[Update, Monday 12/20: Reposting this for anyone who saw it over the weekend and wants to weigh in about what a dumbass I am in the comments.]
It’s been a long time since I saw a movie and was as excited to rush home and write about it as I was with Tron Legacy. Granted, one of the driving motivations in my life is having legitimate complaints to express, so take that for the backhanded compliment it is. Tron Legacy: thought provoking, but to a greater extent, complaint provoking.
You know the story: Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is the glib, rebellious heir to a Microsoft-like software company who blows off steam by riding a motorcycle Ducati™ and BASE jumping (seriously, base jumping, like five minutes in). Sam, let’s call him Sarcastic Batman, clashes with the chairman of the board, who, like Steve Jobs, wants his software kept tightly under wraps, whereas Sam thinks information should be free, like baby ducks. That’s the way it was intended by Sam’s father Jeff Bridges, who’s been missing for 20 years. One night after one of Sam’s clever pranks and BASE jumping stunts, Bruce Boxleitner (awesome porn name, btw) shows up at Sam’s Lethal Weapon-esque loner condo — you know the type, in the middle of the city, yet somehow totally isolated with its own boat dock and a motorcycle in the house. Bruce bears a mysterious page from Dad’s old number, which has been disconnected for 20 years. He tosses Sam the keys to Pops’ warehouse and urges him to investigate, which Sam has apparently spent the intervening two decades not doing. Sam heads to the warehouse, the last place his dad was seen, which apparently no one has thought to search after he disappeared. Blah blah blah, Sam gets sucked into the computer. Let’s be honest, none of us really cared about the set up.
Once inside the world of the computer, Sam has to save his Dad, hook up with Olivia Wilde’s character (we’ll call her “The 5th Element”), and light-bike fight bad guys before the portal back to reality closes forever. Credit where credit’s due, it’s a lot better than I expected from a movie that was originally called “Tr2n”.
Yes, the action looks pretty, but movies aren’t graphic design. The pleasant surprise is a story that actually asks some prescient questions — about the nature of reality, the birth of consciousness, what separates natural intelligence from artificial, etc. It doesn’t necessarily ask them well, but that it bothers at all is pleasantly ambitious for a Disney popcorn circle jerk. The Elder Flynn (Jeff Bridges), has a nemesis by the name of Clu (a digitized, younger version of Bridges who looks creepy, but that’s kind of the point), a program he designed in his own image to help him build a “perfect” virtual world. Clu has since gone rogue, taking tight control over the computer world, building an army, and trying to eradicate any threats to his utopia, specifically the isomorphic algorithms, a special type of programs that manifested themselves spontaneously. (There’s also a program called Tron there too, but I’m still not sure what the hell it does.) The parallels between Bridges and his uncanny valley computer foil are cleverly done, and the idea of new beings spontaneously manifesting themselves from a man-made “world” takes the usual sci-fi biblical allegory to a fairly interesting place. Spark of life, primordial soup, ideas as self-propagating — I can dig it, maaan. (*bong load*)
The interesting ideas are mostly dead ends. And as for the action, there’s the problem of subtext. By which I mean, all the characters in this world are man-made creations of Jeff Bridges — computer programs — right? They evolved differently than humans, they have different drives (regular humans’ overriding drive being food and sex), and different organizing principles, right? And yet, much like The Matrix Reloaded, the computer programs behave mostly just like humans in fancy costumes. I know it’s easier if they all just act like horny weirdos (Transformers 2 took this principle to its logical conclusion with the idea of robot heaven and a dog bot humping Megan Fox’s leg), but aren’t they still computer programs? How might computerized entities act differently than organic life? Without trying to answer that, it becomes less an exploration of the idea than it is a lifting from previous sci fi. Like, why does the underlying nature of reality always look like a gay euro rave disco? “So, like, they’re sub-atomic particles personified, so naturally everyone’s standing around wearing tight leather and listening to Daft Punk…”
It’s the same with the fight sequences. When you take the time to create a whole new world where the normal rules of reality don’t apply, why does the conflict always end up being settled through elaborate kung fu? If digitized Sam is good at “fighting” inside the binary computer environment, what is the subtext of that? In the movie, we’re basically to believe that digitized Sam is good at light bike fighting because flesh-and-blood Sam rides a motorcyle. Really, that‘s your f*cking answer?
Slight digression: The other way they fight in Tron world is that they all have these little discs that they throw at each other, which bounce off things and occasionally break sh*t at random like a pong ball, and if they hit another person/program, it makes them “derezz”, dissolving into a billion little bits and then disappearing into nothingness (pretty cool, to be fair). You get these discs upon entering Tron World, and they’re like your hard drive, containing the sum of your memories and all of the things that make you you. …Do you see what I’m getting at here? Is it not a little weird to fight by basically throwing your brains at each other? “Here, here’s your disk that contains all of your accumulated knowledge and personality. Be very careful with it, because without it you are useless. Also, if you see a bad guy, immediately huck it at his face like a sh*t-filled snowball, because f*ck that guy.”
And if everything’s to be settled by disc-throwing, why not have a back story in which flesh-and-blood Sam is the Chico State Ultimate Frisbee champion before he’s digitized? Perfect back story! THIS IS THE ONE THE ORACLE PROPHESIED! THE COMPUTER PROGRAMS ARE NO MATCH FOR HIM! HE’S JUST TOO GOOD AT FRISBEE!
In the midst of the half-baked allegory is Jeff Bridges essentially playing The Dude. Every five minutes Flynn’s spouting a new Dude-ism, and as much as I love The Dude, it adds nothing to the story besides confusion. It feels like it comes from the P Diddy school of sampling, where you just take an existing work and add a few “yeahs” and “c’mons” and hope reminding people of something they already like is enough.
Anyway, the story eventually paints itself into a corner and gets resolved by a totally unprompted reversal from a character who was barely in the movie before then, but by that point you’ve stopped expecting too much coherence or logic. After all, this is a movie that expects us to buy blond, blue-eyed Hitler youth Garrett Hedlund and the little Greek-looking kid playing young Sam Flynn as the same person.