Nearly three decades after Disney’s junky classic Tron (1982) torpedoed into cinemas with a blast of screen-buckling speaker-crushing sound and fury the time has arrived for audiences to once again trip the neon light fantastic in director Joseph Kosinski’s belated sequel, which arrives at a point in history much more capable of realising the original’s ambitious blueprint for a truly immersive otherworldly experience.
Bathed in effervescent midnight at Akihabara aesthetics and mapped with a plot that lurches ambitiously and ungracefully between lost in VR SCI-FI, Frankensteinian take over the world villainy and a simple father/son emotional core that nearly gets drowned out in the madness, the reviewers were always going to have something to grouse about.
Fans of the original may recall that it was no cornerstone of storytelling nuance, a movie susceptible to the same haggard cookie cutter film analysis – the kind that challenges critics to conjure a gazillion ways to rephrase the words “style over substance.”
Tron’s “the grid” is the original Matrix: a virtual video game world teenager Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) unwittingly enters 20 years after his techno entrepreneur father Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) disappears, feared dead or living it up on beaches in the Caribbean. No such luck for old man Flynn: he’s been stuck in a virtual universe he created with the intention of solving humanity’s woes by engineering a landscape where sickness and squalor don’t come into the equation.
“It’s bio digital jazz, man,” explains a Lebowski-tinged Bridges in a salt and butter spiel about how a potentially perfect world became corrupt and politicized. Flynn’s plan went to hell in a CGI hemmed hand basket when one of his creations, Clu (also played by Bridges, brilliantly altered to look 20 years younger) staged a coup and drove his creator into hideaway.
Clu reasons that if Flynn can migrate from the real world to the virtual world, he and his minions can migrate the other way. All that’s stopping him from executing his “muhahaha!” Earth-is-mine plan is a disk Flynn religiously guards. Sam, yanking his hermit father out of a lonely pit of “what have I done?” reflection in which he’s been stewing for years, must get to a heavily protected portal for any chance of exiting the proverbial DOS prompt and stopping Clu from uploading himself onto Earth.
Garrett Hedlund pulls the right moves as the American-as-apple-pie conveyer belt hero and Bridges relishes his two roles spectacularly. Keep an eye out for Michael Sheen as a flamboyant David Bowie party time Judas, a powerbroker in the VR city making deals with the devil while funding a bar tab of cyber cocktails and wielding a long phallic rod that shoots blasts of white light.
The 3D cut of Tron: Legacy is preceded by a couple of sentences explaining that the movie combines both 2D and 3D footage and, ladies and gents, best keep your glasses on at all times. When Sam enters the grid the movie kicks into 3D mode, Kosinski using the format to help emphasise and colour the other world, with its glowsticks-having-sex ambience and video game visual structure. In a narrative context no movie in history has had a greater justification for use of the 3D format, and Tron’s ocular oomph is right up there with Avatar as the format’s golden standard.
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One of the medium’s major shortcomings – the darkening effect 3D glasses have on brightness and clarity of compositions – is disguised by the already darkened palette of the Tron world, in which blackness occupies a large whack of spatial real estate and gaudy neon lights unrelentingly flash and pulsate, embedded into virtually every object of the mise en scene.
One of the movie’s overarching weaknesses – a story that struggles for clarity and bounces like a pinball into hammy outrageousness and grandiose narrative patter – is also disguised by the otherworldly landscape. Willing audiences will be diverted from scrutinizing the plot’s seemingly impromptu inclinations by the ongoing task of coming to terms with the spectacle, audacity and awesome beauty of Kosinski’s cranked to the hilt atmospherics.
On a sensual level Tron: Legacy is extraordinarily bold for a blockbuster-in-wait, engineered with a niche look that, whether you dig it or not, can’t be lumped into the category of a multiplex production designed to appeal to everybody. It reverberates like a nightmare plucked from the sleep cycles of someone or something from a distant galaxy. Wait for DVD? Nah. See it at the cinema or don’t bother.
The soundcape is an odd triumph, boldly mixing powerful orchestral numbers with blasts of electronic keyboards and synthesisers that play like glorified MIDI files; an odd and rousing combination that feels future kitsch and 80’s through and through. Paradoxically Tron: Legacy is a movie comprised of atavistic, dated, quintessentially contemporary and prophetic ideas. It is both optimistic and cautious about digital platforms and the potential extremities of AI intelligence, though the philisophical underpinning is flimsy.
The people who find the sound, fury and spectacle of this strange and alluring beast of a movie nothing more than inconsequential dribble and spend the running time rigidly waiting for the final credits to roll, tsk-tsking and watch checking and casting a perfectly logical appraisal that all this spacey hokum is pointlessly lavish and self-obsessed are the sober people hovering in the corner of the room at the party, the stiffs who have to work in the morning, the squares at a rave sipping Mount Franklin and chewing Starburst while the rest of the fluoro coloured crowd ride a rainbow of artificial highs and doof doof into parallel universes.
No artificial highs necessary for Tron: Legacy. It is one epic sized whack of cinematic narcotic: immersive, visceral, addictive. Hard to say whether it expands the mind or kills some brain cells.
Tron: Legacy’s Australian theatrical release date: December 16, 2010.