Friday, December 17, 2010

Tron Legacy: Badly tarnished

Tron: Legacy (2010) • View trailer for Tron: Legacy
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for mild profanity and meaningless action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.17.10

Goodness, what an empty, soulless snooze.

Just like the first one.

OK, yes, the original Tron remains a groundbreaking visual tour-de-force: decades ahead of its time, when released in 1982 ... but with roughly a pinball machine’s worth of plot. Yes, it deserves credit as a clever demonstration of proto-CGI effects, and it also pioneered (on film, anyway) the notion of slipping into way-cool “avatar” versions of ourselves in a virtual world, while navigating a hippy-trippy interpretation of the information superhighway.
Quorra (Olivia Wilde), sympathetic to Sam's (Garrett Hedlund) desire to defeat
the Grid's menacing despot and find his way back to Earth, pays an
unexpected visit with a bit of intel: a mysterious individual who should be
able to help Sam with his dangerous quest.

But the story was bone-deep dumb, with perils and powers randomly designed only to fill any given scene, with little attempt at a logically cohesive plot. The result was boring, boring, boring.

Just like this one.

More than a few eyebrows shot up, back when Tron: Legacy was announced; the original Tron was a box-office dud, and a three-decades-later sequel seemed an unlikely notion, at best. Granted, the mainstream world has become more comfortable with computers and information technology during that time; concepts and jargon that were far-reaching in 1982 have become readily accessible elements of everyday speech. The original Tron failed, to a degree, because it was too way out at the time: a head-scratching anomaly during an era when even conventional animated films were struggling to find an audience.

The intervening years, however, have encouraged a case of selective memory loss among fans who have come to believe that the overuse of tech terminology was the sole reason for the film’s initial reputation as a stiff. Not true. It failed because it really is stiff: minimal story, laughable “acting” and a so-called plot that felt like script pages tossed into the air and then filmed as they randomly floated back to the ground.

As I find myself saying, far too frequently these days, that it’s the story, stupid ... the same failing that also dooms this sequel.

Back in the day, following his successful adventures on the grid in the original Tron, tech visionary Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) returned to his life. As the 1980s waned, his attention was divided between working at his company, Encom, and quality time with his young son, Sam. Then, one day, Kevin went to the office and never returned. Some suggested he’d had a mental breakdown; others surmised that he had fled the mounting pressure of his increasingly corporatized life, for a sunny beach in some far quieter part of the world.

Either way, young Sam – having previously lost his mother, as well – became an orphan. Encom, lacking Kevin’s progressive, planet-friendly hand at the tiller, evolved into a greedy, power-hungry giant led by a board of directors cheerfully willing to overcharge schools for “new” operating system platforms that were little more than higher numbers (“version 12”) on colorful boxes.

Sam, meanwhile, has grown a disenchanted young man – now played by Garrett Hedlund – who races motorcycles (allowing plenty of gratuitous product placement for Ducati) while occasionally breaking into Encom long enough to hack a system or three, in order to embarrass the CEO. The company board’s sole holdover from the old days, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, also reprising his original role), has all but given up on Sam, who in turn resents the older man’s efforts to be, if not a father figure, then at least a trustworthy uncle figure.

All this changes one day, when Alan tells Sam about a message left on his ancient pager, from a phone long disconnected at Flynn’s Arcade, the gaming hangout once frequented by Kevin. Sam explores late one night – the power rather mysteriously still working, despite the place having been shuttered for two decades – and finds his father’s secret workshop. One unwise investigation of a (miraculously) still-functioning computer system later, and Sam is zapped into the Grid.

Let’s just say Hedlund’s limited acting chops aren’t up to the transition.

This film’s script is credited to four (!) writers – Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal – expanding on concepts created for the first film by Steven Lisberger and Bonnie Macbird, and the best these guys can feed Hedlund is a series of “I don’t believe this” and “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more” lines. Worse yet, Sam is forced to say them to us, in effect, because – initially, at least – the “beings” in this strange new world don’t talk much, if at all.

Eventually, after a battle sequence that establishes a few rules about life on the Grid – mainly that its inhabitants can be shattered, like glass – Sam is reunited with his father. Sort of. But it turns out that this unexpectedly youthful Jeff Bridges (without question, this film’s most impressive special effect) isn’t Sam’s father, but instead an entity dubbed Clu, a doppelganger created by Kevin back in the day, to help transform the Grid into a magical, perfect “society.”

Ah, but like all misguided despots who flirt with world-building, Clu eventually turned on his maker, and subsequently built a Master Race of black-and-orange-clad storm troopers. Having conquered his own universe, Clu now has eyes on our world ... where he’ll continue his campaign to stamp out perfection (thus pretty much ending All Life As We Know It).

Sam gets the bulk of this back-story after being rescued by the ass-kicking Quorra (Olivia Wilde, quite fetching in her skin-tight cyber-suit) and brought to the fer-real Kevin, who has been hiding at the Grid’s inhospitable fringes for lo these many years.

The father/son reunion dinner is where I checked out of this film: right when Sam examined an asparagus spear before eating it, his eyebrows shooting up in surprised approval. It strikes me that if Kevin has figured out how to manipulate the Grid well enough to fabricate real food – not to mention the real books that Quora loves, and the real couches and beds and art nouveau adornments in his real home – then he could have taken Clu out years ago.

But hey ... what do I know?

Then there’s the element of time. At one point, Kevin mentions that – back when he still was able to shuttle between the two – hours and days spent on the Grid were but seconds and minutes back home. OK, that being the case, since roughly 20 years have passed in our world while Sam grew from 7 to 27, doesn’t that mean that this Grid-verse Kevin should have died centuries ago?

It goes on like that. Grid “gladiators” can transform into pixel-based motorcycles and armored aircraft at the blink of an eye, for “battles” that may or may not be lethal, depending on which characters need to survive a given skirmish. Given such abilities, one wonders why these “programs” even choose to take human form, or indulge in real-world affectations like night-clubbing (no, I’m not making that up).

Right: When this film’s storyline isn’t random, it’s silly.

And don’t even get me started on the “ISOs”: the “miracles” of (I’m assuming) “spontaneous life” that mysteriously sprang up in the Grid one day, dazzling Kevin and infuriating Clu.

In fairness, the “nightclub” sequence allows us to spend time with the story’s sole interesting character: Castor, a flamboyant hedonist played with grinning relish by Michael Sheen. He, at least, has the larger-than-life élan so desperately needed in this film.

Which brings us back to Bridges.

I’ve decided that Jeff Bridges, much like Michael Caine, loves to work and isn’t particularly choosy about his projects. This explains how the guy who delivered such passionate, heartbreaking work in last year’s Crazy Heart – winning an Academy Award in the process – also was able to do such a terrible job in the abysmal The Men Who Stare at Goats, just a few short months earlier. The divide is even shorter this year: Indeed, it’s nonexistent. Tron: Legacy arrives mere days in front of Bridges’ once-again-excellent work in the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit.

Bridges is far from excellent in Tron: Legacy. In a word, he’s awful. His faux Zen, fortune-cookie dialogue probably wouldn’t sound good coming from any other actor, but let’s face it: Director Joseph Kosinski hasn’t the faintest notion of how to handle flesh-and-blood performers. Hedlund, at least, hasn’t much talent to begin with, so his cardboard character here isn’t entirely Kosinski’s fault. But we know Bridges can do better, and his over-acting in this film – and the fact that Kosinski let him get away with it – puts the final nail in this Grid’s coffin.

Yes, fine: Wilde makes an appropriately enigmatic gladiator babe, and model Beau Garrett is mildly striking as the sexy Gem, Castor’s right-hand-whatever. But we don’t care a jot about any of these characters, nor does the final “surprise” – the original Tron is alive, but a bad guy! – create near the stir that Kosinski and his gaggle of writers probably intended.

Daft Punk’s score, clearly influenced by Wendy Carlos, has much more depth and pizzazz than anything else in this film, and I’m including the 3-D cinematography and CGI universe. The latter actually disappoints me: not such a much, given all the advancements in such technology. The visuals in the original Tron were years ahead of their time; this sequel is far from similarly far-reaching. More than anything, it’s a shameless echo of the Matrix trilogy, particularly with its core Hitler-esque villain – Clu here, Agent Smith there – who wants to become “a real boy” in order to invade and destroy our world.

Gamers, stoners and those predisposed to fall under the spell of New Age-y solipsisms probably will embrace this return to the Tron-verse, much the way the 1982 original had its fervent fans. But to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there’s no there here: no coherent narrative to embrace, no characters to care about.

In which case, why bother?

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