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Jeff Bridges Talking to Himself in a Digital Wonderland: A Review of “Tron: Legacy” (2010)

Kosinski’s “Tron: Legacy” is like stained glass: pretty to look at, structurally flat and exceedingly fragile when handled too strongly. It’s a special effects-fueled ride that kindly asks that you don’t pay too much attention to its flimsy story. I had the pleasure of being invited to watch “Tron” with the folks over at Benton House; the experience was likely elevated by being surrounded by people equipped to appreciate its many diegetic details while being able to laugh at the film’s narrative shortcomings. It’s a slick experience that at times entertains the exhilarating but is far from a high-score winner.

         “Tron: Legacy” is a high-tech sequel to the 1982 classic, which follows Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), the son of the titular video game world’s creator Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges). When corporate executives tamper with ENCOM, his family’s lucrative business, Sam decides to search for his missing father. Sam’s quest takes him back to the virtual world of Tron—now brought to life with smooth-as-silk CGI—where he and his father must fight against CLU, a programmed character of Kevin’s design who not only rules over Tron with an iron fist but threatens to expand his dominion over the non-digital world as well.

         It’s not that the movie’s story is nonexistent, but rather that its weak characters mire it in convention. Sam Flynn himself is a standard-issue film protagonist: male, easily surprised, has daddy issues, and with that, you’ve cleared a whole line in “Tetris.” Specificity is nowhere to be found to flesh out his character beyond what’s expected of a protagonist in a film of this type. So too is his sort-of love interest Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a digital denizen of Tron. Like many other female characters in action movies, she exists to provide an element of “will they, won’t they” with our male lead. Her nature as a digital being, however, isn’t wholly neglected: Wilde adds a robotic quirkiness to the character, giving her a subtle, off-kilter edge to keep you from forgetting that she’s just a bundle of zeros and ones.

         There’s also Kevin, likely the most dynamic character of our cast. Jeff Bridges infuses a bit of The Dude from “The Big Lebowski” in this older Kevin Flynn, granting the character a splash of natural casualness. Much of the film’s dialogue is stilted and non-conversational, but every so often, a techno-Dudeism appears; “biodigital jazz, man” is my favorite. He’s also the center of the film’s thematic narrative of fathers and sons. Believing the human condition to be discoverable in computers, Kevin severs his connection with his son to refine Tron, his other “child.” Kevin creates CLU to make the “perfect system,” whom he designs in his own image: a self-perceived god creating man to rule over the animals. CLU is a manifestation of Kevin’s selfish obsession with perfection, a dangerous force which propels the program to warlike ends. Though Kevin takes on the conventional “wise sage” role, he still can’t recognize his hubris in crafting CLU in his own flawed visage. It’s in reconnecting with his son that he finds that imperfection is the human condition and not the opposite.

         This somewhat mixed bag of thematic intrigue and stiffly written dialogue spills out into the film’s most engaging element: its world. CGI has a time and place, and “Tron Legacy” makes excellent use of it to create a glass-blown metropolis. There’s a lot of fun technicolor neon-lighting here, but even more absorbing is the film’s willingness not to oversaturate in its use of color. Characters wear suits in which jagged lines of light run across them in a variety of shapes and patterns, allowing the designs to tell individual stories about who wears them without assaulting the eyes. The newer computers are able to render the classic disc-throwing and light cycle combat we know from the original to great effect. For the uninitiated, this is a movie in which characters drive motorcycles that produce walls of light that trip up opponents . . . which is pretty rad, if I may say so. When a character is hit by a flying disc, they don’t just die: they burst into mosaics of bits and pieces. Unfortunately, the film’s singular technical flaw is its most prolific: digitally “restoring” Jeff Bridges’ face to make him look younger in some scenes. When he’s CLU, the uncannily smooth nature of his face works, but only to a point. Since many of the film’s most interesting scenes involve Kevin’s confrontations with CLU, it’s a shame that this one technical flaw hampers its strongest moments of narrative immersion.

         I think my ultimate dissatisfaction with the film is that it refuses to step outside the proverbial 64-bit box. Such a weird world deserves a more specific story to accompany it, and perhaps the best intersection to explain what could have been is the film’s best scene: the club fight. Sam seeks out the help of Zuse (Michael Sheen), and Zuse is my favorite character. He’s offbeat, a chimera of The Mad Hatter and “Casablanca”’s Rick Blaine, and though his dialogue is fittingly strange, it’s an unexpectedly consistent punch of flavor. Zuse’s intentions are unclear, and in his club, we see revolutions against CLU brewing, vices transpiring and Daft Punk’s electronic soundtrack at its best. The ensuing action scene, as the rest are, is visually well-crafted, but Zuse dances around the entire time. For a brief moment, the film remembers what it’s about—people getting tapped in a video game—and for that brief moment, it ditches the safety of convention to embrace the potential wackiness of that specific premise. Perhaps if it was more willing to loosen up in its story, “Tron: Legacy” could come across as more than meager visual delight.

Rating: 3/5

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