Sunday, December 19, 2010

Love: TRON: Legacy

The thing about Tron is that the original 1982 version was never a great movie.  Tron was (and I'm sure I don't have to tell you) never Star Wars.  It was a Disney kids movie with crossover adult appeal that used what were then state of the art computerized animation effects to tell a suspension of disbelief, barely there story.  If you were to watch it now, to come into it almost 30 years after the fact, it's nothing if not primitive.  The effects might actually reach the point where they're visually distracting the viewer from attempting to parse through the thin plot.  That said, you had to have been there.  There was a window, and you may have missed it.  I was not yet born when Tron was released, but my memory of it comes into play early on.  For me, Tron is about nostalgia.  When I see the white and day-glo suits of the original, or the early lightbike (they were bikes then, not cycles) battle, I'm transported to my early childhood. I'm not so sure, back in my early childhood, if I was in love with the movie or merely the idea of the movie, but I'd guess it was the latter.

You see, what Tron was for me then is what Tron still is now: Disney magic for the kid whose favorite park in Disney World is Epcot.  It's the cinematic equivalent, down to the Daft Punk score, of walking down those fiber optic sidewalks with strains of intense mathematical Philip Glass pumped up from invisible speakers.  What both offer you is a darker, child of the late 20th century, liquid crystal dream: you like video games?  Do you live your life through that device in your hand?  How would you like to literally?  Welcome to the future!  If it sounds like a far-fetched concept, it is.  Tron is not built from scientific fact.  You could poke theoretical holes in it as much as you want.  What it's built on (and what you have to know going into Tron: Legacy) is the idea that in this alternate reality, in their early 80's, someone built a laser designed to digitize tangible objects from the human world and upload them into a computer.  Why? Who cares?  Think of it as a techie extension of Wonkavision or Wayne Szalinski's shrink ray: it's mad science.  In the original Tron, the mad science was used to wage early hacker warfare.  Here, the games have changed.
Legacy opens with a freaky-deaky hybrid animated Jeff Bridges as a 1989 Kevin Flynn relaying tales of his adventures in Tron to his young son Sam (Garrett Hedlund).  Kevin disappears without a trace for 20-years, leaving software company ENCOM in the hands of unworthy, greedy executives and Sam to live a devil may care life of adrenaline rushes and mild corporate terrorism.  When a mysterious page is traced back to Kevin's office at the long-abandoned Flynn's Arcade, Sam goes to check it out.  Needless to say, one thing leads to another and Sam finds himself sucked into the world constructed by his father: The Grid.  The perfect system.  Just as with the original Tron, in Legacy life within the digitized world plays off of half-baked science fiction conceits on religion and what it means to be human.  On The Grid, every "human" you see is an anthropomorphic 'program' in a corrupt system.  Kevin and Sam are "users", and as such are like the mythical unicorn, or, more fittingly, God.  Legacy is operating via a very strange, loosely strung Christ conceit: Kevin is, in a far fetched way, actually God.  God is played like "The Dude," which works.  He's loose, casual, and radical, a bliss seeking, sandaled hippie in the midst of a technological wasteland.  The Grid has spun out of control; becoming a wild, hedonistic Rome filled with massively popular gladiator games, unnecessary killing (De-rezzing), and a conquering military.  This new Rome even has a nasty emperor in the form of Clu, the mirror image of young Kevin Flynn and as such, an antichrist engaged in an unceasing battle against the peaceful teaching of the User.  If we're working with this (and let's just fly with it), Sam is the son of this User god.  This User god has been exiled from this vacuum culture.  It is Sam who arrives to inadvertently preach the gospel of the User, and de-rez a lot of ass along the way.  There you have it: the probable idea from which Tron: Legacy was born.

Of course, the chances you'll reach any of these conclusions while watching Legacy are slim to none.  If you can embrace that sort of grasping at straws allegory as silly, near-camp grandiosity, you're probably more likely to enjoy your trip down the high resolution rabbit hole.  I must admit, this film worked for me.  Legacy is a special case as big budget sci-fi bent blowouts go.  It's a triumph of aesthetics, and no small one.  My biggest weakness, when it comes to movies, is a visual one.  If a film looks beautiful, if it maintains its level of stylization or presents us with a vision of the world quite different from the norm, I'm likely to find merit in it even if the material it's presenting is lackluster.  Legacy is beautiful.  Absolutely gorgeous.  It's dazzling in a near visceral manner, and our opening moments on The Grid are just about unforgettable.  The action in the disc wars is a thrilling combination of athleticism and fight choreography with video game, involving thrills.  The use of 3D here actually drags you into the world; not used for cheap effects or pointing objects.  All of this, the whole neon-glowing, monochrome feast of hyper-stylized minimalism, all of it works to completely wipe out the plot flaws and concerns you might otherwise notice everywhere.  The design here is flawless.  The weakest point (and it can be ignored), is the uncanny valley dipped into by the creepily animated young Jeff Bridges.  Otherwise, the rooms, the arenas, the roads, the bridges, the costumes, even the casting, are all fantastic.  Olivia Wilde, Michael Sheen and Beau Garrett have been made over to visually fill their roles as  impeccably as if they've been animated in.  And yet, they're there.  Actually there, but not at all.  Tron: Legacy never feels like an "animated" film.  The CGI landscape does not carry with it the mark of the truly artificial.  It's not the forests of Pandora or a Star Wars market, there are no awkwardly loping aliens moving through it, no, Legacy is more akin to 2001: clean, white, spartan, neon, accomplished through brilliant art direction and savvy photography.  Tron may not be up to Kubrickian standards otherwise, but in terms of cinematography it gets close.
I geeked out the first time I saw the refurbished lightcycles, and I was utterly dazzled during the whole of TRON: Legacy.  If you can filter out a story, or get on board with a trite one, don't give up during the opening scenes.  This film gets a pass.  Sometimes, a film can be so atmospherically cool, so otherwise flawless, that it becomes an exercise in aesthetics instead of story time.  At some point midway through the film, I noticed that my eyes were wide and I'd been leaning forward so long that my neck had started to hurt.  That's got to count for something.

1 comment:

  1. Spot on Review. This movie is about the visuals, the story takes a backseat, but just as in the first movie, the story was never the number one selling point to begin with.

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