A note to Disney: Before spending hundreds of millions of dollars making and marketing a movie, spend a couple of bucks on the script.
I wish I could have given that advice to Disney before they made Tron: Legacy, a movie that edges right up against being a complete disaster thanks to a sub-moronic script that feels like it was written by people who had never used a computer. And people who just simply can’t tell a story.
The film’s story is essentially nonsense, which wouldn’t be so bad if it were well-crafted or well-told nonsense. Instead the film plays like Tron: Backstory, with huge, interminable chunks of time given over to people explaining to hero Sam Flynn what has been going on in ‘The Grid’ for the last twenty years. Occasionally this is accompanied by a narrated, visual flashback. It continuously felt like the script was referencing some sort of book tie-in or a TV series I had never heard of, as if all of this backstory was stuff they had to get across to pikers like me, while the real Tron fans were totally in the know about the creation of the ISOs and their destruction and Clu’s takeover of the Grid.
The backstory wouldn’t have been so bad, even presented as poorly as it is in the film, if it were in the service of anything going on in the film. Unfortunately the film’s plot is threadbare, and mostly consists of going from point A to point B and then point C. Nobody has to actually DO anything in Tron: Legacy; mostly they just have to find transportation, which isn’t that hard on ‘The Grid.’
Sam Flynn is the son of Kevin Flynn - computer genius, one time game grid participant, and CEO of computing giant Encom. Kevin Flynn went missing in 1989, leaving Sam an orphan. The kid grows up to be blank, boring and semi-sullen, or at least that’s how the gratingly uncharismatic Garrett Hedlund plays him. Sam likes to live in a shipping box with his dog, give his money to charities and play pranks on Encom, which has turned into Microsoft since the first Tron. None of this matters, though - there’s an opening scene set in 1989 that gives us all the info we need and then fifteen or twenty minutes of stuff that has no bearing on the plot or the character of Sam as he is portrayed in ‘The Grid.’ Every moment with Encom and the real world is a waste of time that leads nowhere and that sets up nothing in this film. This set up of elements that have no impact on the story is repeated again and again in Tron: Legacy, and when it’s all said and done it becomes obvious that this is not a film but a prologue for a planned larger franchise.
Through a series of events that are staggeringly uninteresting, non-mysterious and perfunctory, Sam ends up inside ‘The Grid,’ which is the new world of the computer. He then experiences a 40 minute remake of the original Tron - disc battles, light cycle race - with a 21st century sheen. At this point I was thinking maybe this film would be okay; the updated Disc Wars and light cycle stuff is well done. I especially liked that the light cycles now jump and operate on a multi-level terrain; the grid is see-through so sometimes a bike would be racing on one level and the opponent would be visible racing a level down.
Just as in the original Tron, Flynn escapes the games after crashing through a wall in the light cycle arena. Unlike the original Tron this Flynn is rescued by a mysterious woman program, who takes him off to meet her master - Kevin Flynn. It’s at this point that Tron: Legacy simply falls to pieces as a story and begins limping lamely towards the finish line. The original Tron gave Flynn and friends a quest in the world of the computer - Tron was tasked to destroy the MCP. In Legacy the quest is just to get our heroes to a big old portal in the sky and to leave the computer.
This is really, really important in understanding why Tron: Legacy is bad. In the original Tron there were stakes that went beyond the computer world. Dillinger had stolen the good guy’s code and his MCP was fucking up the system. The action in the computer wasn’t just flashy video game analogues, it was also about solving a problem that could only be solved in the computer world. The computer world impacted the real world. In Tron: Legacy the whole point is to just get out of the computer and essentially turn it off. That’s it. It turns out that Clu, the evil program version of Jeff Bridges who is running ‘The Grid,’ wants to bring an army of programs into the real world but this is a complete non-threat because the basic concept doesn’t make any sense. Even if we accept that the matter to create physical bodies for this army can be accrued, what would even a few thousand guys wielding useless computer game staffs and frisbees do in the real world?
There’s another stab at giving stakes in the creation of the ISOs - these are ill-defined digital lifeforms that, we are told, could revolutionize medicine and religion and other junk in the real world. How? Please do not ask this, as Tron: Legacy has absolutely no idea and nobody involved in the dismal script seems to have given it any thought. Or maybe they completely know and they only want to answer it in movie 5 of the giant franchise they foolishly thought they were starting. Either way, there’s an idea that something in the computer could have an impact in the real world, but that something is unknown, unknowable and mostly uninteresting. It’s not even a MacGuffin because the movie is barely interested in the ISOs.
So what we have is a movie without any stakes; the characters simply have to get from Flynn’s house to the portal and that is it. There are no items they have to collect or people they have to rescue. And since this movie introduces light jets, there’s no reason they can’t simply fly to the portal and get out of Dodge. Seemingly sensing this, the writers create one obstacle to escape which only highlights how idiotic this movie and how it has no rules within the computer world: every program has an identity disc, and Kevin Flynn’s disc is the most valuable one. As the creator of ‘The Grid,’ his disc contains the keys to the computer world and can be used to do… something. It’s unclear, but it’s a pretty huge deal. And so of course Flynn almost never, ever uses this disc to do anything. Until he accidentally loses it; at this point regaining the disc doesn’t even become a quest object but rather a thing that the characters do at the end because they happen to run across the disc again. Why do they not pursue the disc? Because their plan is to just fly to the portal and turn the fucking computer off, really highlighting how completely unimportant everything in the computer world is. ‘They got the superweapon? Eh, we’re going to turn off the game in a minute anyway. No biggie.’ The fact that they actually DO try and get the disc back makes no sense in the larger construct of the story, actually.
Let’s not pretend that the original Tron is all that great. The original is fairly boring and is probably only remembered because the aesthetic is so unique. But the original Tron felt like a movie that was grappling with the concepts of the burgeoning world of computers, and while there’s a lot in that’s silly now - the idea of being bodily sucked into a computer is beyond goofy - that 1982 film was made by people who were thinking about computers and how they worked. The religious belief in Users was a brilliant conceit, and the world felt constructed based on at least a passing familiarity with the ideas of computing. There is no feeling of that in Tron: Legacy. In the first Tron programs were programs - they had functions in the computer. In Tron: Legacy programs are just what you call the characters. In Tron the computer world was a digital landscape completely unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. In Tron: Legacy there are wooden doors with brass doorknobs. In Tron being a User meant something, and Flynn discovered he had some special abilities in the computer. In Tron: Legacy the creator of ‘The Grid’ can manipulate the code of the world and people around him at will but never bothers doing so. This feels especially galling after The Matrix, where mainstream movies encountered the common sense idea that a person who has access to the code of a computer simulation could use that access to do impressive things - to basically hack reality. And in the year 2010 the idea that there’s no global connective element to this computer world is weird and old-fashioned. In a time when we deal with little specialized apps and our computers are hand held, the computing of Tron: Legacy feels prehistoric and silly.
Oh, and the original Tron had a character named Tron. That title was always misleading, as Tron was never the lead character of that film, but he doesn’t even appear in Tron: Legacy* except in one quick flashback.
I think the film’s massive story problems are insurmountable, but they could have been endurable if there was any character work happening in the movie. At some point Brad Bird and Michael Arndt came in to punch up the script and to give some weight to the father/son storyline. They failed. There’s a nice scene between the two Flynns as they sit around on a light sailer (just like the first movie), but that’s about it. The performances don’t help. Olivia Wilde, who has been singled out for praise by people obviously only talking about her looks and not her acting, has no character to play. She does some action, she looks good and she delivers some tortured exposition, and that’s it. Sam Flynn is a blank, and I cannot overstate how simply bland and empty Hedlund is. Kevin Flynn is just The Dude wearing neon; it’s nice seeing Bridges have what looks like an enjoyable time, but he’s competing with himself in theaters right now. You can see him acting in True Grit and collecting a paycheck in Tron: Legacy. His other character, Clu, is a stock villain. There’s nothing to hang on to in the film except for the effects and design.
Neither of which were enough for me. I found the look of Tron: Legacy to be monotonous after a while. You’re staring at a black light poster for an hour and a half, and director Joe Kosinski simply doesn’t have the vision to ever truly dazzle. ‘The Grid’ looks like a neon city. The see-through aspects of the world are interesting for a while, but become just a part of the scenery. There’s no sense of scope or scale to the world of ‘The Grid,’ and nothing gives a sense of awe. He shoots some decent action in the first half of the film, but what he’s doing is amping up stuff from the original movie. Once the film delivers its only original action sequence - a dogfight between light jets - he goes slack. With no template to copy from (except Star Wars), Kosinski doesn’t know what to do with the scene. It’s not bad, it’s just not particularly thrilling. Interestingly, Tron: Legacy is really, really light on action. Most of the action takes place right up front in the game grid and then the film tries to put you to sleep with exposition. This is a problem the original had as well.
The effects are, for the most part, decent, but the only one that pushes the envelope is the one that fails utterly. Clu is Jeff Bridges’ digital avatar in the computer world and as such he has never aged. A CGI mask was created for Bridges to take 25 years off of him, but it frankly looks awful. Every time Clu was on screen I kept thinking of Polar Express; the face is lifeless, the mouth moves wrong and the eyes are dead. It’s incredibly bad, and it’s the final nail in the film’s coffin. If you’re spending this much money on a film, can’t you at least do your big gee-whiz effect well?
I cannot recommend Tron: Legacy on any level. I suppose hardcore fans of the original will enjoy hearing talk of Users and Programs, but even they will have to admit that this is a film lacking any spark of imagination. It’s remarkable how boring the movie is and how listless the pacing is. A movie like Tron: Legacy could get away with a script as stupid as the one it has if the movie crackled, if any of the actors popped or if any of the action scenes felt truly next level or groundbreaking. There’s none of that here. There’s nothing that truly qualifies as entertaining in the movie, which is probably the biggest sin a huge blockbuster like this can commit. If you can’t be good, Tron: Legacy, you should at least be fun.
*spoiler: it turns out that Tron is in Legacy throughout, but he’s been turned into the evil Rinzler, who is almost literally the Darth Maul of this new era Phantom Menace - he has two discs and he does a lot of leaping around. The reveal of Rinzler as Tron is so poorly handled and muddled that I wonder if it was done in ADR and not in the script. I suspect that people who have no experience with Tron will be completely baffled by the ‘reveal.’