was a likable actor but not quite the powerhouse thespian he is today. It's great to see an older, Oscar-winning Bridges - at the height of his acting powers - mold Flynn into that rare thing in today's action movies - a hero who the audience genuinely likes, who they can 100% get behind and root for. At the same time, it's a real kick to see Bridges as the villainous Clu. Thanks to some crazy CGI tech, Clu looks and sounds like Bridges circa 1982. It's pretty incredible in a lot of ways. I was especially impressed with the subtle shifts in Clu's voice and inflection. Today's Bridges has a gravelly quality to his voice that probably came from age and from years of indulging in certain mind-altering substances. But Clu talks and sounds like 1982 Bridges. Like I said - impressive. Now, Bridge's CGI-de-aged face looks sort of CGI-ish. And that's basically okay with Clu, because he's supposed to be a computer program created in the 1980's, so it's understandable that there's that level of imperfection (and hey, it even ties in nicely with a major theme of the movie - that technology, in its quest for perfection, can never hope to replicate the perfect imperfection that is actual reality). But, where the tech really does seem sort of wonky is in the 80's flashback scenes at the beginning of the film. Here, the same CGI techniques are used to show Kevin Flynn as a young man, and it ends up looking pretty weird - like Kevin's son is talking to a Playstation rendering of his dad. In a way, I guess it's reassuring to know that computers still can't create perfectly-realized replications of human beings. On the other hand, the whole thing serves to take you out of the movie just a little bit. At the end of the day though, it's a blast to see Jeff Bridges return to the role of Flynn and to the world of Tron. He's clearly having fun here, and it's infectious. Between Tron Legacy and True Grit, this is definitely the month of Bridges.

Now, let me just gush a little bit more about the visuals. The creativity and imagination that went into the movie's design is fairly mind-blowing. This feels at once like TRON, and like something entirely new and different. The basic elements of the original are there - the discs, the lightcycles, the body suits - but they all feel uber-slick, and everything just looks flat-out awesome. There were times where you have to just sit back and appreciate the sheer visual splendor that's on the screen. And the action scenes? Wow. The combination of the kickass design work (those lightcycles are pure awesomesauce), the inspired direction (Joseph Kosinski is definitely a director to watch after this one), and the heart-pumping score by Daft Punk makes for scene after scene of eye and ear-melting goodness. It's funny, because I've seen the reviews that dismiss the movie as being the greatest Daft Punk music video ever made and nothing more. And yes, I was fully prepared to utilize that line if the movie had indeed ended up as underwhelming. But you know what? This IS the greatest Daft Punk music video ever made, but I say that only as a compliment, not as a backhanded put-down. The score flows from Hans Zimmer-like gravitas to more traditional Daft Punk techno-grooviness, but either way, it rocks and rocks hard. In a year filled with great movie scores (Inception, The Social Network), this one takes the cake. Tron Legacy is a sonic delight, and Daft Punk's soundtrack is a very-probable must-buy that brings da noise and da funk, with effortless cool-factor to spare.

Look, I'm not trying to say that Tron Legacy is some kind of end-all, be-all blockbuster action movie. There are some notable rough patches, and there are aspects of the plot that feel somewhat loosely stitched-together. One easy target involves the movie's title character - Tron. His transformation from Christ-like savior in the original to villainous badass in this movie is pretty hastily explained, and his role in the movie can be more than a tad confusing. The vague way in which his character resurfaces makes some moments in the film's big finale a little less impactful than they might have been otherwise. Still, Tron, as a character, is cool enough that I found it fairly easy to just go with the flow and not ask too many questions. Similarly, I kind of get some of the complaints about how this movie fails to utilize the more logic-based structure of the original. In the 1982 version, there was a definite rhyme and reason to the denizons of The Grid, with all of the "programs" acting as human representations of various parts and functions of a computer. Tron Legacy ditches some of the original's geek-speak in the name of servicing its more far-reaching mythology. And hey, that's cool with me, but, it might have been nice to explain more about the roles that each of the programs filled within this new, revamped version of The Grid. Finally, in an effort to create that expansive mythology, I do think some things were left either too vague, or else deliberately unexplained so as to be saved for future sequals. I'm sure people coming out of the movie will have plenty of questions about the nature of "Iso's", about how Clu would be able to reconstitute himself in the real world, or regarding the purpose of a presumably adversarial member of Encon's board of directors, played by Cillian Murphy in a brief but intriguing cameo.

Personally, I was far too mesmerized by the visuals, the music, the characters, and the broader themes of the film to get too hung up on any of these things, but I do recognize that there are, objectively, a couple of legitimate issues with the script. But subjectively, my gut reaction to Tron Legacy was that I came away smiling, giddy, and feeling like a kid again. I loved this movie, and had an absolute blast watching it from start to finish. Even the little details got me - the Tron-ified Disney logo, the old-school Tron poster in Flynn's Arcade, "I fight for the Users!", and even the inspired use of Journey to get that distinctly 80's vibe going. In crystal-clear IMAX 3D, this was the most visually impressive live-action film I've seen since Avatar, and the use of 3D was truly eye-popping. There's even a cool, Wizard of Oz-like effect in which the film starts out in 2D, but then gains an added dimension of depth when Sam enters The Grid. In a lot of ways though, I actually think Tron surpasses James Cameron's recent mega-hit. In fact, I can't think of any other recent sci-fi action movie that delivered this level of pure visual splendor, fun, or overall entertainment-factor. So many times in recent years, I've come away from these nostalgia-fueled mega-blockbusters feeling deflated. Transformers, Indiana Jones ... these movies felt like half-hearted cash-ins. But TRON LEGACY doesn't just coast along on nostalgia. Instead, it brings the magic back. It one-ups the original, retools the visuals with a bleeding-edge upgrade, but also remembers to keep that spark of creativity that made the original beloved in the first place. It's rare to get a great sequel. To get a great sequel 28 years after the original ... well that's a bonafide cinematic miracle. And man, I left the theater eager for more. This is a world I want to go back to. But whatever the case may be, it's nice to know that a big-budget blockbuster film is still capable of this level of epic win. 28 years later, and TRON lives - bigger and better than ever.
Many years ago, on a classic, Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons, Homer Simpson - trapped in a strange and mysterious three-dimensional world - was asked to describe the nature of his surroundings. In an effort to explain his impressions of his whereabouts, Homer asked: "Has anyone seen that movie Tron?" The famous joke is that his question is greeted with a chorus of "no's." "No." "No." "No." "Yes, I mean, no." Well, I *have* seen that movie Tron, and dammit all, it was awesome.

My Grade: A-

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