Monday, January 3, 2011

TRON: Legacy


Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, Michael Sheen, James Frain
Running Time: 127 min.
Rating: PG

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Now this makes sense. Here's a film released in 3D, and a sequel no less, where an argument can actually be made that it warrants that presentation based on its STORY. TRON: Legacy doesn't feel like a cash grab so commend Disney for taking the financial risk of sequeling a massive flop released nearly thirty years ago to grant diehard fans their wish. They can even be forgiven for pulling the original from DVD shelves because they were secretly worried the uninitiated would see it, realize how bad it was, then stay away from this. Silly thinking when you consider the most interested would be those who saw and loved the original, but not so silly when that cult is probably still too small to make a dent at the box office. Not that the 1982 film is bad, just that it's a draggy mess, and the excitement of watching it always far eclipsed the final product on screen, which now seems more painfully dated than ever. Yet millions (including myself) justifiably love it anyway, having to stand by as it's pummeled by critics, waiting patiently for the sequel we didn't think could ever come, but knew with all the advances in computer generated technology, would make perfect sense.

Now that the follow-up to TRON is here and everything we imagined it could be and more, it's kind of mind-boggling (not to mention hilariously ironic) that naysayers are still looking for things to complain about. Most of the unfair complaints leveled against TRON: Legacy have been at its screenplay which makes me wonder what they thought of the original's script, mostly an incoherent mess from middle to end. This story is an improvement in every way, much sharper focused with a clear-end point destination for its characters whose fates we're completely invested in. First time director Joseph Kosinski takes the forward looking ideas from 1982 to the level we always wanted while still managing to remain remarkably faithful to the original in surprising ways. Worth every year of the wait, he's made a sequel superior in every way to its predecessor and a film that comes as close as possible to matching the actual experience of watching it. 

It's almost surreal seeing Flynn's Arcade again, only this time in a decrepit state, abandoned and unoccupied since its iconic appearance in the last film. Its owner, software engineer and ENCOM CEO Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has been trapped inside his own creation, The Grid, for the past 20 years. A mysterious pager message originating from the arcade grabs the attention of his 27 year-old son Sam (Garrett Hedlund), who's been in the dark about his father's whereabouts since his disappearance in 1989. As primary shareholder he's effectively pretended to take little interest in what's now become of the company. At the urging of his dad's best friend and colleague, Alan Bradley (a returning Bruce Boxleitner) he investigates the page and is sucked into the machine himself, coming face-to-face with Clu, a dangerous digital copy of his father who's seized control of The Grid, forcing the real Kevin Flynn into hiding. With his help and that of digital apprentice Quorra (Oilvia Wilde), Sam must find a way to defeat Clu and make sure they make it through the portal back to the real world before it closes for good.

Let's just get it out of the way now: The digital rendering of Jeff Bridges in the opening scene isn't anywhere near where it needs to be. It's been pointed out already by everyone but for me it's the only aspect of a technically superb production that sticks out as a big flaw. The CGI Clu that appears later is fine since he's supposed to be a digital creation within a video game, but for a flashback with young Sam in 1989 it sticks out like a sore thumb because he's sharing the screen with a real actor. With dead eyes and minimal texture and expression, Bridges looks like a cross between Benjamin Button, a character from The Polar Express or something out of a Playstation 2 game. Given how advanced movie technology has become it's almost kind of a relief to discover that we still have one problem that needs fixing. I don't know what could have been done instead since a young Bridges had to be shown somehow in these flashbacks but they're clearly not at the point where this approach can be pulled off yet.

The father/son dynamic absolutely had to hit its mark for the narrative to succeed since its the only human interest entry point for those unfamiliar with the original film. Aside from the technical issues with that particular scene, the film perfectly reinforces this aspect throughout, and it'll resonate even more for those who remembers the original, putting them roughly in the same age bracket as the protagonist. They'll also better appreciate the cool touches like the TRON and The Black Hole posters in Sam's room and little details Kosinski retained in the light cycle and disc battles in The Grid, helping make this as much a tribute to the childhood memories of those who grew up with the first film as this past year's atrocious Karate Kid remake was an attempt to butcher them. 

Calling TRON: Legacy a feast for the senses would be an understatement. The cinematography, art and set design, visual effects, costumes, sound and everything going right down the line from a technical and aesthetic standpoint is unmatchable. As hinted at from from the trailer, the trippy look of this film is amazing so it's unlikely 25 years from now the effects will be laughed at the way the original's (revolutionary for their time) are now. Daft Punk's dark, pounding score rivals Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' work on The Social Network as the best of the year, reminding us there are usually two types of great musical scores. The ones that jump out at you with their distinctiveness and almost seem to be operating on a level different from the film in which they appear and the others that so perfectly match the material they literally become part of it. This fits in the latter category, not just fully ingrained into the fabric of the picture but feeling as if it's derived from The Grid itself.

As for the 3D (which this was filmed in, not converted to in post-production) and its benefits, the jury's still out. I'll have a better idea when I rewatch it on DVD and determine how much is lost, but there were times during the action scenes where everything seemed a little muddled making it difficult to follow what was happening, but the same could be said for just about any other action movie regardless of format. It's possible in a couple of months I pop in the DVD and it's visually an empty shell of what it was on the big screen, but that's extremely doubtful given everything else this has going for it from a production design and technical standpoint. A DVD viewing won't lie, a film can't hide behind its effects and environmental factors (people talking, uncomfortable seats) aren't influencing your perception. That said, I'd be crazy to even suggest this shouldn't be seen in a theater for maximum effect or it didn't add to the overall viewing experience so it's a double-edged sword there.

Down the road this will likely hold up better than everyone thinks mainly because the story is far more interesting and developed than anyone's giving it credit for. It's not only a logical progression of the last film's events, but recalls the best elements of the original Star Wars trilogy, such as the father-son dynamic, pupil vs. wise mentor, the light saber battles (but with cycles and discs) and even a plot development mid-way through that seems directly inspired by The Empire Strikes Back. What's so ironic is that even working within restrictive PG confines Kosinski has the guts to go the darker, more adult places George Lucas wimped out of in the prequel trilogy when he instead opted to play with kiddie gloves much like Cameron did with Avatar, an otherwise solid enterprise undermined by his silly desire to deliver an eco-friendly public service announcement. Kosinski, an architect and former director of commercials (who's unsurprisingly a disciple of David Fincher) clearly harbors no ulterior motives other than faithfully expanding Steve Lisberger's original vision from 1982 and the honesty of those intentions bleed through every frame of the picture.

Despite what James Cameron might try to convince you, actors are in no danger of being replaced by motion capture or CGI anytime soon and two performances here will vouch for it. Garrett Hedlund's isn't one of them but he's as good as can be expected in pulling off the standard hero requirements of Sam. The nature of the story doesn't even really need him to be great but he gets the job done just fine. As if we needed a reminder of just how invaluable an actor Jeff Bridges is, we get yet another, proving as he enters the elder statesman portion of his career that he's doing some of his most interesting work. Just about the only thing that could possibly top the thrill of seeing him in a sequel to TRON would be seeing him return to it as The Dude, and he kind of gives that to us with a laid-back, Zen-like turn that recalls some of the little quirks of that character while still projecting the essence of Kevin Flynn. Exiled in an "off-grid" hideout exactly resembling in both design and sound the white hotel room in 2001: A Space Odyssey (clearly another homage), a dinner table sequence reuniting father and son might be one of the most impressive scenes of the year in terms of narrative content and visual execution. Because she's so disarmingly beautiful it's easy to be distracted and miss all the things Olivia Wilde does with her eyes, facial expressions and vocal inflections to suggest Quorra's innocent curiosity and bewilderment of the world around her, as well as Sam's arrival. Doing so much with little dialogue it's the kind of strong female portrayal that's been sorely missing of late in big budget sci-fi movies, leaving any leftover memories of Cindy Morgan's work from the first film in the dust. Based on all the evidence here, she's set to become a big star very soon. In no danger of being overlooked is Michael Sheen's eerie channeling of the Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie as flamboyant nightclub owner Castor. His screen time is limited but he more than makes the most of it, owning those scenes with a bombastic, creepy flare.

Ending a movie effectively is tough and rarely accomplished which makes it all the more impressive that a first-time filmmaker knew to how construct a final scene and shot that's perfect in every way.  It's possible to move forward with another sequel or choose not to, but based on this conclusion, neither choice is wrong. I can't understand how anyone can look at that final moment, how the story logically arrived there, and even attempt to claim Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis' screenplay is shaky or incoherent. This could easily be considered the most underrated effort of the year proving, just as Inception as did, that when science fiction is executed well few other genres are capable of generating as much thought and excitement. The ideas are the effects and the effects are the ideas, creating complete immersion for the viewer. It's unfortunate even those who have mildly praised the film have done so backhandedly, writing it off as nothing more than a "guilty pleasure" or excusing their endorsement by claiming to have gone in with low expectations. It has its flaws and isn't perfect, but that's kind of fitting isn't it? The sequel to a film that for many was perfect precisely because of its goofy imperfections is getting the same condescending response its prequel has been receiving for the past 25 years. TRON was always about style over substance and the feeling of excitement it created in viewers who hoped it could live up to its ideas. TRON: Legacy successfully recaptures that feeling but goes further in being the film we always wanted the original to be.

No comments: