Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tron Legacy: the Cyberdude abides

Great movie, stuffed with eye candy and surprisingly good writing. Could've been better. I hate saying that, because I enjoyed it so much. But it could've been better.

Quick plot summary: Back in the 1980s, hacker Kevin Flynn (the hero of the first Tron) created a digital world with self-emerging life forms. He's about to announce his discovery, but gets trapped inside his world. His digital doppelganger -- Clu-- stages a coup. (In a bit of irony, Clu resembles Kevin Flynn's 30-year-old self -- who, of course, looks like a 30-year-old Jeff Bridges.) Clu reprograms Tron (Kevin's right hand program) and turns him into his head bad guy. Clu becomes the dictator of the cyberspace realm Kevin created; Kevin remains trapped. Up in the real world, Kevin's 12-year-old son, Sam, deals with abandonment issues. Years later, Sam gets sucked into his dad's cyber world. (This turns out to be Clu's trick to open a portal into the real world -- which he plans to invade with a conquering army of digital stormtroopers.) But Sam manages to evade capture and find his dad. From there it's a race. Sam, Kevin and a digital protector named Quorra, fight to materialize in reality and shut down the portal before Clu and his invading army can enter. Hey, it's more complicated than that, but you get the general idea.

There's much to love, much to geek out about.

Technically? The CGI is gorgeous. The environment/character design behind it nicely evokes both the geeky 1980s source material and the contemporary ethos of gadget design -- as if an entire civilization had sprouted out of iPods and Vaios. The Avatar-style, digital incarnation of Kevin Flynn's 30something double is nearly flawless. The fact that Clu looks a little creepy and wrong actually works, within the story premise.

On a flesh and blood level? The acting is better than it needs to be. Jeff Bridges, as the 70something Kevin Flynn, is basically doing another riff on his Dude character from The Big Lebowski -- but that works, too. Garret Hedlund puts in a solid performance as Sam -- a tough character assignment and easy to screw up. (As Hayden Christensen, in a similar role, once proved.) Olivia Wilde, as Quorra is both fine to look at and fine as her not-exactly-human character. (The Matrix trilogy nearly mined this lode to death -- but she and the other actors managed to find a new spin.) Bruce Boxleitner (the original Tron, and the Babylon 5 commander for four seasons) had his usual no-BS gravitas -- and didn't get enough screentime.

Storywise, I actually cared -- except for a few slow spots -- the movie grabbed me. Screenwriters Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz thought through the original source material -- basically, the instant cliche of making video games real -- which was a lot of fun, but pretty damn thin, if you really study it. They obviously did, and managed to take it to another level.

In terms of fan service, there's lots of interesting texture -- a shot of an Apple iie in Sam's bedroom (makes me wanna freaking cry), haunting riffs from Journey and the Eurythmics playing in the sound system of Flynn's original video game arcade -- a cobwebby, fossilized survival of the 1980s, after all. It's more than good detail. It's loving detail.

So, while I'm not saying the movie sucked, what I am saying is actually sadder. It could have been great. It had moments of greatness. But it fell short of greatness.

It had problems. (Spoiler alert, kids.) These include ...

Pacing problems. Suspense is its own kind of music. You have to grab the audience by the throat and never let go. The first Matrix is the gold standard. Tron: Legacy didn't hit that level.

Joseph Kosinski fell into the trap of many first-time directors. He fell in love with his own material. There are times you have to say: We've got two minutes and 15 seconds of great dialogue, beautiful visuals and important character points that's making the movie drag -- we have to cut it.

I know why he didn't kill his darlings. Clearly, Kosinksi didn't want to do an empty exercise in 3D CGI -- special effects for special effects sake. He wanted a story with heart. He got it -- Sam's struggle to rescue his lost father -- a heroic quest to make Joseph W. Campbell curl his toes with glee. But somewhere along the line, Kosinksi forgot a basic thing: Yes, give us a story with heart. But this is still a geeky action/suspense movie. Ya still gotta make the chase scene and fights exciting. They start out that way -- then they start to drag. At the end of the flick, the train ride and aerial dog fight sequences go on and on. With zero suspense, but punctuated by important speeches.

Logic problems. Obviously, in terms of the big picture, the world of Tron: Legacy is pure rubber science. In a big budget SF movie, fudging the big stuff is forgivable. (Living computer programs; the implication that Flynn's work station can transform matter into energy into code and vice versa.) But the movie got some little things wrong, and that's not so forgivable. One of many examples: Flynn's hideout is a few miles from the city "on the grid." A foot patrol could have found him, but he's been hiding out for years in a lair that remains secret until he gives his location away. Easily explained, but overlooked.

Story and character problems. The movie is called: Tron: Legacy. But the title character never actually appears. Clu has turned Tron into his evil henchman -- though you can't tell that by looking at him, because he wears a face-covering helmet. At the end of the movie, Tron returns to his true, digital good guy self. This should be a turning point, a big moment, a big reveal, but we never see him take off his mask -- or really explain how he regains his true identity. After a fight sequence, Tron drowns -- essentially, thrown away. He's not alone. The movie also gets rid of all the digital beings we're supposed to care about. With one exception, the "programs" all die at the end of the movie. It's the worst example of gratuitous SF cinematic slaughter since This Island Earth.

The forgetting the main point and killing the sequel problem. At the climax, Kevin Flynn sacrifices himself to kill Clu. Like matter and antimatter, they merge and explode, destroying everything in the digital realm, turning it all to a primordial sea below a digital sun. Tragic -- but deeply unsatisfying. If you take the trailers seriously, the movie sucks you in with the promise that it's the saga of Flynn's son entering Tron-world to rescue his lost dad. Killing Sam's dad is a cheat. It also cheats us of the possibility of a sequel in which Sam returns to the digital world to rescue his dad. Killing all the digital characters just makes it worse.

My suggestion: the third movie should be Tron: Reboot.

Have the digital universe reconstitute. The digital beings are all alive, Kevin and Clu included -- possibly separate, or possibly merged. Sam still needs to rescue his father. While you're at it, find a way to write Yori back in.

Call me.

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