I did not grow up with the original TRON movie, but after Legacy I feel as if I did.
It was only earlier this year that I bought TRON (1982), figuring that it was considered such a classic that it had to be worth the DVD investment. When I watched it, I was rather disappointed. It is possible that the fact that I know nothing about computer programming and have never had any interest in playing computer games had something to do with it. To me TRON’s story was dull and uninvolving, the characterization uninspired, and it was very hard for me to care about what was going on. I could see that the effects were impressive by 1982 standards (and better than I had expected), but as a whole I found it mediocre at best.
Then TRON: Legacy came along and pretty much blew me away.
Almost as much a remake as a sequel, Legacy succeeds in making the world of The Grid a place where things matter. The Grid is a self-contained cyberspace, running on 1980s mainframes which are not connected to the internet, populated by simple AI programs who have constructed a multi-layered cyberscape world. Programs are divided into social layers, with some being powerless, some being powerful, and a “middle class” just being interested in entertainment, as provided by to-the-death sports tournaments. In control, at the top of the programs hierarchy, sits CLU, a program created by Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) in his own image, and designed to create a perfect (cyber)world. CLU became too powerful and couped the whole Grid, in the process trapping the digitized Flynn inside, prisoner of his own utopian dreams, lost to the real world.
That was in 1989 (seven years after the original movie), when Kevin Flynn had an 7-year-old son in the real world. This son, Sam, grew up believing that his father had abandoned him. He also grew up as the heir to Encom, a billion-dollar Microsoft-like giant electronics corporation based on the success of his father’s computer games. Now, twenty years later, Sam, associating Encom with fatherly neglect, refuses to take charge of the company, leaving it to the board, while he goes motorcycling and just generally wallows in self-pity. He has enough reverence for his legacy, however, to have become an IT expert, especially because his father used to tell him stories about Tron (some kind of hero program, which however only has a small role in the new movie) and The Grid, and these stories are all Sam has to remember his father by.
Then someday a message arrives from Sam’s father. Puzzled, Sam goes to the old Flynn’s Arcade, and discovers a basement room with active mainframes. Fiddling around with the system, he naturally gets himself digitized and hurled into The Grid. Like his father before him (in the original movie), Sam is caught by CLU’s henchprograms and forced to participate in the tournaments. Spectacular scenes follow. The very concept of style/stylishness, which is so shallow in the fashion shows and magazine covers of the real world, is perfect for a cyberworld where every visual element is a triumph of purposeful programming and design, every pixel kept in place by purring CPUs that unfurl a world blossoming like fractal flowers.
CLU reigns supreme in The Grid, having achieved his perfect world in the shape of a totalitarian tyranny. He has even destroyed an entire ethnic group of spontaneously generated true AI life forms calles ISOs (but might there be some left…?). The only thing left for him to do is recapture Kevin Flynn himself, who has managed to escape to the edges of The Grid. If CLU gains final control of Flynn, he will also become able to leave The Grid and enter the real world, complete with all his programs and systems. It would be an invasion, with The Grid systems taking over every computer system in the world. After all, CLU is only doing what Flynn programmed him to do.
With Sam inside The Grid, the stakes are getting stacked up high. Now Kevin Flynn has to help his son escape back into the real world, and hopefully also escape himself, without releasing CLU at the same time. Massive amounts of wonderful action ensues.
I could go on, but I fear I have already referenced too much of the action. I think it is a packed movie with a plot structure that works and is narrated very effectively, demonstrating to us what this world is, and what goes on there, and making us care. Some say it is predictable, and maybe it is, a bit. But allegations of superficiality are false (at least by sci-fi standards). I think this movie has all the substance a good movie needs. Kevin Flynn, an old left-wing hippie, is seeing his dreams of a perfect society turning into a fascist nightmare because his original programming ideas were too rigid and full of imperfections, but deep down a seed was planted that manifested as the ISOs; free-willed emergent AI creatures carrying world-changing wisdom and vitality. Make no mistake: This is good stuff.
Visually, the universe of The Grid as Legacy presents it to us is staggering; breath-takingly beautiful. And let’s not forget the soundtrack by Daft Punk, which could hardly be any more perfect for this project. A match made in heaven.
The portrayal of the characters, if relatively simplistic and contrived, still works very well. The acting is far better than in the original, and the large role of Jeff Bridges and CLU (who sports a CGI-face of a young Jeff Bridges!) is a proper tribute to Bridges’ career and talent. The rest of the cast, making up super-stylish characters played by the likes of Michael Sheen and Olivia Wilde, are perfect, fitting like a glove into the whole Matrix-like world of The Grid. Special effects-wise Legacy is at least, by every modern standard, as great a triumph in 2010 as the first movie was in 1982, and I am absolutely loving it. The new movie builds on the world of the old, expanding and enhancing it in ways that actually improve the original film. Legacy, however, is by far the better of the two, sporting martial arts and computer graphics of the highest order, and filled with action that threatens to blow up your visual cortex.
There is no doubt in my mind that this movie is continuing and strengthening the existing TRON cult, and I think it would be great if they did more TRON movies in the future. Legacy is made with obvious love and devotion for the original movie, and it impresses me in almost all ways. The ending is not as gratifying as it might have been, but the fact remains that sci-fi like this is hard to find. Is TRON: Legacy among the 10% best sci-fi movies ever? Absolutely. No question. If people don’t realize this now, posterity will eventually convince them. For me, speaking as a sci-fi fan, this is the exact stuff I want: Well-produced big ideas and splendid visuals that are too advanced for a mainstream audience to “get”. I will go so far as to pronounce TRON: Legacy the year’s best sci-fi movie. The only other contender is Inception, and I enjoyed Legacy more.
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Michael Sheen, Bruce Boxleitner
Runtime: 127 min