Sunday, December 19, 2010

Love: TRON: Legacy

It was easy to assume that TRON: Legacy would be beautiful and enchant me with its minimalist, glowing design. What I hadn't counted on, was the extraordinary feeling it gave me, like I was stepping into uncharted territory that might be extremely dangerous and exhilarating, the closest I've come to real honest to god virtual reality.

The hero of our story, Sam Flynn, is your typical rich orphan ripped straight from the DC comic handbook. Super intelligence? Check. Into technology and Daddy's business? Yes. Enjoys riding his Ducati and eluding police? Yep. Main idea of fun includes sticking it to ENCOM, the company founded by his father Kevin Flynn, the designer of the video game TRON? Done. The young Flynn found himself orphaned when said senior Flynn tragically disappeared in the mid 80's, leaving his son and ENCOM with nothing but vague bedtime stories about "cyber freedom" and a place called "The Grid." When grown-up Sam hears about  a mysterious page from his father's old, shuttered office at the family arcade, he hesitantly agrees to investigate and learns first hand just what The Grid is and how much of it has fallen out of Kevin Flynn's hands and into those of his computer clone, Clu.

The 30 minute or so sequence where Sam enters the arcade and gets thrown into a fight to the death on The Grid is masterful, some of the best cinematic sci-fi out there. Unsure what he's going to find as he enters the old building, Sam carefully flips a decrepit switch and the arcade twitters to life, the nostalgic sounds of the old machines mixing with "Separate Ways" by Journey as the lights dim and flicker underneath layers of dust and protective plastic. Framed to one side in stuttering neon is an ominous and ancient TRON game that opens to reveal a secret door in the wall. Sam follows the twists and turns of underground hallways while "Sweet Dreams" pounds and growls from above, muffled through the cement walls. There, he stumbles upon his father's real office, where a stark, blinking touch screen waits like a snare. With one click Sam is zapped into the system, his body and the image breaking apart into thousands of pixels like ice shattering in space. It's here that the visuals explode into a breathtaking alien expanse, but also where Daft Punk's immersive score takes the movie from the benign, "yeah, that was pretty slick looking," to the mind blowing. Had Disney not collaborated with French dance duo the film would not have any of the power that it does. It's one of the best syncing of visuals to sound ever accomplished in a film, the sort of thing that Daft Punk has always made look impressive and effortless in their own stage shows and videos. It's intense, it's exciting, and just f-ing cool.

But once Sam starts to get the lay of the phosphorescent land, the feeling of wonder wears thin. It's not the fault of the actors. Garrett Hedlund as Sam, does the brave hero thing well and with enough enthusiasm and sincerity to make me believe and care about him, while Olivia Wilde is charming and sweet as the naive, organically grown computer program Quorra seeking her humanity. Jeff Bridges is basically just playing "the Dude" here, but I like it as it gels perfectly with the character and gives the film a lighter feel. The real problem is two-fold, both excusable and not. The world of the Grid is a limited, monochromatic one. While its exciting at first, once you acclimate there's not any where else to go within the closed computer system. You could say that's the way its supposed to be, making the first glimpse of sun at the finale just as exhilarating as the first fall into the Grid.

But the other problem isn't so easy to forget. Legacy does deserve credit for avoiding the major philosophical pitfalls that too many sci-fi films fall into. Though sci-fi is almost always an allegorical translation deeply rooted in philosophy, it has to be handled subtlety, ie. the masterful Blade Runner verses the overly preachy Matrix Revolutions. Legacy doesn't bother too much with all that, only briefly mentioning a few key words including "cyber freedom," "zen," and "perfection," its heart on its sleeve, its intent to be a fun ride that needs no explanation or validation. It knows that its plot and conflict is old news. You don't care about the science or philosophy, and nor should you, as guess what, none of it really makes any sense. This is a simple story about a boy seeking his father, and in the process finding his true path. At the climax, when asked the dramatic question "why!" Kevin simply responds, "because he's my son." 

There's no mythology really (we could get into what little there is, but let's not), but in this case, it could have used a little more. By the end, there's just no tension to keep the momentum going as its pretty clear what's going to happen. Easy to predict isn't always a problem, but it does require something else to balance it out if your intention is to make a solid film beginning to end. Clu (also played by Bridges with a coat of extremely poor CGI over his older features), the computer clone of Kevin Flynn, born all those years ago to create a perfect world within the system is the main antagonist, but is never menacing enough in force or intent to make anybody all that worried, especially as the human Sam seems to have a knack for handing light disc weaponry without much practice. Sprinkling Clu with a touch more personality or showing us his need for perfection in all things instead of telling us would have done leaps and bounds for the muddied center of the film. The twin relationship between Kevin the creator and Clu the dutiful creation that takes his perfectionist programming too far also lacks the intense connection that could have formed there, only flaming to life briefly at the end when Kevin reaches his moment of enlightenment and joins Clu forever.

These problems made me dither back and forth between ratings, undecided between 3.5 or 4 hearts. But in the end, that feeling of wonder manifested in me and expanded like sentient circuitry. This time last year, the talk was about how Avatar had revolutionized the way we see movies and technology. But this rag tag group of a Minnesota farm boy, a director of commercials, "the Dude," and a duo of French DJ's have given everybody a run for their money, even when they don't get it quite right.
Want more TRON: Legacy? Check out M's review of Daft Punk's score. 

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