Thursday, December 30, 2010

[Movie Review] Tron Legacy

This will be my relatively spoiler-free review. I plan to post a more detailed, spoiler-full analysis, probably next week. This review is at the express request of my mother.

It's no secret that I was a HUGE fan of the original Tron. I remember when it came out, playing just down the street from me at the Kalet's Genesee Theater. Those were back in the days when individual movie houses still showed first-run films. I saw it a dozen times at least. I was already quite a regular at that theater, to the point where they often didn't charge me admission. They somehow ended up with a cardboard standee from Smucker's, which was a free-standing, near-lifesize carboard TRON holding a box of promotional magazines. The magazines had little puzzles, tidbits about the film, and a fold-out poster of Tron. They apparently didn't feel they needed it (after all, why promote a movie that everyone who walked in the building was already there to see, I suppose), so they gave it to me. Sadly, I didn't keep the whole thing, but I still have one of the magazines around somewhere. I gave them away at my 11th birthday party, which was just after the film came out.

It was a totally Tron-themed party. Everybody got a free magazine. My mom made an awesome electric-blue cake of Tron. I got toy lightcycles and action figures. I'd read the novelization and explained the nuances of the film to anyone who'd listen. I really, really, loved it.

So I was very nervous about the sequel - could they really pull off the magic that the original managed to evoke, even with its sometimes ham-fisted story? Could they be true to the characters I adored, to the digital world so amazingly, tantalizingly unveiled twenty years before it would become a reality (at least in terms of online gaming). Now that computer technology had gone from futuristic to commonplace, would they be skillful enough to make it seem exciting somehow?

I'm pleased to say that the answer is mostly yes. They missed on the last point, I think - in somehow making the computer world seem magical and unfathomable. That would, I think, have simply been asking too much. It's just too interwoven into our society now to make it seem exotic in the same way that it was back when I was the only geek in a five-mile radius with a computer. Some of the wonder of the original - with the floating, binary "bit" and the tanks and seeing a recognizer for the first time, or the little things, like the small bugs that pop up out of the ground and amble away like digital spiders - just couldn't be (or wasn't, at least) recaptured in the sequel.

But if anything, the story is actually richer, fuller than the first time. Instead of being the tale of a young computer hacker seeking proof that he'd been ripped off (which was certainly understandable, but not necessarily all that noble), this is the story of that same hacker trying to create a new, perfect world within the computer network. It's a story of betrayal and of a son seeking his lost, loving father. And it's the story of a villain who, unlike in the first film, doesn't know he's a villain. Doesn't believe he's the bad guy, but thinks he's doing the right thing - doing what he was meant to do.

As a special treat, Tron: Legacy is chock-full from start to finish with references to the original. When the son walks into his father's old arcade and turns on the power, for example, Journey is cranking through the jukebox. Journey, of course, did one of the main tracks on the original soundtrack. There are little lines and visual homages to the first film everywhere, and I believe they are truly meant to speak to the fans like me.

But that's not why you should see this movie. It's genuinely entertaining. It's not Shakespeare, but then neither was Star Wars (by a longshot). But it's visually incredible to watch, including an almost Wizard-of-Oz-like transition from the 2-D world of reality to the 3-D of the Game Grid. It's got some outstanding fight-scenes (though I wished a few times that there were more of them) and some stunning digital vistas. It's got some interesting characters, most of whom don't deal quite as much as they should with their inner demons, but the Kevin Flynn character, played again by Jeff Bridges, certainly does, which is the key to the film.

One other special effect that's worth noting is that Bridges plays a triple-role in the film. He plays his Kevin Flynn character as both a young man of the post-Tron 1980s and as a much older man of 2010. But he also plays Clu, his digital doppelganger and nemesis, who looks exactly like Flynn did back in the 1980s. Yes, through the magic of technology the face of a young Bridges returns to play those roles, and it's nearly seamless (though the lips didn't seem to precisely match the sound on a couple occasions). Bridges was quoted as saying (and I'm paraphrasing out of pure laziness) that he welcomed the new technology as he wouldn't need to act anymore, he could just license his face to the filmmakers).

So you've got a story with enough depth to keep you interested to the end, some character growth as Flynn comes to understand and, ultimately, embrace both his enemy and his mistakes, some more character growth as the flighty son steps up and acts his age at last, and through it all some absolutely amazing 3D graphics that really do make you feel like you're watching a videogame from the inside.

I don't think Tron: Legacy will get the same sort of "revolutionary" historical footnotes that the original did (except possibly for the "young flynn" visual effect), but it kept me entertained for two hours that seemed like less than ninety minutes and it engaged me in a way that pulled me right back to the original, as it was meant to. It's not the perfect film (I think they could have done as well or better by leveraging the story of the Tron 2.0 video game, or parts of it, anyway), but it was pretty damn good, which is all I can ask for. I rate Tron: Legacy a strong A-, approaching an A, and I recommend it to anybody who liked the original or just wants to live on the game grid for a short time.

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