I'm not sure what's responsible for the negative reviews this movie is getting--I suspect it's a reaction to the massive marketing push behind the movie. This is a sequel 28 years after the original, which, while being awful in many ways, is also super-cool and groundbreaking in many other ways. Nevertheless, the original is seen as such a liability that Disney isn't re-releasing it until a month after the release of this sequel [update: Last I heard, they'll release it WITH this movie on video, in order to boost sales of this title on DVD]. And one can appreciate that the 13-year-old boys this is aimed at would be HORRIFIED by the original. Nevertheless, this film is getting reviews that somehow fault it for not being on par with The Matrix or Avatar! Dudes, this is the sequel to TRON we're talking about. And the truth is it is vastly improved from the original, and no worse than a number of other multiplex movies that get a free pass from such expectations. And while it may be less cohesive than Avatar, it is also asking you to think about new and interesting ideas, as opposed to the warmed over Native American guilt that film offered.
We open with a fucking sweet Tronned-up Disney logo, then we're with a computerized recreation of young Jeff Bridges explaining the whole world of Tron to his young son, Sam. I will agree with the popular opinion that the film would have done better to leave computer-Bridges in the computer world, where his CGI appearance makes sense. We're told that he just vanished, in a nice news-footage montage creatively placed in a number of TVs laid out on a grid, and when we return, Sam is 27 and played by bland hunk Garrett Hedlund. Sam is the largest shareholder in Encom, his dad's Microsoft-esque company, but he doesn't want to get involved. Meanwhile, all the shareholders are in a late-night meeting for the 12th release of the Encom operating system, which they say is only different from its previous incarnation because "we put a 12 on the box." There are unfortunately no mustaches for them to twirl while saying such villainous things. Bruce Boxleitner from the first film is there, but is apparently sidelined by the board, and we set up a future villain [should this sequel spawn future releases] in the son of villain Dillinger, bad guy of the original. Meanwhile, Sam is downstairs, breaking into the building [note reference to original film in his comment about Encom's large secure door]. He sprints upstairs and downloads the software, then streams it free onto the Internet, because information should be FREE! Sam is already such a free-wheeling, risk-loving X-Treme uber-dude he is next seen balancing on the end of a crane hundreds of feet above the ground, Batman-like, before jumping off and deploying a parachute just in time. Then he drops onto the roof of moving cab and is chased for a while before being arrested by the police. He is sent to jail, where we are told he has been numerous times before, but is released immediately on bail.
Okay, let's stop right here! Naturally it is currently in vogue for our heroes to be blandly anti-authoritarian, risk-immune [sociopathic] sensitive hunks, but really--arrested? Gone to JAIL? Standing like a psychopath on a narrow crane? Illegally parachuting off of skyscrapers? And the big one, stealing a massively profitable computer program and releasing it for free? Is this really what Disney wants to hold up as an ideal? I wonder if they would applaud such "heroism" if, say, a similar person stole Tron: Legacy and streamed it free over the Internet on the night before its release? Would they be totally cool with that?
But such is to be expected. Sam then drives his Ducati motorcycle [the film takes great pains to be sure to know that Ducati is Sam's brand of choice] back to his LUDICROUS waterfront hangout, with a whole wall that opens up onto a pier snug in an extremely photogenic location. There Boxleitner shows up and tells Sam he got a page from his dad, and tells Sam to go check out the old arcade.
Sam does, finds the old secret lab, and is swiftly digitized and plopped into the computer world. Here is one complaint I do have--Sam is just BOOM in the computer world with no fanfare, and frankly, if someone's going to be transported into a virtual world, I want a little more hoo-ha. Specifically, I want to see him divided into cubes and disintegrated, like in the original. Come on man, that's what we came here for!
Nevertheless, minds are soon blown by the visuals of the computer world [which is where the film's 3-D switches on]. Sam is outfitted in a new outfit with glowy lines and back-worn disc that is serves both as his weapon and existence back-up drive. Then he's thrown into gladitorial combat!
These combat sequences face the same problem they did in the first film--they provide some of the the most exciting action sequences, yet they're really quite irrelevant to the overall story. Sam is forced to play death frisbee, fine enough, but things get really good in the updated lightcycle battle. It looks amazing, although it's difficult to tell what is actually going on. And fun as they new one is, with its motorcyle creating glowy sineuous lines behind it, I have to say I generally prefer my lightcycles turning at right angles. And I guess I'm not the only one:
In here we have met our villain, Clu 2, who is the second incarnation of an extremely minor character from the first. He's the one who is a computer-generated version of younger Bridges, which works much better in this context, since he's SUPPOSED to be a computer creation. Anyway, this young, hot woman Quorra [pronounced "Cora"] rescues Sam from the lightcycle course and takes him "off-grid" to where his father is hiding. If you're surprised that there are clouds and lightning in the computer world, you might also be surprised to learn that outside the digital city are rocks and quarries [and at the end there's a vast ocean]. So the original Flynn [older Bridges] has been hiding out here for the past two decades, apparently, hanging out with Quorra, who is forty years his junior. Old man's still got it! His apartment has a lighted floor [for disco parties!] and baroque furniture that looks like the ending of 2001. And probably is a conscious reference, since at this time Flynn, like Bowman at the end of 2001, is living outside of time. So they hang out by the digital fire [cool effect] and enjoy a full roast suckling pig [where did THAT come from--and isn't it a lot for three people?] while dad lays on the exposition about what happened. Basically, he created Clu, but Clu staged a coup [a Clu-coup], Flynn escaped off the grid, the end.
There's also this sub-mythology that is the narrative strand that broke the camel's back in this whole separate thing about certain programs called ISOs that are different than regular programs and could like, cure cancer or whatever. Those who feel that this film is just one stretch of exposition after another are probably targeting this stretch, which includes much flat-out explanation and flashbacks. Looking back, they should have just dropped the whole ISO angle, as it's impossible to comprehend and never really pays off, anyway. The point is that Clu lured Sam down there to discover the location of Flynn, and is planning on manifesting himself in the real world and taking over or some such, unless they can reach the I/O port before the thingy closes up. Is it the exact same story as the original film? Yeah, pretty much, although this time with the additional father-figure element.
SPOILERS > > >
So Sam's gonna find out how to get out of there, and goes to this nightclub featuring Michael Sheen as Aladdin Sane, who totally double-crosses him! There's a big battle, then Flynn shows up in a nick of time in some glowing shamanic robe and pulls some all-powerful Obi-Wan shit [which I must say was awesome, albiet inexplicable], and they escape. Then, rather than the solar sailer, they take the solar train, which is filled with programs that are going to be manifested in the real world as Clu's army. They also see that this mysterious henchman in a motorcycle helmet is Tron, Boxleitner from the original, although we get no digitized young Boxleitner. Then we're suddenly into this light-jet battle, with jets throwing out ribbons of light that destroy you if you crash into them. This succeeds as being the massive visual spectacle you wanted toward the end of the movie, with all these light trails left through the 3-D space. There have been various mentions that the opening to the real world is only open for a short time, and if they don't make it Sam will be stuck down there forever, but no one ever shows any real urgency like it might ACTUALLY close up. By the way, in here the character of Tron, who has been nothing but a devoted henchman of Clu the whole time, makes a sudden, inexplicable total character reversal before finally vanishing from the film.
They make it, but so does Clu, and Flynn holds him off while Sam and Quorra make it into the exit. Suddenly we start to have this undercurrent of both Sam and Clu are these children of Flynn who have been abandoned. Clu is angry and hurt that Flynn deserted him, and Flynn has to apologize to him--and this whole thing could have worked and been somewhat powerful if only the rest of the movie had led up to it... but it seems like one of those things that was probably there in early drafts, but got gradually snipped out of the script in favor of eye-popping action. Also in here Flynn gets to do more all-powerful Obi-Wan action, which is super satisfying, but again, it's just not supported by the rest of the movie, so it kind of just comes out of nowhere and retreats just as quickly. It's too bad, I was really into older Bridges as some sort of badass cyber-monk.
Anyway, Sam makes it out fine [and his old clothes were waiting for him!] and tells Boxleitner, who just happens to be there, that he'll assume the mantle and take over the company. Then the film ends on a nice little grace note, as he takes Quorra--who has been materialized in the real world now too--on a motorcycle ride and she gapes in wonder at her first sunrise.
< < < SPOILERS END
Despite the several quibbles, I pretty much loved it. I sat there with a smile on my face the whole time, my eyeballs being tingled with magic fingers from the entry into Tron-world right to the awesome visuals of the jet fight. I was initially concerned that the visual style of the updated Tron-world would be too visually monotonous--it IS a bit less creative and varied than the original--but it does allow for some very striking and pleasant-to-behold images. The other thing is that this effortlessly accomplishes what a lot of sci-fi movies try to do, which is create a virtual environment that feels very complete and fully fleshed-out, and is a super-cool place where one would like to spend time. This movie did well over the opening weekend, but I suspect it's going to have some sustainability, because it's just a cool, fun place to be.
So, now let's nit-pick. This movie bears the hallmark of having been developed for quite some time as there are just too many ideas for it to adequately address, and several have already complained that it can seem like a crazy exposition-fest. The whole angle with the ISOs should have just been dropped, as it was just too much to understand and really never developed into anything. Similarly with various story elements like Flynn being a badass monk or his wayward father relationship with Clu. You almost wish that they would come out with a special edition that adds in character moments that would have given this whole thing a more solid framework, as it had the potential to be much more compelling right there in its pocket. I also think it would have been a great touch to have the few flashbacks to the Tron-world of the original film to LOOK like the original film, giving us a better idea that it gradually developed to be what it is now.
Nevertheless, big time fun and awesome visuals. Definitely go see this at the theater in 3-D, and IMAX if you can. This will be considerably lamer on video. I know Disney is trying to set up a franchise with this, and after it doing pretty well this weekend, it looks like sequels are assured. I say, bring 'em on. Maybe next time, now that they've got the visuals wrapped up, they can have a little more faith in the audience's ability to stay with them for a more solid story.
UPON SECOND VIEWING:
So I took my friends to see this, and while I liked it the first time, I LOVED it the second. Largely because I didn't have to worry about following the plot and could just lay back and take in the visuals--which are incredible. The movie does a fantastic job of transporting you into this other world where everything is REALLY pleasant to look at. J. Hoberman in the Village Voice called the last 20 minutes of this film among the best moments of Pure Cinema in years ["Pure Cinema" meaning creating moving visual experiences without story or plot], and--YEAH! The final light-jet scene is just spectacular to behold, with all these trails of light twisting and turning through vast 3D spaces. It also reinforced for me that those giving this movie poor reviews for not having a great story are TOTALLY MISSING THE POINT. In fact,the movie would probably be getting better reviews if it were MORE stupid... like the way you could just ignore the story in Avatar because you had already seen it so many times. If you could have this film without dialogue, just visuals and sound effects, I think everyone would have a fantastic time and minds would be massively blown.
That said, a lot of the little narrative strands that seemed hanging loose the first time are actually fairly tightly woven up, you just need to be paying attention to every tiny piece of dialogue. It's a strange tendency among blockbusters lately to just cram a billion tiny narrative strands into movies that don't necessarily need them--and may be more than they can handle. I suspect it's the attempt to strive for the mythic level, and plan for sequels should the movie take off, that causes writers to jam in little narratives they can possibly pay off in future installments. And also to hope for fanboy obsession, and give those fanboys a lot of material to obsess over during hoped-for repeat viewings.
And thus I'm happy to say that this time, the themes of the movie that had been vexing to me the first time finally came clear. It turns out to be an Altered States-like parable about narcissistic creation. Sam and Clu are both Flynn's creations--they are, in effect, both his sons, and both created FROM him. Sam, however, was created with his mother, so there is an outside influence; he is the combination of Flynn and his mother. Clu was created as a mirror of Flynn--the moment of his creation is shown explicitly as a mirror image that takes on its own life--so he is ALL FLYNN, without any outside element. You will notice that the mother was cut entirely out of this film--we only see brief footage where she is largely blocked by Sam, otherwise her absence and identity is completely absent, and Cindy Morgan, one-third of the trio from the original film, was conspicuously NOT invited back. No, this is ALL about fathers and sons.
So at the beginning of the film Flynn keeps leaving his real son to enter into the world he created--his own, self-created world where everything is HIM--and that's where his other son, Clu is. Clu, Flynn's mirror, is charged to perfect the system--"perfection" in this sense being the ideally self-contained, all-Flynn world. Clu turns on Flynn when it occurs to him that humans are inherently imperfect. When Sam appears, he brings in that outside element that Flynn, after a bit of persuasion, begins to realize is what's necessary. "Chaos," he says after Sam's actions have shaken things up, "that's a good thing." Because now he realizes that you can't achieve perfection in a closed system... there has to be some outside element. So this all leads up to that moment at the end where Flynn essentially has to choose between his two sons, and vastly favors Sam, which breaks Clu's heart. So Sam escapes--with the special love interest his father has prepared especially for him--and Flynn re-absorbs Clu into himself. So it's all about Flynn wanting to retreat into his own creation, in this case literally his own world, but eventually realizing that without input from outside elements, it can never be perfect or ultimately satisfying.
Okay? So GO SEE THIS IN THE THEATER. It's one of the best visual experiences you can have--it's today's Pink Floyd laser light show--and it won't be anything like this on video at home.
If you like fun cheesy sci-fi and want a visual funhouse experience. Definitely see it at the theater while you can.
TRON has an awful story, but, especially when viewed through a lens of 80s nostalgia, LOOKS super-cool!