Back in 1982, when the original Tron came out, people were just getting an inkling of the brave new world of ubiquitous technology. The overall response, as reflected in that movie and others of the period like WarGames (1983) and The Terminator (1984), was dread. The machines were going to take over and steal our souls and enslave us. But now, almost three decades later, it's like, what's the big deal? Technology is fun, the world is divided, as in Tron, into "programs" and "users," and you can get all that plus Disney soul and family values in Tron: Legacy.
If nothing else, the new film is a product of marketing genius. It appeals not only to the younger gaming demographic but to the older one as well. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), hero of the original Tron, stands in for the old fogies while his son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), draws in those under 25.
Kevin, you might recall, used to be a young hacker himself. In the original Tron, he gets digitalized and absorbed into his own program. He's stranded in a cyber-grid world where he must fight not only for freedom and human dignity but also for the intellectual property rights to his game-changing technology. It's kind of like The Social Network as virtual blood sport.
But, as this sequel explains, after sorting things out in Tron, Kevin disappeared, leaving his son, à la Tony Stark, an orphan with his dad's mega corporation, Encom, to deal with. Embittered, Sam has slacked off and let money-grubbing creeps who actually want to charge kids for downloads take over the company. Until, that is, he receives a mysterious message from his dad and is directed to the old man's long-shut-up video arcade. There he gets zapped, whereupon he finds himself on dad's grid, which has been souped up with new state-of-the-art CGI but has the same lousy dialogue.
So what happened? Kevin had created Clu, a program that, as a mirror image of himself, was designed to operate his Inception-ish computer world. But, demi-urge-like, Clu usurps Kevin and sets up his own Evil Empire. (Best line of the film is Clu to Sam: "I am not your father.") So Kevin mopes and shacks up with a comely "isomorphic logarithm" (don't ask) named Quorra (Olivia Wilde) and does Zen meditation in a luxury cave that's a cross between one of the sets from 2001 and a tanning bed.
Maybe he should have just stayed home and taken care of the kid. On the plus side, in the new Tron, the war machines no longer look like giant floating staples. But the action scenes are the usual hyper-edited splatter. Primitive though they were, the same scenes in the original had a logic and intellectual rigor. They made strategic and tactical sense, much as in the game of go that decorates Kevin's refuge, along with other quaint artifacts, like books.
To his credit, Joseph Kosinski has a way with throbbing techno (by Daft Punk) and spectacular images. But — speaking of intellectual property theft — most of those images are stolen from other movies, from Star Wars to Blade Runner to Triumph of theWill. Even Twilight gets tweaked: Michael Sheen shows up as a "program" named Castor who looks like his Volturi character in New Moon, but as played by Tilda Swinton.
What Tron: Legacy doesn't have is much life of its own. "That's what I imagine a sunrise would look like," says Quorra about one particularly impressive figment. To which Sam replies, with uncharacteristic insight, "There's no comparison."