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 see them simply because he made them.
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: Legacy 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 an undeserved pass.
I can’t defend Tron: Legacy as a classic cinema. 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.
“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 generates a version of him that appears half that. The effect is decent if you don’t think too much about it. Still, there’s an argument to be made for CLU’s perfect face. It’s a wholly justifiable case of the Uncanny Valley effect: Kevin Flynn’s ageless doppelganger has to look evil and unnatural, because he isn’t real. In fact, no one on the Grid looks human—not the weird ladies in the armory who walk backwards, not the weaselly minion with a popcorn popper for a hat, and certainly not Michael Sheen’s Thin White Duke analog. The only program who looks passably human is Olivia Wilde’s Quorra (pictured above), who has a good plot-related excuse for looking more human than everyone else.
“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. Inevitably, we’re going to walk out of the movie saying, “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 “Dogs are cool.” Bridges has ever been the best part of bad movies, and a large part of the success of classic movies.
I’ll happily take Tron: Legacy’s lengthy considerations of simulacra and its thinly-veiled analogy of genetics research over another Frisbee fight.
“It drags in the middle.”
Now, you see, I liked that. I was pleased that the characters were allowed the luxury to talk about the ideas fueling Tron’s world-building, much as they did in the original film. Science fiction movies are all about ideas, and while ideas don’t blow up, they have more staying power than your average Michal Bay explosion. 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: Legacy’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 you here. The score is terrific.
“The female characters are lacking.”
I have to agree with this one: The women of Tron: Legacy get unforgivably 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.) I only learned the name of the siren played by Beau Garrett (Gem, pictured at left) by checking IMDb; no one ever says it, while the male characters repeat each other’s names almost constantly.
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.
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: Legacy 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. Perhaps even be its star.
“You don’t understand what’s happening if you haven’t seen the first movie.”
Simply untrue. Tron: Legacy nearly belabors its premise.
“It doesn’t seem related to the first movie.”
Woof. There are Tron references aplenty; screenwriters Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz apparently went over the code of the original film 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. And then there’s that big door.
“It sucks, 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.
PHOTO: WALT DISNEY PICTURES