Thursday, January 6, 2011

Gods Inside a Machine: TRON: LEGACY

Tron: Legacy is my inner 12-year-old’s favorite movie of the year. It’s a slick, entertaining film, though in some ways a standard, solemn blockbuster. It’s also a rather stunning directorial debut for Joseph Kosinski, who manages to find some moments of visual poetry amidst the sleek, glow-in-the-dark sci-fi aesthetic. The first Tron, directed by Steven Lisberger, flopped upon its release in 1982. It has a fascinating concept but is unsure how far to push its garish kookiness, telling the story of a talented computer programmer (Jeff Bridges) who is sucked into the computer world he helped create for the shady technology company Encom. Built from once cutting-edge computer technology, the effects are no longer special. Indeed, they are now an impediment, but no more so than the collision between the real-world corporate espionage plot and the ugly computer world visuals.

With this late sequel, Kosinski makes the concept as cool as it should have been in the first place. He, along with former Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, bring back Jeff Bridges for a film that stands alone, working better than its sequel status. In a prologue we learn that, though Bridges emerged from the computer to become a success in our world, he eventually disappeared, orphaning his young son (Owen Best). This son grows up to be a successful programmer in his own right, and by the time the story proper begins, he wants nothing to do with the company his dad helped create.

Now played by the woodenly earnest Garrett Hedlund, he broods and scowls. Not even pulling a prank on Encom’s Board of Directors brings a smile to his face. Soon enough, he receives a mysterious signal from his dad’s old office and shows up to investigate. Once there, no big surprise, he accidentally ends up inside the computer as well. There he must battle his way out of a gladiator lightshow complete with the Machiavellian maneuverings of programs that have rebelled against the user (also their creator), thus keeping Bridges trapped and exiled for all this time, powerless against the ageless program he made in his own image.

The film is driven forward by its marriage of sleek visuals to an insistent, driving Daft Punk score (a great piece of film scoring). Tron: Legacy is exciting, even in its moments of stasis and vagueness (most likely symptoms of Disney’s attempt to turn Tron into their next big franchise). This is a film of poses and moments, and I found both aspects equally striking. An early moment takes us from a grieving young boy’s bike ride to the angst-filled motorcyclist he becomes, spanning two decades of character development in one elegant cut. Criss-crossing neon beams of energy dot the 3D computer-world landscape, with its towering future-noir buildings and its arenas and highways that serve as stages for glowing spectacle. Later, Bridges will make a dramatic entrance into a tense situation backlit like an electric Jedi. The film is a fluid, shimmering sci-fi sensation, drawing from aesthetic influences like the Star Wars prequels, the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer and Matrix sequels, the blockbuster fussiness of David Fincher’s more fantastical films, and the somberness of Christopher Nolan’s Batmans.

The leads’ acting is merely functional (yes, even from the dependable Bridges), but the supporting performances are nicely honed pieces of genre work. An early cameo from Cillian Murphy is the most promising of the film’s attempts at sequel setting. Bruce Boxleitner lends some weight to the first-act exposition, reprising his role from the first film. Olivia Wilde struts about in a striking black suit that really pops against her artificial paleness. Michael Sheen brings the only comedy as he strokes a glowing cane and snaps off his snippy dialogue while strutting through his role as a campy nightclub owner. It’s all good fun.

Though hardly revelatory, Tron: Legacy is a refreshing event film that promises no more than it can deliver. It’s an eye-candy spectacle with top-of-the-line effects that manage arresting visuals and an addictive tone amidst the action. The film finds a sleek, cool groove in which to operate. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself so drawn into the pleasing charge of the imagery and sounds, and that my inner 12-year-old was so delighted.

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