Watching TRON: Legacy, the long-awaited follow-up to 1982’s TRON, I was reminded of Siskel’s and Ebert’s 1995 roasting of Jumanji. Ebert stated that special effects have to be “at the service of the story.” It was correct then, and it is correct now. There will be very little debate regarding the quality of the film’s effects – they are visionary and groundbreaking in many ways. The plot, however, is about as hands-off and cold as a story about a son finding a lost father can be. That’s some feat, considering that Disney are the masters of syrupy sentimentality. After the initial awe of the first act wears off, TRON: Legacy becomes a long, slow, and alarmingly uninteresting ride.
It’s been twenty-one years and Sam Flynn (Hedlund) has never gained understanding or been able to accept the disappearance of his father, ace video game developer and Encom CEO Kevin Flynn (Bridges). When a former colleague receives a mysterious page from Kevin’s old office, Sam goes over to check it out. Inside his father’s old arcade, he finds a secret passage that leads to a private chamber, where his father was doing cutting edge computer experiments. With a few commands, Sam winds up inside The Grid, a digital world created entirely by Kevin. The two reunite, but must escape before a time-sensitive portal closes. Making things more difficult is Clu (also Bridges), the programmatic alter-ego of Kevin who believes he owns The Grid.
In our ever-expanding digital real world, this is a compelling premise and really one with endless possibilities. It certainly deserves better treatment than this, as first-time director Joseph Kosinski has a firm understanding of effects-driven action sequences but not a clue as to how to progress a story. It’s not all his fault; the script, by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, is one of the worst of the year. Content with endless exposition and pretty much making the rules up as it goes, it also turns Sam into an undeveloped one-liner machine and Kevin into a strange computer genius/Bill & Ted character mash up. Attempts at comedy mostly fail, and relatable emotion is missing completely.
So what we’re left with is an impressive digital world, though mostly drowned out in blacks. This is a top-notch production, and it’s no secret where the $200 million budget went. But is experiencing this world, which does begin to get repetitive around the one-hour mark, worth the trouble of dealing with a horrid story and bad acting? For some it will be, as the IMAX presentation is impressive. At least the film was shot in 3D, unlike so many other 3D hack jobs that have been released this year. For others, the effects will not sustain interest for over two hours.
That’s the decision that needs to be made before seeing TRON: Legacy. It’s astounding in its own right that after twenty-eight years this is the best script that was available for rejuvenating a cult classic. The masterful visual effects combined with the plodding script make for a very uneven experience, particularly when the film comes to a grinding halt in the second act. Kids may enjoy it, even if they don’t understand any of it, but more discerning viewers should look elsewhere. The sad truth: had the movie capitalized on its premise from a narrative standpoint, it would have been one of the best sci-fi action films in years.
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Length: 127 Minutes
Rating: PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language.
Theatrical Release: December 17, 2010
Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Written by: Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz. Characters created by Steven Lisberger & Bonnie MacBird.
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, James Frain