I admired the original Tron perhaps because of what it attempted rather than because of what it accomplished. It was brave and bold, and it demonstrated more than any other film of its time what was possible with computer-generated imagery – it was a statement of intent and a proof of concept. However, it was also somewhat awkward and clunky – to the point that several sequences in the movie had to hand-animated rather than digitally modelled, because time and technology worked against the crew. It was very much a movie of its time, held back by the status of the industry at the time – and yet inspiring a whole new generation of film-goers and film-makers as to the possibilities. It seems only fitting, perhaps, that Tron: Legacy took so long to make it to the screen – those impressionable young future movie-makers have come of age in the thirty years since the original. In many ways, the sequel feels like a debt is being repaid – here’s a chance to see the original and daring vision as it was imagined all those years ago.
On a purely superficial level, Tron: Legacy is unadulterated visual candy – it’s sugar for our brains. The sets no longer look like an aircraft hangar painted black with the odd neon safety stripe attached – instead it seems like an actual world. The surroundings and the stunts are visually amazing – it might not be the game-changer that Avatar was (it arrives a year too late, perhaps), but taken on its own terms it looks absolutely stunning.
I’ll concede that I am not a 3D convert; perhaps because I wear glasses anyway, or perhaps because of the way it has been handled by the studios. However, I did notice the depth in the sequences on film. It wasn’t necessarily the action sequences where I saw the wonderful layering effect, so much as the smaller character shots. It seems like the characters are actually flying over an abyss as they discuss things, or it feels like they are actually walking closer as they chat. It’s small things, but it’s very noticeable.
Part of the reason for the effectiveness of the 3D here as opposed to other similar productions is – I suspect – the sound mixing. Sound has a greater impact on our perception than we give it credit for. During the opening title, we zoom through an evolving cityscape, but we hear the air fly past. From my perspective, for the briefest of moments, it actually felt like I was flying. That’s a rare feeling, and it immediately made me appreciate the film. Throughout the film, the sound mix constructs an elaborate atmosphere at least as well as the superb visuals. There’s a winning combination right there. My better half – who has studied sound engineering – was even impressed by the quality of the sound (although she wasn’t quite as impressed at the overall product as I was).
While discussing the sound, the Daft Punk soundtrack is great. I’m thinking perhaps of buying myself the soundtrack album, just for some of the ambient beats. It just fits the world perfectly – the stereotypically “epic” fantasy music score filtered through a slightly trippy electronic remix. There are moments – particularly early on – when the soundtrack (and indeed the entire movie) too self-consciously emulate The Dark Knight (even directly borrowing one “bike going up ramp in Chicago” shot nearly exactly, as well as a last-minute escape from the top of a building), but the movie quickly finds its own feet.
Perhaps I am talking too much about the technical aspects of the production, but it’s worth dwelling on – the film is, by all technical accounts, astounding. Even the rendering of Clu, the evil younger doppelgänger of Jeff Bridges’ character, is impressive. Sure, the face sometimes veers a little bit too far into the uncanny valley (his skin appears a little too smooth), but it works. There are certain shots that may require a healthy suspension of disbelief (perhaps the director was over-confident in the rendering of the special effects for Clu), but it hangs together remarkably well for what it is. Clu represents the weakest special effect of the entire film, but also one of its more remarkable accomplishments – he doesn’t succeed as a stand-in for a younger Bridges, but he comes pretty damn close.
What of the film itself? What lies at the heart of all this wonderful visual and auditory candy? I reported last week on the rumour that Disney might stop producing fairytales, in an attempt to attract the younger, hipper market. If so, Tron: Legacy represents a fond farewell to the genre – because that is what this film is, at its core. It’s a fairytale about a king and his sons, all trying to do the right thing. It’s a parable about the responsibilities that come with authority and power, and the obligations that these things bring to a greater good. It’s a moral tale about the capacity for good and evil which lies within the heart of every man.
It’s not an overly complex story – in fact, the movie goes to great lengths to simplify even some fairly straight-forward plot elements from the first film. While the original offered clever and insightful criticism of social class and professional stereotypes (with, for example, an accounting programme looking like an accountant), a lot of that is missing here. Indeed, a lot of the original’s computer-slang edutainment features (like Flynn picking up a byte) are gone – either sensing that younger audiences now know enough about computers that they don’t need to be told, or suggesting that kids don’t go to the cinema to learn computer terms.
The computer language here is kept to a minimum, as are the visual metaphors for computer mechanics. Instead, the movie substitutes relatively arbitrary rules that resemble the types found in standard fantasy fare – for example, the hero can use his strange power to kill the villain, but only at the cost of his own life; or the villain can “beam” himself into the real world by stealing the hero’s identity disk. These make (a decent amount) of sense in the context of the movie’s fantasy-themed narrative, but they represent a move away from the computer-themed laws and rules that the first one revelled in. This isn’t a compliment or a criticism; just an observation.
Perhaps because of these changes in style, the movie moves a lot more fluidly than the original. It is a simpler story, but that is probably a good thing. The movie picks up with Flynn, the revolutionary computer designer preaching about “the digital frontier”, mysteriously disappearing. Quite a few years later, his grown son sets out to find him (investigating a mysterious phone call from Flynn’s old arcade) and stumbles across the impossible computer world that Flynn built, only to discover that it is being run by Clu - an evil computer version of his father, programmed to seek perfection. Unfortunately, Clu believes the perfection can only arise from order, rather than randomness – so he attempts to impose his own will over the computer world.
It’s essentially your standard Disney fairytale narrative, the story of a king and a pretender in a kingdom under siege. Of course, instead of musical numbers, there are light cycle sequences, but the idea is pretty much the same. Those expecting a more complex story might want to look elsewhere, but there’s nothing wrong with a straightforward narrative like this. In a way, it’s appealingly simple – just like Avatar last year, it’s weak on the story front, but it lacks some of the unfortunate undertones of Cameron’s blockbuster and contains some fascinating subtext of its own.
Clu enforces his rule by “corrupting” all manner of other programmes, redesigning them to suit his will. This corruption is a recurring theme in the story, almost a cautionary tale. Flynn’s own corporate empire has been corrupted in his absence, to the point where they are soulless, money-grabbing corporation. When asked how they can justify charging a fortune for a new service pack when it has no real changes, they reply that it now has “a 12 on the box.” There’s an almost mournful tone to the movie as it reflects on how the digital frontier was so ruthlessly commercialised. When Flynn, locked away inside his programme for over a decade, is told about wifi, he replies that he thought of it “back in ’85.” One gets the sense that it’s the petty monetization of the industry that has stunted growth – good ideas like that can’t get a look in.
The movie dares to suggest that some things should be open-source, to use an industry metaphor. Flynn has been teaching his young ward, Quorra, about “the art of selflessness”, a commodity in rare supply these days. Flynn speaks of the digital frontier as an object which could unite all mankind – surely some advances should be shared for the betterment of all humanity? Whether it’s a new operating system or the works of Jules Verne, it’s better given as “a gift” (to quote one corporate executive). After all, isn’t that the kind of action which inspires genius and inspiration?
In many ways, perhaps, the movie reads as an exploration of the Disney legacy itself. In the opening sequence, the iconic Disney castle becomes Clu’s fortress, an interesting allusion – even without the introductory comparison, the two look alike from the distance. Disney was founded by the ideals of Walt Disney, who was undoubtedly more of an artist than a corporate executive – at least compared to the figures who would follow him. It was during Walt’s tenure that Disney produced countless bold and daring films – like Dumbo or Fantasia or Bambi – even if they weren’t immediately successful. The studio became more conservative over time, and – although they continued to produce magic – less risks were taken. After all, it’s a sound business strategy to minimise potential loss by betting safe.
However, the original Tron was a risky venture, released into a market place that perhaps wasn’t ready for it. It didn’t bomb, but it didn’t break records either. Perhaps the sequel is arguing that Tron should have been written off as a “gift” to a future generation of film-makers who would be inspired by it – wondering why the sequel took so long. Tron wasn’t successfully monetized, but it still did a huge amount of good – the studio didn’t make a huge profit, but its value as a demonstration of the potential of computer-generated imagery is astounding. In a way, perhaps Tron: Legacy is a belated follow-up to that promise.
However, it adopts a more generic approach as well. Interestingly for a science-fiction film, the movie seems to endorse religion in some form – rather than hard or fast rationality. Flynn discovers “a miracle” in the system, which he can’t account for – even though he has absolute control over the environment. He embraces the philosophy that perfection can’t be engineered, it is “unknowable”, a firm rejection of rational theory. It can’t be explained away or reduced to a mathematical formula. Flynn is more an artist than a scientist, referring to “my zen thing.” To him, the act of creating isn’t coding, it’s “jazz.” He likes to meditate, “knocking on the sky.” These betray a form of faith, a belief that things will, in some fashion, reveal or resolve themselves in time. Flynn, here played by Jeff Bridges, seems almost a distant and more articulate cousin of the Dude for The Big Lebowski, right down to calling people “man”. Maybe religion is a strong word for what Flynn endorses, but it’s certainly a form of spirituality in world of code.
This is in contrast to Clu, who preaches hatred. Clu has converted the zen philosophies of his creator into irrational hatred. He preaches against “the tyranny of the users”. Given how the original compared the users to gods, that’s a very bold statement. In fact, the movie doesn’t dwell too long on the relationship between programmes and users – instead it’s the relationship between programmes and their creator. It’s probably a far more relevant approach in today’s world (as the “users” effectively absolve the programmes of any responsibility, while the “creators” give their creations some semblence of free will). Given the violence and destruction caused by people acting in the name of religion, it seems quite timely. The comparisons are obvious - Sam is even referred to as “the son of our maker” at one point, and Flynn is constantly “the creator”.
Garrett Hedlund is a fairly nondescript leading actor, although maybe it’s just that Sam isn’t especially well-characterised. Reportedly Pixar came in to punch up the emotional arcs – and I suspect that I can tell where they put in the most work – but the lead character is still a bit of a blank slate. Jeff Bridges is much better as Flynn and Clu. I loved Olivia Wilde as Quorra, Flynn’s companion – she brings a wonderful naivety to the role. Michael Sheen is effective as the scenery-chewing entertainment programme Castor. He’s relishing the opportunity to chew the scenery (including a rather over-the-top use of his “cane”, if you know what I mean… it shoots randomly into the air when he plays with it). Cillian Murphy even pops up for a moment.
In a way, the film is the logical extension of the eighties nostalgia that we’ve seen emerge over the past number of years – especially this summer with films like Predators or The A-Team. However, while these films perhaps reflect an attempt to simply revisit the path – to pretend that the twenty-to-thirty years between then and now never happened – Tron: Legacy takes the past and builds on it. There are more than a few conscious nods to the decade that taste forgot, including the use of Journey’s Separate Ways and the Eurythmics Sweet Dreams over a scene set in Flynn’s arcade. Still, it’s relatively non-intrusive. As far as eighties nostalgia goes, this is undoubtedly a more productive example of it than most.
Aside from being a (very belated) sequel to an original eighties cult classic, very little of the movie seems especially nostalgic – you could probably make the case that the neon designs scream “retro eighties”. There are a few references thrown in for fans of the first film – such as Tron’s delivery of the line “I fight for the users” or the way that Sam and Quorra strike the iconic poster pose – but this is a film that is relatively concerned with telling its own story, rather than harking back to what came before. It’s an effect way of telling a story – especially when one third of the audience is too young to remember the original film and another third wants to forget the dated special effects. Asking modern movie-goers to go back and watch the original in order to “get” the sequel would be a bit much for a movie of this scale.
I loved every moment of Tron: Legacy. It’s a beautiful modern fairytale, which just looks and sounds absolutely stunning. The plot itself is a straight-forward fairytale, but that doesn’t make it any less effective or powerful. It’s definitely one to watch this Christmas.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | dark knight, non-review review, disney, cgi, 3d, film, Movie, michael sheen, tr0n, tron, jeff bridges, tron: legacy, Daft Punk, Filmmaking, Computer-generated imagery, film review, tron legacy review