MOVIES | "TRON: Legacy" honors, but doesn't extend, the 1982 original

Olivia Wilde and Garrett Hedlund in TRON: Legacy. Photo courtesy Walt Disney Pictures.

In the 70s and 80s, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg created gold-standard action/fantasy movies like the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series, and Disney came trotting along with kind of the Roundy's equivalents: The Black Hole, TRON, Flight of the Navigator. In the 21st century, Lucas and Spielberg are still at it—and, God bless them, so are the people at Walt Disney Pictures. Thus we have TRON: Legacy (now playing at theaters across the Twin Cities), a film that handily meets the modest bar set by the 1982 original.

The original TRON was nothing special in terms of plot or dialogue, but it broke ground with its extensive use of computer-generated visual effects, and perhaps more impressively, set its human actors in an eerie world of dark voids and glowing outlines that nicely mimiced the computer effects. It also parlayed its video-game setting into two clever action conceits: disc-throwing duels that were like fencing with Frisbees, and a cycle chase where the vehicles built impassable walls as they careened forward, the object being to get your opponent to crash into one.

The 2010 reboot is a sequel rather than a remake, and for the most part writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz and director Joseph Kosinski are content with replicating and modestly extending that original world. A couple of potentially game-changing developments fail to occur, meaning that the characters are left to duke it out like the old days, but with the expanded freedom permitted by 21st-century CGI. The bike race expands to multiple levels, and there's an aerial dogfight with concrete contrails. Nifty.

The plot concerns Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), son of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, returning from the original). Sam's dad disappeared in 1989, and a mysterious page (yes, actually a page) sent to Kevin's old colleague Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) alerts Sam to go dust off his dad's old arcade and see whether that old mainframe might be where he's hiding. Indeed he is—I trust I'm not surprising you here—and he's become very Zen (yes, actually Zen) about the fact that if he tries to escape, angry overlord Clu (also Bridges) will try to follow him out and wreak havoc upon the real world with his digital minions. There's also some hoo-hah about genocide, and a Triumph of the Will pastiche where the fascist Clu gives his well-ordered minions a good shouting to. I won't even bother getting into the subplot involving the curvaceous Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who's assigned the roles of both love interest and world-saving Chosen One.

It's all very space opera, and the movie happily shuffles through a whole deck of action-epic clichés. We're inside a computer from 1982, when cutting-edge consumer electronics had almost exactly one-thousandth the processing power of an iPhone, and yet we have gladiators in a digital Colosseum (Clu even wears a royal cape), racing cars, battling planes, a city the size of Hong Kong set in a mountainous landscape where Kevin perches in a white condo with Rococo furnishing that's straight out of the 2001 Star Child's copy of Architectural Digest, and of course millions of "programs" with enough artificial intelligence to build all this, then fight over it, and sometimes apparently hit the e-bottle. There's no evidence that they go to the bathroom or have sex, but they come in both genders and are all very comely, so I'll bet that away from Disney's cameras, they make it all the way to base 10.

This is timeless popcorn-movie material, so I suspect that filmgoers of all ages will like TRON: Legacy at least as well as the average sci-fi epic. For those who remember 1982, though—or who at least dig the idea of it—the best thing about the film is the elegant manner in which it negotiates the 28-year time span between the first and second comings of TRON. The score by Daft Punk lovingly revisits the era when surging synths represented The Future and not The Past, and when Sam hits the lights at his dad's old arcade, the jukebox blasts Journey like it's afraid to miss the band's Glee-fueled renaissance. (Always among the most nerd-friendly of arena rockers, Journey contributed two tracks to the original TRON and had their own Atari 2600 game.)

The last 28 years have been a lot better to Jeff Bridges in the real world than in his fictional digital bunker, and the film has fun with Kevin's status as an aging hippie rather than a brooding warlord. Walking around barefoot in a white robe, Bridges looks more like Brian Wilson than Obi-Wan Kenobi, and when fighting is called for, he happily delegates the heavy lifting to the young'uns. (He has the power to kill the lights by touching the floor, but even that he only does once. Bad back?) Through the still-imperfect magic of CGI, Bridges plays multiple characters (there's a flashback, and a cloning angle) as a 33-year-old version of himself, and it looks a little creepy, but whatever. After all, as my friend said when I asked him what he thought of the film, "It's not Doctor Zhivago."

Nope, and neither was the original TRON. The new movie is goofy fun, and though it doesn't take many risks, that also insulates it from sustaining any big losses. Chairman Bob would approve.

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Jay Gabler's picture
Jay Gabler

Jay Gabler (@JayGabler) is a digital producer at The Current and Classical MPR.