Monday, December 20, 2010

Tron Legacy: Theatrical Review

Release Date: December 17, 2010

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: L.A. Live Regal 14 Cinemas (Premiere Section)
Time: 7:40 pm Friday December 17, 2010
Projector Type: 3D Digital

Loves: The amazing imagery on display here, Daft Punk
Likes: Jeff Bridges, the original 1982 Tron
Neutral: Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde
Hates: How vague and ill-explained everything is

I honestly don't have any idea what I was expecting from this film. I hadn't seen the original Tron in over a decade but was a huge fan of it when I was a kid despite not knowing what the hell was going on. I remembered being dazzled by the world of Tron and getting excited every time they lined up for that light-cycle scene (I have seen that scene more times than I have ever actually watched the film). But like most adults my age, the older I got the less I thought about it. There were plenty of films I would go back and revisit from that era but for some reason Tron was never on that list. I never had the urge to sit someone down and show it to them and I most certainly never felt the need to own it. So when this sequel was announced I had a mixed reaction to it. On one hand I was semi-intrigued by what could be done with that world I loved as a child but on the other I was worried that it might have been better to leave those memories, as fond as they were, be and to let Tron be what it was...a technical yet highly flawed achievement from another time.

It is with great pleasure then that I can say that I enjoyed the hell out of this film. It has the same flaws as its predecessor and a few others but this entry into the now franchise has grown up and matured to a point where I think it will better stand the test of time than the original ever had the chance to do and probably get a bigger fan base. So, to the un-initiated I will attempt to explain what exactly Tron Legacy is, not only the story (what story there is...) but also why everything looks so bright, glossy and smooth. Because in order to even begin to understand the story being told here you must have a basic working knowledge of what kind of world that this film takes place in. Without that you will probably be left scratching your head through all the talking parts while patiently awaiting for the next cool neon glow light show.

Sam uncovers his father's old arcade palace.

The film opens in 1989 where we see a young Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) talking shop to his little boy Sam. Flynn has inherited this giant computer company called ENCOM and he has been using the resources available to him to create a world within cyberspace that he calls The Grid. He tells his son about this fantasical world in an almost fairy tale manner where he, his friend Tron, and Clu, the avatar he made in his own image, have begun to create what Flynn refers to as "The Perfect World". Soon after that conversation though Flynn disappears off the face of the Earth, no one knows where he went or even if he is still alive. Fast forward 21 years to the present and we find Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) all grown up and still haunted by the sudden disappearance of his father all those years ago.

Sam has turned into that stereotypical troubled youth that rides his Ducati motorbike through the city streets at reckless speeds while out running the police chasing him down. He gets his kicks by invading the "highly secured" ENCOM tower, stealing their latest operating system prototype, releasing it to the public for free and ending it all with a base jump off a large crane on the roof of the building. He never gets brought up on charges though because he is...get ready for it...the major shareholder of ENCOM and is technically the boss so he can do whatever he wants. He just chooses to show off...or more to the point the film makers needed to get a few scenes in there where we see what he is capable of so that they can be called back or referred to once he enters the Grid.

Sam is about to have a major make-over.

None of that stuff really matters though, the one true story thread the film follows is a man searching for his lost father. And that search leads him to his father's old arcade where he discovers, quite easily I might add, a portal into the Grid itself. Once there he is quickly thrust into this very sleek and clean cityscape where the film makers get him suited up and playing the "games" as soon as possible. Sam has a fairly rough introduction to the Grid where he not only meets his father's avatar Clu, but is forced to battle him in one of the films more stand out sequences involving the now infamous light-cycles. It isn't long until Sam is freed though by a mysterious and beautiful woman named Quorra (Olivia Wilde) who takes him off the Grid to see the man she has been protecting and living with, his father whom has been in hiding for the past two decades. Together, Sam, Flynn, and Quorra must stop Clu from attaining his ultimate leave the Grid and enter the real world, our world.

The world of the Grid is kind of a difficult place to put into words. I am sure with the massive marketing campaign for the film that just about everyone is familiar with the neon glow associated with the film. The way it looks is pretty self explanitary such as the blue guys are good and the red/orange guys are bad. However, the "people" that populate the Grid are not actually people, they are in fact computer programs. The reason why they look like people or more specifically people that exist in the real world is because they are the avatar representations of those real world people whom are called "Users". The most basic way I can explain it is imagine when you click a button on your computer that a neon mini version of yourself is inside the computer running around completing those tasks for you.

Clu introduces himself to Sam.

The idea being worked with here is that when a user, such as Flynn and Sam enter the Grid, they have powers and abilities that the simple programs lack. For instance, Flynn is able to create a program from scratch for whatever needs he has while his avatar Clu can only alter those programs or delete them. The undertones of "God and his children" are none too subtle and can sometimes be a little too preachy for their own good. That aside though, Clu defies Flynn and wants to obtain the same powers as a user and the only way for him to do so is to leave the Grid which he needs Flynn's disc for. The discs attached to everyone's back are their identity holders, they contain everything they are and also come in handy when fighting for your life. For instance, when a program is hurt later in the film Flynn must access their disc in order to fix the coding and once that is done the program/person must do a hard reboot to wake up.

Technically speaking, this is a gorgeous film. Out of all the films I have ever reviewed I have never had a harder time choosing which images to post in the body of the review. Other than the monotone images of the real world at the beginning this is pure eye candy from beginning to end. From the rigid and imposing recognizers to the sleek and shiny light-cycles, everything that makes up this world is just mesmerizing.  Though the design of the Grid isn't anything really spectacular, in all honesty we never really see much of the actual city besides the stadium for the games, the buildings and highways all have a very simple design to them. But there is an elegance to its simplicity though, it never hits you over the head with too many visual effects at once because if it did it would probably be all too easy to lose track of what is going on. If ever there were a film that could be recommended purely on its looks, this is it.

There are new visual treats around every corner.

The imagery wouldn't be anything without some good imaginative forces behind them and what we get is some truly spectacular set pieces. I mentioned a couple times now about the games and the stadium, well this is where most of the stuff you have seen from the trailers are at. The disc and light-cycle battles take center stage when Sam first enters the Grid. The staging for the disc battles was clever, I really liked how there were multiple disc battles taking place at once in these suspended clear arenas and that when an opponent defeats another they are just transferred to the next arena immediately until there are only two left. This sequence moves at such a rapid pace that it is a little hard to keep up with everything we are seeing but doesn't detract from how well staged and executed it all is. Because like Sam, we are learning everything as we go and it was refreshing to see that he wasn't an expert at it immediately.

Probably the most iconic thing that Tron is known for beyond its general look are the light-cycles which were also featured prominently in all the films advertising. Just like the original film this is probably my favorite sequence in the film. I don't know what it is about these light-cycles that get me excited whenever I see them, perhaps it is the sensation of speed and how they must use the light coming out of their rear to strategically take out their opponents. Unlike the original film though these are not tied to a particular grid line and have much more freedom of movement. I really enjoyed the added layer as well where they could be driving below or above another player. The geography of the arena didn't really make a whole lot of sense but it didn't matter because each time a cyclist was de-rezed I got all giddy. Light-cycles are still one of my favorite movie vehicles of all time, right up there with the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi and the Delorean from Back to the Future, and Legacy doesn't disappoint in that department.

Quorra can handle herself quite well.

One last bit of praise before I delve into the issues I have with the film. The soundtrack by Daft Punk is nothing short of amazing. It felt as though every scene and/or shot of the film was there to support the music instead of having the music support the imagery. This is not a bad thing in my opinion because the soundtrack that those guys have put together helps immensely to get the viewer on board with what they are seeing on screen. The first time we see a recognizer towering over Sam and the base kicks in mixed with the astounding sound design I was blown away...literally. Daft Punk was born to score this film and despite what people might think of the finished product as a whole the soundtrack will go down as one of the greatest pieces of music to ever grace the silver screen. This is the ultimate Daft Punk music video.

OK, everything has been pretty positive up till now right? I hate to burst your bubble but this film has got some issues. Most are problems that can be traced back to the original film, some are just bad decisions and a couple are some personal nitpicks of my own. I used the word "story" earlier when talking about the motivations for the characters and while the film definitely has a flowing narrative it never really comes across as anything more than an exercise in how many genre cliches can be stuck in one film. The stuff involving ENCOM in the real world is pointless, it has no bearing on anything that happens in the Grid. While one can say that is exactly why we don't stay there long, I believe it would have been a better choice to just focus on the simple story of a man searching for his lost father. The only thing that helped me get through those opening scenes was the Daft Punk score.

Flynn admiring and loathing what he has created.

I wish all my problems were leveled at the real world stuff but unfortunately some of those unfinished or just plain unnecessary story threads appear in the Grid just like a virus. While I was happy we got straight to the good stuff immediately once Sam arrived in the Grid it didn't really make any sense. He is quite literally arrested, sentenced, suited up, and placed on the arena battlefield within a matter of minutes. I understand the need to get to those games in the stadium (especially just after sitting through all that senseless real world stuff) but none of it felt natural to me. I remember in the original film when Flynn was captured he had some moments with the other inmates that were welcome and needed to give us some grounding about the world we just entered. In Legacy, either you are familiar with the original film or you don't get any type of explanation at all. When Sam finally meets up with his father we get some background on what all has transpired but even then it felt as though the writers just dumped all the exposition into the middle of the film.

I was also perplexed by some of the choices that certain characters made. Take Quorra for example, she is the one that helps break Sam out of the stadium which seemed logical given what we knew about her situation at the time. But later when certain aspects of who she is are revealed it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever that she would be allowed to go out on her own and hang out in the dangerous city. Clu also makes a puzzling decision near the end of the film where his victory seems all but certain but he makes a simple and devastating choice to leave a particular object completely unguarded which seems in complete contrast with his intellect. There are a series of missteps that characters make throughout the film like those that just left me with a big question mark above my head but most were minor issues at best and to be honest none of these ever really detracting from my enjoyment of the film overall.

Sam and Quorra finally get some alone time.

The one issue that did take me out of what I was seeing every time though was the digitalization of the young Jeff Bridges in the beginning of the film and most of the shots of Clu. This is the same technology used in X-Men 3 to take away some years to Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. While this is much more successful than that film I still got a sense that Clu was made out of plastic, especially whenever he spoke. I appreciate the effort they made here and this will undoubtedly open the flood gates for other visual film makers to attempt it and help perfect it for future projects but for this film it didn't really sell me on the idea that Clu was a young Jeff Bridges.

That being said, let's derail here for a second and talk about the actors a bit. I thought Jeff Bridges did his usual fine job reprising his role as an aged Kevin Flynn. He displayed a zen like warmness that really helped sell that father figure image for a man that not only created a flesh and blood son but is responsible for created an entire cyber society. His dual role as Clu is harder to discuss because I am unsure how much of that performance is computer generated versus the actual Mr. Bridges. Jeff Bridges helps give the film a bit of humanity to it which is greatly appreciated because so many of the other characters seem lifeless (with two slight exceptions that is). I also really dug it whenever he would go into zen hippie mode and start delivering dialogue like he was The Dude re-incarnated. However, I was expecting him to bring his A game to the table which left the two other leads as the real wild cards here.

Who is this masked man?

Hedlund conveys the appropriate amount of bravado needed for his role as the son searching for his father but doesn't ever wonder out of his rebel without a cause personality. He definitely has that jock look and feel which helps for all the physical requirements of the role but I get a huge Hayden Christensen/Sam Worthington feel from him whenever he tries to emote anything other than bewilderment. I am exceedingly worried with how our films are having their lead male roles filled with these seemingly cookie cutter and infinitely replaceable actors. He did just fine for what was expected of him but I never really believed him to be the genius/rebel/athlete he was supposed to be. The lack of an emotional connection to him was thankfully levied by Olivia Wilde who showed much more depth and personality than I was expecting.

The character of Quorra is one of those exceptions I mentioned. The instant she appears on screen the film gets a whole new lease on life and we get a breath of fresh air. Her wide eyed and almost child like nature brought a lot of heart and feeling to an otherwise emotionless affair up to that point. She has a wild side to her character that compliments the jocky-ness of Sam perfectly. I love the little moments with her such as when her and Sam are looking over the books she has read and the comment she makes about meeting Jules Verne was very cute in a naive sort of way. It only gets better when we learn she can kick some serious ass later on at the night club. Speaking of the night club, that is where we meet the second exception, a character by the name of Castor (Michael Sheen), the man who runs the End of Line night club . He is actually so crazy and loopy that he seems almost out of place in the film with his Mad Hatter like personality. That doesn't mean he was annoying, just a little bit out of the ordinary for the world we have been presented with.

Like I have been saying, this film is a visual marvel.

There are two last things I need to address before wrapping this exhaustive review up. If you have weathered my ramblings up to this point it might have crossed your mind more than once that I have not really spoken about the character Tron very much. That is because, like the original film actually, he isn't the main character. As a matter of fact he is only in one sequence which is told in flash back. I can't get into what the deal was with him without getting into spoilers so read the following at your own risk. Tron is actually the dual disc masked adversary of Sam throughout the entirety of the film. We don't really get this information until Flynn sees him with those discs in hand. When this was discovered I thought there would be some sort of retribution for him, which we get a half-assed version of, where he is unmasked and there would be a moment between him and Flynn once more. But any potential for a meaningful outcome to this is squandered  which is sad and will only help confuse newcomers to the franchise that have no idea who the hell Tron is and why he is so important.

The last thing that I absolutely have to bring up because it bugged the hell out of me during the entire film are the "influences" from another popular series. There is almost no creative element present in the world of the Grid that hasn't either been stolen or re-purposed from the Star Wars universe. Both Flynn and Sam have these powers that the programs do not and are seen as gods in this world ala Jedi Knights. The good guys glow blue and the bad guys glow red ala Jedi Knights. Flynn and Sam wear these holy cloaks that hide their faces slightly ala Jedi Knights. Spoiler...Flynn has this Obi-Wan zen vibe through the whole film and he even sacrifices himself to save Sam ala Episode 4. Then you have the dual disc guy that reveals his second disc just like Darth Maul from Episode 1. Heck, they even have light sticks that extend on both ends that glow blue and red. There is a sequence when Flynn is in that cloak and enters a room that I could swear was ripped straight from the cantina scene in Episode 4 with Obi-Wan. I can't really say these bothered me, but they did stick out like a huge swelling big thumb and had me focused on other than the amazing things up on the screen.

So, I feel like I need to clarify where I stand on this film after all that. I truly enjoyed this film (enough to want to go see it again actually) and saw things I have never seen done before or at the very least re-imagined as perfectly as it has been here. The soundtrack was amazing and the basic aesthetics of the Grid were an astonishing sight to behold. The flaws that I picked out such as failed story elements, so so acting, and unconvincing aging effects are all fairly important but this is a case where the good points outweigh the bad. Plus, if you see this in theaters (which you most definitely should) see it in 3D. This is the first film since Avatar that actually uses the 3D effect to help the narrative. The film makers decided to have all the real world scenes in 2D and we don't get any 3D until Sam actually enters the Grid which was a master stroke. OK, I have said plenty and spoken my peace...



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