Review: Tron: Legacy

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It’s tricky to create a sequel when the original just wasn’t that good a movie. Tron: Legacy had to be thematically related to the original Tron, but sufficiently cool and visually stunning that audiences wouldn’t care about the first movie. Director Steven Lisberger and his team succeed beautifully and Tron: Legacy proved to be one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen this year.
The film follows Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), son of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) from the original film. Twenty years have passed and Sam still wonders what happened to his Dad, who vanished while he was a boy. He stumbles into Kevin’s research lab and is promptly pulled into the computer-based world of the Grid. Sam finds his father hiding out in the wastelands beyond the main Grid with a beautiful young woman Quorra (Olivia Wilde). Kevin has become a monk, meditating and talking about finding his zen-like center rather than fighting the evil CLU (a digitally mapped, younger Jeff Bridges).
The story is one of journeys traveled, risks taken and challenges overcome, as we’d hope with any epic adventure. That it primarily takes place within the digital realm of the Grid gives the production f/x team complete freedom and it’s an amazing, compelling world. The Grid is also a dark, Orwellian world where stormtroopers march in lockstep, “derezing” apps that seek freedom or think for themselves.
There are depths to Tron: Legacy that I never expected, and the revision of the original story from the banal video game trinket of Tron to the backstory of the new movie was a splendid step. I really dug Tron: Legacy, loved its countless references to other sci-fi films, and found it far more enjoyable and engaging than Avatar, a similar sweeping sci-fi epic. It’s a film I already want to go see again and for once, the 3D version is well done and worth the more expensive ticket.

Remakes are a tricky business, as Hollywood has learned again and again. Whether it’s a classic western (3:10 to Yuma) or a comedy (Father of the Bride), a foreign film (La Femme Nikita) or a science fiction classic (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), it’s difficult to both be true to the original work and to create a contemporary story that resonates with modern viewers. Most fail, sometimes spectacularly so (The Day the Earth Stood Still), but they keep coming, dozens a year.
It gets even more challenging when the source material wasn’t a great film, even if it was a cult favorite. Yes, this means I think that the remake of the Rocky Horror Picture Show is going to be awful. Tron falls into that same category: it wasn’t a very successful film when it was released in 1982, it just gained a geeky cult following with its story of a geeky programmer and video game wizard sucked into the Grid, a world that existed purely within the computer. The film is better known for its ground breaking – though now dated – visual effects.
To come up with a compelling remake / sequel, the production team ingeniously redefined the original story so that there was more material with which to work. This is why it’s well neigh impossible to find a copy of the original Tron to rent or stream from a service like Netflix: it’s harder to know what’s changed if you can’t see the original.
tron legacy publicity still

Chase scene from within The Grid in Tron: Legacy

One of my favorite aspects of Tron: Legacy was the multitude of science fiction film references woven throughout, from opening exterior shots right out of Blade Runner to an apartment that reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey to Quorra, who looked like she was the twin of Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) from The Fifth Element. When Sam and Clu (the younger Jeff Bridges) first meet, it’s the iconic scene of Luke Skywalker learning the identity of his father in Star Wars.
Castor (Michael Sheen) is another memorable character, a flamboyant nightclub owner who holds the key to Sam and Quorra finding their way out of the Grid. Castor is looking out for his own best interests, even as his techno nightclub itself is reminiscent of the club in another iconic sci-fi film, The Matrix.
Tron: Legacy is a rarity in modern cinema, a film that works both as a purely visual experience and as a film exploring deep religious topics — there are many obvious nods to Judeo-Christian mythology — and the son’s journey to understand and build a meaningful relationship with his father. It’s terrific and I fully expect I’ll see it again in the movie theater and then again when it’s available on Blu-Ray.

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