Tuesday, 14 December 2010

'Tron: Legacy' review:

It seems that 2010 is the year when Hollywood decided all 1980s entertainment properties needed to be re-tooled for the modern age. We've already had 'The A-Team', 'Clash of the Titans', 'Predators' and 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps'. We also got Sylvester Stallone's nostalgia reliant, berk-fest 'The Expendables'. Now it seems it's Disney's turn with 'Tron: Legacy', a sequel to the 1982 movie 'Tron' which explored, using then pioneering computer effects, what happens when you zap Jeff Bridges into an arcade game.

Whilst the original now has a certain campy charm, with its fluorescent world of all-in-one jumpsuits, it certainly isn't "cool" in a conventional sense (if you're in doubt, see YouTube phenomenon "Tron Guy"). By comparison, this sequel has re-imagined "The Grid" (the world inside the computer) with the aesthetic of an especially chic, modern car ad. Like the swanky flat of a Soho trendy, it's a world characterised by clean, minimalist designs and set to a pulsing Daft Punk soundtrack. Watching 'Tron: Legacy' is like spending two hours in an exclusive night club, only here your headache comes as a result of RealD 3D glasses and not as a result of too many blue After Shocks (though if 'Tron: Legacy' were a drink, you suspect that would be it).

Fittingly for a sequel that's 28 years late, 'Tron: Legacy' picks up some years after where the original left off. Jeff Bridges' game designer and arcade owner Kevin Flynn ended that film as head of ENCOM, the shady company that had stolen his computer programs. Apparently between the two movies Flynn fathered a son, this film's protagonist Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), and promptly disappeared leaving Flynn the younger desperately in need of a father - a role filled by Alan Bradley, his business partner and designer of "Tron" (an independent program and hero of The Grid).

Bradley is again played by Bruce Boxleitner who, with his distinguished grey hair and glasses, resembles a sort of budget Richard Gere. 'Tron: Legacy' begins with an aimless Sam Flynn pulling a juvenile prank on the board of ENCOM (now re-cast as a sinister analogue of Microsoft) after which he is visited by Bradley who, after giving a half-hearted ticking off, tells Sam that he has received a mysterious message on his pager, apparently from Sam's father. After this revelation, Sam is persuaded to visit his father's old arcade, where he finds a hidden room which teleports him onto The Grid via a laser beam.

Once there Sam is promptly undressed and more appropriately attired by what look like a gang of automated perfume counter saleswomen. (Wearing vaguely exploitative sci-fi clothing and ridiculous high-heels, the women are literally objectified as they walk out of sockets in the walls to cater to Sam's needs.) He doesn't know it, but he has been prepared for "games": iconic events directly lifted from the original film and then improved infinitely by current computer effects (as well as this new film's sexed-up styling).

The discus throwing duels now take place in a glass box, suspended in the air and ever diminishing in size as the flying discs smash it to bits. The computer world's liberal grasp of physics means that the duels are enhanced further as fighters are able to run around the walls and across the ceiling as they smash things up. The discs themselves are now not only thrown but also used in hand-to-hand combat and the defeated combatant no longer turns into a cosy beam of yellow light but crumbles into thousands of tiny pixels, in the film's most eye-catching effect. Likewise the "Light Cycles" of the original have been given the Tron 2.0 treatment, now operating in a multi-tiered, translucent arena, with riders now combining the ultra-sleek future bikes with their discus. The result of these changes is set pieces that easily surpass anything seen in the original. Though sadly they are few in number.

Although the original film was considered something of a flop back in its day, Disney have clearly pitched this film to a young audience seeing this sequel as a fully-fledged franchise re-boot with the ambitious cross-promotional platform for the movie including a video game, an animated series and, of course, the Daft Punk composed soundtrack album. But whilst "the kids" will want to see Sam to smash people into little blue bits with his discus and ride around in a cool, neon motorbike, what they will actually see is a few imaginative and high-octane action sequences buried amongst drawn-out scenes of plot exposition, flashbacks and parent-child angst as Sam catches up with his aged father.

Kevin Flynn, it transpires, has been trapped within the program since his sudden disappearance all those years ago and the role is reprised by Jeff Bridges. There is, naturally, a romantic sub-plot for young Sam which springs from nowhere in particular, as Quorra (Olivia Wilde) emerges as our hero's capable companion. Though whilst Wilde is fun to watch and delivers her lines with a disarming playfulness, in truth she is given little to do. Also underused is Jeff Bridges himself, with Kevin Flynn's Grid-bending powers (as seen in the first film) used far too sparingly.

Bridges appears as two characters in 'Tron: Legacy'. He is of course Flynn the elder, who has become more like "The Dude" of 'The Big Lebowski' since we last saw him (he now ends most sentences with the word "man" and at one point exclaims "radical!"). But he is also CLU - a program version of himself that he created to oversee The Grid in his absence and the film's villain. CLU is a CG motion captured version of Bridges, meant to closely resemble his appearance in the original film. It is a bold move to use CGI to animate a human character in a live action film, where he must appear alongside actual people, and the film almost pulls it off. Yet you can't help feeling that he's rolled into town on the Polar Express and doesn't belong. There is something not quite right about it. It doesn't help that the first time we see this effect, it is used to portray the real, younger Kevin Flynn interacting with his son outside of the computer world. Though it is unquestionably state of the art for now and the idea itself - of the young and old Bridges facing off onscreen together - is compelling enough for Disney to have taken the gamble. I'll say this for it: the more you see the effect the less weird it seems until by the end of the film you've accepted the whole thing.

The story itself is logical for this follow-up and serviceable, if nothing new, but the dialogue is below average. It's one of those scripts that consists only of clichés and exposition. "What is it like... the sun?" asks Quorra at one stage. "It's warm, it's radiant..." replies Sam before looking her deep in the eyes and adding "... it's beautiful." "Tron! What have you become!?" shouts Kevin Flynn during one encounter with his old cyber-buddy, now in the services of CLU. This poor writing could be forgiven. I didn't go into 'Tron: Legacy' expecting an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, after all. But 'Tron: Legacy', the maiden effort of director Joseph Kosinski (until now best known for video game commercials), forgets to be escapist fun for much of its length and bad dialogue is left to provide most the laughs.

You certainly won't get laughs from the one sequence in the film intended to be purely comic, which falls embarrassingly flat as Michael Sheen (no stranger to camping it up) makes an appearance as an effete nightclub owner in one horrible car crash of a scene. He plays air guitar with his cane, dances about and shouts ridiculous things throughout one fight, seemingly on a one-man quest to ruin the entire film. I hope it was worth it Sheen (though I guess it's at least a step up from 'Underworld: Rise of the Lycans' and 'Twilight: New Moon'). Thankfully, Jeff Bridges does manage to come out of things with his credibility in tact. Especially when he sees his son for the first time in years, as he delivers his lines with almost tear-inducing sincerity above and beyond the writing.

'Tron: Legacy' has the distinction of being the first film since 'Avatar' to use that film's high-end 3D cameras - with every other major 3D release of 2010 subject to a controversial post-production conversion process. As a result the 3D is better than that seen in the likes of Disney's own 'Alice in Wonderland' and seems to suffer less from motion blur than any other live action 3D film I've seen. Perhaps this also has something to do with the less busy visual design of the Tron world, which may have been designed as much with 3D in mind as anything else.

Though for all the polish, as with every other 3D movie I've ever seen, I forgot it was in 3D after twenty minutes of watching and its most positive attribute was that it was subtle and unobtrusive in its use of the extra dimension. All of those words of faint praise lead to the obvious question: "what was the point of it all then?" (aside from the bump in ticket prices and security against piracy).

Unlike some of those other denizens of 1980s popular culture recently thrust into renewed relevance, 'Tron: Legacy' is a sequel nobody asked for, to a film that I suspect nobody below the age of twenty-five even remembers. With a week to go before its release I find it hard to imagine that it can be anything like the hit that Disney needs it to be in order to consider it a success. Who exactly is it for? It's too slow (and possibly too complicated) for young children, whilst it's a little too juvenile for adults. It looks and sounds excellent and it would not be any kind of scandal if it picked up a few technical awards in the new year. Plus there are two or three genuinely awe-inspiring set pieces and some really imaginative touches here and there.

But the central problem is that the world of Tron, which must have seemed so exotic to those who went along to the cinema in 1982 when computers were young and promised a world of seemingly infinite possibility, now seems to raise too many questions (with "why are these programs people?" the first among them). It is even a sequel that beats its original, yet baring in mind the limitations of the original 'Tron' that is no exceptional boast. Yet in spite of 'Tron: Legacy' being in many ways so deficient, I'll be sad if it tanks at the box-office. Disney have taken a massive gamble and, in Hollywood especially, that sort of daring should be rewarded. Also, Light Cycles are pretty cool.

'Tron: Legacy' is out on December 17th and is rated 'PG' by the BBFC.

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