Rating: 3 stars out of 5
The idea that computer programmes and electronic entities can take on human form, exist and interact (and kill one another) in a neon virtual cyber-world resembling ours was pretty radical in pre-Matrix 1982.
That’s when the first Tron film came out, starring a 32-year-old Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn, a talented software engineered who gets digitised, via an experimental laser, and trapped in the virtual world within a powerful mainframe computer.
This was the time of Reagan, the Cold War, and when US$33 million – Tron’s gross box-office takings – was considered pretty darn good business. (Before the US$100 million box-office became the norm for any self-respecting blockbuster.)
Whatever good notices Tron received back in the day for its vision and distinctive futuristic computerised look – critic Roger Ebert championed it as great ‘technological sound-and-light show’ – were balanced by criticism that the film was a weak story without heart.
The same criticism, 28 years later, can be levelled at Tron: Legacy, a somewhat sudden sequel that had actually been considered by Disney for years – Tron has a cult following – and which only ramped up development in the past five years.
Make no mistake, this is a visually dazzling film. Today’s technology can render spectacular scenes of ‘games’ that take place in the cyber-world known as The Grid, such as duels with deadly Frisbee-like discs, and races to the death on conveyances known as light-cycles, which emit beams of light that kill if you crash into them.
Despite Bridges’ recent ascension into Hollywood royalty, after his first Oscar win this year, marvellous visuals and a thumping electronic score by house music duo Daft Punk, the film is as cold and uninvolving as its predecessor was.
In other words, version 2.0 of Tron has perfectly replicated the best and worst of the original. One can totally envision portions of this film, sans dialogue but with the soundtrack playing, being extremely well-received at clubs and night spots.
It looks great as a game and could very well become a popular theme park ride. But as a film, it barely makes the grade, and mostly on the strength of the action sequences.
When Sam (Garrett Hedlund, Eragon), Flynn’s son, is also digitised into The Grid at the start of the film, he has to overcome the odds to survive in the ‘games’, relying on his athleticism and penchant for extreme activities in the real world – racing motorbikes and leaping off tall buildings – to stay alive.
The father-son angle, the struggle between artificial and human intelligence (‘users’ versus ‘programmes’), as well as a blatantly Holocaust-like subplot about a new life-form being persecuted and exterminated in the virtual world all come to nought.
They are not developed well enough by the script, nor do they seem important apart from setting up stunning battle scenes. The wild card is an apparent programme protector of Kevin Flynn, played by wide-eyed Olivia Wilde (13 on TV’s House).
Her character development is strange: oftentimes she is a competent fighter with a somewhat mischievous and playful glint in her eye. (If the film were not a Disney production, she might have become a love interest.)
At certain times, however, she is almost like the humanistic android Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, curious about people and their ways, and oblivious to her own quirks when viewed by human eyes.
Overall, there is very little humour and life in the film. There’s nothing much at stake for the viewer (the ramifications of the rogue programme Clu, an antagonistic doppelganger of Kevin Flynn, defeating father and son and entering the real world are conveyed murkily at best), and the visual whiz-bang thrills start to lose their sheen past the hour mark.
Speaking of Sheen, the actor Michael (Frost/Nixon) is completely out of place as an over-the-top rock-star-channelling programme whom Sam seeks help from at a pivotal juncture.
His inclusion, with a ghastly, gaudy turn reminiscent of his Underworld role as the werewolf Lucian, is a gross miscalculation for this piece. Like another feast for the eyes, 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, this film is all style, no substance.
If only it had gone against the propensity for many technologically advanced films of today to suffer from poor plot and stunted storytelling. Now that would have been radical.
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.