“TRON: Legacy”: Virtual Reality Odyssey? Or Takedown of Cyberculture?

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This is not quite a full review here. I’ve read other TRON: Legacy reviews out there, and am more intrigued about the dialogue that’s starting to take shape. There are a handful of spoilers below, but my intention here is not to give the game away, merely to talk about what it all means. Come back and read Monday, if you’re more interested in discussing the film after seeing it.

I’m one of the nerds who has been freaking out for months – half a year, really – about the Thursday release of TRON: Legacy, who has been monitoring each and every update on the Flynn Lives website, who journeyed to Flynn’s Arcade at Comic-Con in San Diego. Trust me here: I’m the target demographic.

And yet I must admit that when I sat down and finally put the 3-D glasses on, the movie was quite unlike anything I was expecting. After all those glossy, techno, pulse-pounding trailers, fans have been whipped into froth, eager to behold some breakneck neon mayhem. And yet throughout the story’s second act, the movie is less obsessed with spectacle than with some serious existential issues. So much so that I’ve started to see negative reviews pop up, decrying the film as everything from dull to inert. While I’m not quite sure the finished product warrants such extreme criticisms, I must admit that even as I walked out of the midtown Manhattan screening room, I turned to my colleague and said: “Fanboys are going to be ticked; they’ll be expecting a whole lot more action.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. A quick summary of where we are and how we got here: The film opens with the same flashback that has dominated every TRON: Legacy trailer – of a younger Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) putting his son to sleep, talking about the wonders of The Grid. Then flash forward: Young Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is now grown up, his dad’s been missing for years, and one of his father’s most trusted advisors visits Sam one night with a pager. Someone just called from Flynn’s Arcade – from a phone line that’s been deactivated for years.

(More at Techland: Check out the strangest and craziest 3-D movies ever made)

So, as we all know by now, Sam goes to the arcade, gets sucked into the vast, black, cold world of The Grid – the endless horizon of twinkling neon lights and self-aware computer programs. He is immediately seized and incarcerated, stripped down and suited up to compete in this virtual world’s gladiator games. During one match he is identified by Clu (Bridges) as Kevin’s son; when Clu demands a light cycle duel, Sam is almost killed before he is rescued by Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a protégé of his father. She takes Sam to Kevin, who has now gone rogue and is living off the grid, who now spends his days trying to master the art of meditation while confronting the bleak prospect of an eternity spent trapped inside a hard drive.

Here, for better or worse, is where the majority of the film’s visceral thrills draw to a halt – a tempo shift that may leave the Daft Punk set scratching their heads.

At least it left me startled. The blockbuster that’s been hyped as faster, meaner, flashier is, in fact, far more contemplative in its final throes than anyone will be expecting. The deeper thoughts — sadly absent from the first half of the film — emerge with the father-son reunion, bridging space and time and serving as a commentary of sorts on a life lost to megabytes. Their reunion dinner then builds into a flashback, as Kevin recounts the history of the Grid, about how Clu betrayed the creator, and how a miraculous evolution of sentient compter programs came to an abrupt halt with something of a digital genocide. All of this then tiptoes to a rather profound sequence in which three shades of sentience – the human visitor to the virtual world (Sam), the human resident of the Grid (Kevin) and the digital being who longs to be human (Quorra) – all hitch a ride together towards a great portal in the sky.

The discussion en route becomes introspective: Sam wants his father back in his life, Kevin meditates on this wondrous experiment that he is now being forced to leave behind, and then Quorra speaks up about her longing to see a sunset. Here she is, one of the most sophisticated computer programs imaginable, and yet she cannot grasp the simplest of human pleasures. She dreams of reality just as Kevin dreamed about virtual reality in the first Tron. We come full circle.

(More on Techland: The Jeff Bridges Comic-Con interview)

So I’ll admit freely that TRON: Legacy has some issues. Jeff Bridges, in full Dude mode, pushes beyond endearing into irksome, with his aw-shucks shtick. Also, it was widely reported that the movie went through one or two rounds of re-shoots, bringing in talent from Pixar to flesh out the characters, and one can feel those jagged shifts of momentum, as we switch from action film to family reunion to theoretical philosophy. The Daft Punk soundtrack is less groundbreaking than a modest melding of classical orchestrations with nuanced techno. The 3-D is sleek and beautiful – and far brighter than I was expecting, given the black backgrounds – but it’s often used so subtly in evoking depth and weight that it lacks the in-your-face  Wow Factor of Avatar. When taken as a whole, the film is a little too erratic and restrained, competent but lacking the visceral sparkle that Comic-Con fans will be hoping for.

But my mind keeps coming back not to the light cycles or digital airplanes, but to Quorra’s discussion about the sunrise. After 28 years, the second TRON seems to be operating almost as a counterpoint to the original, less a celebration of the Grid – the blank slate, to be used by developers and filmmakers at will – than a reminder that computers have limitations. We may be enamored by the limitless possibilities of the processor, but we should never want to live inside that virtual space. How many days have I stared into a computer screen so long that I never saw the daylight? One of Kevin’s final acts in TRON: Legacy amplifies this sentiment – that virtual pleasures can only go so far, and must never be allowed to commandeer our personal realities.

The great irony of this heavily hyped blockbuster is that in approaching all these bigger thoughts about cyberculture, there’s a good chance TRON will alienate everyone. Serious moviegoers will be thrown by all the jargon and gaming. Thrill-seekers, meanwhile, will wonder who turned off the noise, as the conversation skews sober. Meanwhile, fans of the original may well be put off by the humanistic finale, which puts computers squarely in their place. And so while I’m intrigued by Legacy’s themes, impressed by the restraint and generally enthralled with the production design, I’m worried I might be the only one.

A final thought: Is it possible TRON: Legacy will play better for everyone the second time around, once all the expectations and biases have been shed, and we can finally focus on the argument at hand? Would this whole project have been better received if it had just shed the TRON label?

(More at Techland: Lessons to be learned at the Tron: Legacy Comic-Con party)