It’s a savvy approach—and it definitely feels as though it’s going to be necessary as the first act kicks into gear. A 1989-set prologue shows us Flynn telling his young son, Sam, a bedtime story on the night that Flynn vanishes, never to be seen again. More than 20 years later, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is an angry 20-something with plenty of daddy issues: He may be able to live off the income from being primary shareholder in Flynn’s old company, Encom, but he feels the need to tweak the company with hacker pranks that show off his own programming prowess. He’s a daredevil, a rebel, but deep down inside …
Blah blah blah.The perfunctory psychological setup is just filler until Sam finds his dad’s old lab, makes a few ill-advised keystrokes, and we get a three-dimensional gander at the 2.0 version of The Grid. Even though we’re now accustomed to movies that essentially feed us big-screen video games, the shift is unexpectedly breathtaking. The cityscape itself is darkly Blade Runner-esque, the skies swarming with the bipedal flying Recognizers familiar from the original. Sam finds himself sent to a gaming arena, where the classic disk-throwing competition gets a gravity-defying post-Matrix updating, defeated combatants “de-rez”-ed into shattered bits. Before long, it’s off to the light cycle arena for a variation on the high-speed, leave-a-solid-wake race that now incorporates multiple street levels. Hey, I’m not afraid to use the word: For that 20-minute, no-down-time chunk of TRON: Legacy, it’s just flat-out cool.
That’s what TRON 1.0 had going for it back in the day—and as simplistic as the visuals may seem from a nearly 30-year distance, the streamlined narrative knew how to keep a focus on the cool stuff. Eventually, however, it’s going to be time in TRON: Legacy for Sam to reunite with his dad, who’s living in off-the-Grid exile with a unique program named Quorra (Olivia Wilde). It’s actually refreshing to get a glimpse of the grizzled human version of Flynn, since Legacy also features a digitally younger Bridges—as his now-dictatorial program counterpart, Clu—with the unnerving motion-capture plasticity of the characters in The Polar Express. (It also appears that Bridges was given free rein to play Flynn as a chip off his own stoner-surfer block, tossing off lines like, “You’re messin’ with my Zen thing, man.”) But it’s hard to embrace the idea that there’s really anything at stake emotionally in something that feels like you should be pumping quarters into it every 15 minutes.
TRON: Legacy does return to its arcade roots after its long, expository middle section, incorporating both a big hand-to-hand combat set piece—also a showcase for Michael Sheen as a flamboyant rebel/mercenary—and a dogfight with more than a hint of Star Wars to it. Kosinski clearly understands how to make an action movie that’s snappy and visually enticing, and this movie clicks along wonderfully when he simply wants to take us to a 3-D big-screen arcade. But while plenty of fantasy films successfully reach for something primal and archetypal, this one never quite makes its central relationship resonate through the plot-heavy chatter. TRON: Legacy wants to lecture us about immersing ourselves in the digital world at the risk of our interactions in the real world. We could have enjoyed its candy-coated delights without having to be warned that there’s no place like home.
Garrett Hedlund, Jeff Bridges, Olivia Wilde