Review: Tron Legacy
The most interesting thing about Tron: Legacy to me is that it got made at all. I’m old enough to remember the original Tron. When it was released, it was heralded for its special effects. The original Tron represented Disney’s best hope of reinventing itself for the 80’s and becoming relevant in the era of Pac-Man Fever.
While the original Tron was eye-popping in its day, the story was just an indecipherable mess. And it still had that bland “post-Walt” feel that also sunk The Black Hole a few years before. The revolutionary special effects weren’t enough to make Tron a hit at the box office. Although Disney made their money back, they considered the film a disappointment and something of an embarrassment.
For the better part of two decades, Tron seemed like a candidate for my list of films that were supposed to launch sequels but didn’t. But over the years, Tron amassed a devoted cult following on home video. Film critic Roger Ebert has championed it at his Overlooked Film Festival. Over time, Tron began to be viewed less as an embarrassment and more as a missed opportunity.
In recent years, Disney has struggled to launch a film franchise. This is nothing new with Disney really. Outside of the Pirates films, they have an abysmal track record. So it’s understandable that in their desperation they eventually decided, “why not try Tron again?”
What I find surprising is that they decided to go the sequel route rather than a straight-up reboot. A Tron remake would have freed them of baggage from a movie that was a box office disappointment nearly three decades earlier. But I guess the lure of casting Jeff Bridges was too much for Disney to resist.
A sequel to a 28-year-old movie that never really found much of an audience was a risky proposition at best. But Disney doubled down on it with a strong holiday release and an even stronger marketing push. Although the movie was a hit, they were once again disappointed with the results at the box office. Even with the benefit of 3-D ticket mark-ups, Tron 2 failed to do Pirates business.
With all this in mind, I was interested to watch the latest Tron and form my own opinions. Was Tron: Legacy another failed attempt to launch a franchise? Was it a matter of execution or is there something wrong with the Tron concept? Was it a mistake to make a sequel rather than a reboot? Or was the movie everything it could have been?
The first thing that struck me as I was watching Tron: Legacy is that the decision to make a sequel to Tron almost 30 years later necessitates a lot of exposition. Tron was a bit high-concept when it was released. There were a lot of big ideas that audiences in the 80’s never fully grasped. Tron: Legacy has to re-introduce all the important concepts to audiences who never saw the original before it can even get started.
But there’s even more heavy lifting to do before the first light disc can be thrown. We also have to be introduced to our new protagonist, Sam Flynn. His back story is set up as quickly and nimbly as possible. The problem is even though Sam is the character the audience is supposed to relate to, we never really get a chance. We all know his dad didn’t really abandon him and his daddy issues will be resolved once they are reunited in the grid. Instead, we find ourselves watching the clock waiting for the cool stuff.
It doesn’t help that the film characterizes Sam as a reckless thrill seeker. In the short time we get to know Sam, he engages in some ridiculous prank against his dad’s company. He winds up diving off a skyscraper and parachuting into traffic. The scene ends with Sam being arrested. But he is apparently released without too many legal worries. This is apparently something he does annually. What I’m getting at is that Sam doesn’t act like any one I know and the “real world” scenes don’t bear much resemblance to any world I know.
After a brief cameo from Bruce Boxleitner (Tron himself), Sam finds his way down the digital rabbit hole and into The Grid. At this point, the eye candy kicks in. Just like the original film, Tron: Legacy has a state-of-the-art look that is fun to watch. It’s almost enough to make up for the film’s short-comings in story-telling.
Much like his father, Sam is forced to play in “the games” which are a really impressive show of digital effects. The disc duels and light cycle races have both been given a 21st century make-over. And they are fun to watch for 20 minutes or so. But once they are over, the film has to switch back into story-telling mode.
As was the case with Tron, the story is something of a dud. Sam escapes the clutches of the evil Clu 2.0. He meets his father who explains why he never returned from the Grid. The details of how he has lived as a flesh and blood person in a digital world for 20 years are never really addressed which is probably for the best.
I won’t bother trying to get into all the details of the plot. I’ve already seen on-line discussions where the plot points are dissected. Invariably, some fan brings up a comic book in which the plot is further explained. But if you have to read a comic book to understand the movie, that is a failing on the part of the movie. The movie should stand on its own and ultimately it doesn’t.
Part of the problem, I think, is with the Tron concept. Once you start getting into the details of flesh-and-blood people in a digital world, things get dicey. How much impact, if any, can the events of The Grid have on the real world? Tron 2.0 suggests that the programs of the Grid can somehow move back and forth into the real world, but it never explains how.
If you could just ignore these questions and focus on the light show, Tron: Legacy might be enjoyable as mindless entertainment. The problem is, these questions become central to the story. By the film’s resolution, you can’t ignore nagging questions about the nature of the Grid, what’s going on with Tron and exactly what Clu 2.0 is up to.
Any attempt to really examine these questions ultimately falls short. The film takes short cuts because the answers either don’t make sense or they would drag the movie down to a crawl. But simply ignoring them doesn’t work either when they have been made central to the story.
Just as was the case with the original Tron, what you get is a pleasing special effects show saddled with a clunker of a story. Another missed opportunity. It’s worth watching if sci-fi is your thing. But ultimately, it’s not very satisfying.