In Defense of “Tron: Legacy”

Tron: Legacy

Last weekend I saw “Tron: Legacy” and enjoyed it. It is everything a sequel should be: a whole-cloth improvement on its source material. The visuals are more dazzling, the dialogue has more snap, and the action is more thrilling. It’s not as groundbreaking and unexpected a piece of cinema as the original film – indeed, how could it be – but it is a solidly entertaining flick, and director Joseph Kosinski should be commended for his audacity. It’s not every director who dares to take on such a tall order as his feature film debut, and like David Fincher before him, I predict this former director of television commercials will go on to make some amazing films, and we’ll all line up to see them simply because they were made by him.

I dropped Fincher’s name with good reason. Looking back, it’s tough to remember that the acclaimed director of “The Social Network,” “Fight Club” and “Zodiac” made his feature debut with the reviled “Alien3.” Later, after Fincher had made “Seven” and “The Game,” critics and viewers returned to “Alien3” and discovered that their opinion of it had significantly raised now that they better knew the man who made it. I suspect the same will prove true of “Tron: Legacy” – and that everyone who’s now taking a massive digital dump on this worthy sci-fi/action movie will revise their take on it in the years to come.

By my unscientific estimate, nearly half the people who have seen “Tron: Legacy” have hated it with an “Alien3”-like fervor. Some viewers told me they even walked into the film knowing they were going to hate it, which baffles me, but whatever. I’ve been reading criticisms of “Tron” since the film opened, and I have to say that some of them seem unfair, hanging the film on issues for which the dreadful “Star Wars” prequels received a free pass.

I can’t defend “Tron: Legacy” as a classic piece of cinema, because it ain’t. But I want to try to speak to some of the criticisms of this very good popcorn movie because, in a few years time, some of us may change our minds. (Including me.) Here’s a short list of “Tron” complaints and my thoughts on them.

Warning: Many, many spoilers follow.

“The face of the ‘young’ Jeff Bridges looks like CGI.”

Well, yeah. Jeff Bridges is in his early sixties; it’s a miracle that “Tron: Legacy” is able to generate a version of him that appears half of that. And the effect is decent if you don’t think too much about it, but if you’ve seen “The Big Lebowski,” you will think about it because you know well the face of The Dude. Still, there’s an argument to be made for CLU’s perfect face, one that easily links to the plot if you allow it to. As Harry Knowles said, it’s a wholly justifiable case of the Uncanny Valley. Kevin Flynn’s ageless doppelganger has to look evil and unnatural, because he isn’t real and aspires to be. The only program on the Grid who looks passably human is Quorra, who has a good excuse for looking like a natural-born entity.

“The acting is terrible.”

Portraying an action hero is difficult work for an actor, and not only because he or she has to generate credible emotional responses to a blank green wall and have meaningful dialogue with tennis balls on sticks. That actor, no matter how good he is, has a job no artist can be expected to fill to our complete satisfaction: He has to play us. The action heroes of the screen are wish fulfillment – nothing more, nothing less. They are the physical embodiment of our desires to fly, to have an endless supply razor-wire bon mots at the ready, and to punch someone’s ignorant lights out. Actors, screenwriters and directors can fulfill these wishes to a degree, but at some point, they have to fall short of our expectations because they don’t know what they are. They can guess at what we contain, but they can’t know for sure – and inevitably, we’re going to walk out of the movie saying “It was pretty cool, but I woulda punched that guy” or “Why didn’t she just melt him with her laser eyeballs?”

Such is the burden “Tron: Legacy’s” stars must carry. Since get to know them in what is essentially a video game, we immediately disregard their human characteristics and view them solely as action figures – riding motorcycles, hurling pimped-out Frisbees and kickin’ ass. But the characters of “Tron: Legacy” are called upon to do more than that: They are asked to make basic human connections and to puzzle out the mysteries of the world they live in, processes that may seem tedious to some viewers because it’s what we did on the way to the theater and it’s what we’re probably doing even now. We don’t need to watch out our action heroes doing that; we want them to put on the big blue Smurf outfit and blow shit up real good. They can talk about what it all meant later, after we’ve gone home.

The odds are stacked against Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde and Jeff Bridges before “put on your 3-D glasses now” notice leaves the screen. But you know something? They pull it off. I could easily see Hedlund as the son of reckless Kevin Flynn, raised from age eight by the stoic Alan “Tron” Bradley. Wilde’s Quorra has the searching mind and wide-eyed engagement of someone who’s read about the real world but never really seen it.

And Bridges’ Flynn is … aw, hell. If I have to defend Jeff Bridges’ acting to you, then maybe we should part company now. He’s gifted enough to pull a huge laugh in “Tron: Legacy” simply by saying the word “dog.” Bridges has ever been the best part of bad movies, and a large part of the success of classic movies.

“It drags in the middle.” Now, you see, that’s what I liked. I was happy that the grand ideas behind “Tron” were allowed to stretch their legs and elucidate a bit. Science fiction movies are all about ideas, and ideas don’t blow up all the time – there’s one quick burst of light when we get one, and then a long period of setting up reflectors around the burst to study it. Ideas are powerful, but they’re also lingering, and one of them can yield thousands of different conclusions depending on which mirror we look at.

So there’s a big gap between “Tron: Legacy’s” action scenes. Big deal. You want action? Jason Statham is making some fairly wonderful action movies, some real sexed-up oiled-down bare-knuckle fuckfests. There’s never a reflective moment, because only the weak look backward, mate. As for me, I’ll happily take “Tron’s” lengthy considerations of simulacra and thinly-veiled analogy of genetics research over another Frisbee fight. I think “Tron’s” ideas and action are well-balanced, just as they should be in your basic good sci-fi movie. For more on the dichotomy between action/sci-fi and sci-fi/action, watch Plinkett’s thoughtful (also NSFW and borderline psychotic) review of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek.”

“The Daft Punk music was too obtrusive.”

Seriously? Huh. I’ve got nothing for this one. I think the score is terrific.

“The female characters are lacking.”

I have to agree with this one: The women of “Tron: Legacy” do get short shrift. I noted exactly six women in the whole of the film: Wilde’s Quorra, the four Sirens, and Sam Flynn’s grandmother, who has one line. (There are other women in anonymous, background roles, though I can’t remember exactly where.) And while Quorra can drive a hellish Lightcar and swing a mean Identity Disc, she doesn’t seem to have any veto power over her story; even Leeloo Dallas Multipass was able to bring her foot down on “The Fifth Element” as if to say, we’re going to do this now, alright? And the Sirens demonstrate exactly two skills: assembling a wardrobe, and walking backwards in high heels. Underwhelming.

This was my only real disappointment with “Tron: Legacy,” and I hope it’s remedied in a sequel. Last week I was at Walt Disney World, where “Tron” crap was on the shelves of every single souvenir shop. Right away, I noticed that Quorra was the only major character without an action figure, and hers was the only one I was interested in. The “Tron: Legacy” billboard that features Quorra in a gladiatorial pose was one of the things that had me most excited to see the film, but its promise was only three-quarters realized. Should “Tron: Legacy” be fortunate enough to generate a sequel, Quorra needs to play a more involved role in it.

“You don’t understand what’s happening if you haven’t seen the first movie.”

Simply untrue. In fact, “Tron: Legacy” nearly belabors its premise.

“It doesn’t seem related to the first movie.”

I disagree. There are references aplenty; screenwriters Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz apparently went over the code of the original “Tron” line by line and found hundreds of ways to link the two films. Even the basic elements of Kevin and Sam Flynn’s journeys are similar, and they happen in the same order (again, SPOILERS): The transport to the Grid, the Disc battle, the escape from the Light Cycle arena, and the trek to the I/O tower are all where they should be. The title character even manages to make an appearance at close to the same time as he did in the original film.

“It’s a stinker, plain and simple.”

We said that about another movie that came out 28 years ago. It was called “Tron,” and it just generated a worthy sequel. In 2038, when “Tron 3” is released, we’ll probably have this discussion again … so if you would, kindly hold on to these talking points.

Cross-posted to Monkey Goggles.

PHOTO: WALT DISNEY PICTURES

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