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December 14th, 2010

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05:22 pm - "TRON: LEGACY" REVIEW

Since I'm a self-admitted TRON fanboy, many friends have told me they're nervous about my "radio silence" since seeing TRON: LEGACY at last Saturday's premiere; they're assuming since I'm not bouncing with glee, nerd-spooging all over my various social networks that I OMGAMAZEBALLSLOVEDIT, that I must actually not have liked it.

Rest assured, I did indeed love the movie -- I'm just respecting the fact that it hasn't opened yet, and I'm trying not to add to the already-gargantuan-levels of hype that Disney has thrown upon the world for the past two-plus years. Truth be told, I'm a little worn-out myself, hence the lack of glee-bouncing.

Here's the thing. Even with all my anticipation, all I really wanted was two hours of digital eyeball-porn, a cool disc battle, an awesome lightcycle race, and some musings on digital philosophy from Obi Wan Lebowski. And thankfully, I got all of those, polished to a digital sheen. It's a meticulously crafted movie which exceeded my expectations in many key ways. Personally, it was 96 minutes of cinematic happy place.

So my bottom-line recommendation is: I totally enjoyed myself, and I'd recommend it to anyone -- even if you know nothing about the original TRON. It's an incredibly innovative, exciting, and spectacular time at the movies.

But take that with a grain of salt, given my fanboy leanings -- the movie is far from perfect, but there's no way I'd give it an overwhelmingly negative review. You may see the film yourself and think I'm full of shit. Buyer beware, your mileage may vary.

Accordingly, if you want to venture further than my simple recommendation, I have compiled some more detailed thoughts...



First off, the new film is far better than its predecessor -- which, I know, isn't saying much. While I'm nostalgic about the original film (not to mention an unironic admirer of its oddly experimental production), simply riding on cult nostalgia won't fly with most audiences, so thankfully TRON: LEGACY sets its sights higher -- while still honoring the ideas (and fanbase) of the original.


The design of the film is as cool as you'd hope, and as evolutionary and cutting-edge as the original was in 1982. Every scene brings something new to drool over. You literally have never seen anything like it, and every frame aches with fastidious craft.

The 3D is absolutely perfect, the best I've ever seen. Normally, dark colors and high contrast would equal a lot of crosstalk between the left and right eyes -- but the film is amazingly sharp, clear & bright and I never EVER experienced any ghosting whatsoever. Unlike many recent 3D films that seem dim or low-contrast, TRON is incredibly bright and saturated. With so much of modern film production in the digital realm, I feel like many of them really get "made" on small screens, scrutinized only on monitors during post-production, and the result in theaters feels visually confusing and overly dark; they often don't really "scale up" correctly. Quite the opposite, TRON: LEGACY feels like a movie that has been painstakingly made for the big screen, destined to be seen (or rather, completely absorbed) in a theater environment.

It also has an intricate, mind-melting use of 3D to actually help tell the story -- especially the action scenes, using 3D to help your brain understand complex choreography, multi-layered geometry, and bizarre digital physics. Not once during the breathless action scenes did I feel lost or confused -- the choreography exploits the 3D not just as razzle-dazzle, but as a unique storytelling mechanism. There's even some interesting use of a nifty 3D overlay during some flashback sequences, to indicate that we're sort of "scanning through past memories".


As Sam Flynn, Garrett Hedlund has the thankless role of being hunk-of-the-week. He's a marketeer's dream, as witnessed by the legions of fangirls screaming for him at Comic-Con the past two years. He manages to service the role as best he can given the digital fireworks going on around him -- no better or worse than, say, Keanu Reeves in "The Matrix". He is actually most engaging in the early scenes in the real world, where you get to see what kind of a mischievous twenty-something millionaire hacker he's become -- which made me like him enough to give him a pass on the later, somewhat flatter parts of his character.

Jeff Bridges is, as hoped, pretty much "Obi Wan Lebowski," equal parts sage and stoner -- which surprisingly lightens the mood occasionally. The first big "dad-and-son" talk is remarkably absurdist, rather than expositional -- he asks Sam about work and girlfriends over a synthesized "dinner" in his zen cave of neon -- and it feels just as authentically awkward as any college-dropout visiting his parents. It really seems like the writers tried to keep the Sam/Kevin story as human as possible amongst the digital whizbang, avoiding too much techno gibberish. For me, it worked -- it was an anchor of relatable dad/son stuff in the middle of all the chaos. As for the villain, Clu is either one you're going to accept or not -- you already know that it's not really Jeff Bridges but rather his younger digital Doppelgänger, so feel free to pick it apart if you must. I found it to be pretty darn arresting, and mostly convincing -- mostly. There are still a few moments where he's a little rubbery (especially in the mouth), but nothing that ever slid too uncomfortably into the uncanny valley for me. The eyes sold it, moreso than I've seen before with human CGI; most of the time, my jaw was pretty slack, and I bought into the fantasy.

Michael Sheen's Castor is a little Frankenfurter, a little of the Emcee from Cabaret, a little Bowie -- and it's where the noir leanings of the script really show. He's the proprietor of the End of Line club, and like any good noir, all the political dirt, underground rumors, and sudden brawls always happen in a bar. It's a tad corny, but it worked for me. Look for Steven Lisberger (director of the original TRON) in a cameo as the bartender.

Olivia Wilde's Quorra is one of the highlights -- she brings a sense of life and curiosity to the movie -- I think she's the first character to actually smile or laugh once you get into the digital world, and that little detail leaps out at you. It doesn't hurt that she's hot -- but surprisingly, they don't play it for va-va-voom (that's saved for the Sirens).

Her story was the highlight of the film for me -- the idea that her "kind" in the digital world (ISOs, or isomorphic algorithms) are some sort of new life form that evolved indirectly out of Kevin Flynn's Grid, and thematically she becomes a metaphor for the father/son relationship -- she's a stand-in for the individual identity that Sam wants to create for himself, indirectly created by his father, but not "his father's son" (it'll make sense when you see it). Certainly not the hot cyber-romance with Sam I was expecting, but that may change in future chapters, given the way the film ends. The ISO idea is the most fascinating part of the script -- but frustratingly the part that's mostly told in snippets of faraway flashback, and seemingly saved for a bigger role in the sequels.


Many reviews have chalked up the movie as visually arresting, but lacking in terms of story to support the incredible design. This bugs me, because despite its faults, it has a lot of interesting ideas. It's not some hack script with no purpose beyond selling Happy Meals -- a lot of thought and craft and time and energy went into it, and it shows. As a fan, it engaged me, surprised me with some cool new ideas, and left me wanting more at the end.

Which might just be the problem. It certainly feels like it was written with more chapters in mind -- the currently-popular corporate strategy of "if we're going to buy one, why don't we buy three and save money," i.e. plan for sequels from the beginning. Which, as a fan, couldn't make me happier -- I like the idea of this story continuing and evolving. But, it means this single film on its own might not resonate with you. It did for me, because of my affection for the original, and that film's tradition of it Really Big Ideas.

The original TRON was always a movie about big, heady ideas, many of which were far ahead of 1982 audiences. Some of those ideas -- navigable computer space, digital avatars, the notions of collaborative authorship -- we've caught up with, and others we've surpassed entirely. The undercurrent of those original ideas is alive and well in TRON: LEGACY, which tries to synthesize and update them without the fate of becoming dated in a few years.

Look at "technology movies" from the early 2000s -- films like "The Net" and "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Hackers", all of which look frightfully dated now. Contrast that to the original TRON -- which may seem dated in terms of its live-action 1980s millieu, but is pretty timeless in terms of the pure form & design of the world "inside the computer," which is still cited by designers and artists today.

For this new film, they could have gone the route of "viruses" or "hacking", or made clever use of computer terms that have evolved since 1982, or riffed on the internet (all of which was already done in 2003's TRON 2.0 videogame, which was lame, story-wise, and is no longer considered canon) -- but wisely, they didn't, as any of those things would become instantly dated.

Instead, they took the very wise route of sticking to TRON's original themes of creatorship & dictatorship, squeaking in some thoughts about fatherhood to boot. Sam's bratty character lives in the real world where, since age twelve, his missing father might be "chilling on a beach or dead or both" -- and when he gets to The Grid, he finds out that his dad actually *is* sorta both. In The Grid, Sam gets to see his father as two potential outcomes -- older and wiser but not a risk-taker like he is, or younger and vital like he remembers as a kid, but evil to the core. Sam has to navigate this duality as inspiration to decide what he is to become.

I did a lot of thinking about some of the big questions left by the end of the film -- if you're not a fan, you quite honestly might consider those "gaping plot holes". I thought of them as "clever business strategy for future sequels". Comme ci, comme ca.

It's not perfect -- but it respects its audience, the dialogue isn't clunky, and the characters all build up to a genuine purpose by the end, which is all I ever want from an adventure movie. I hope that it will be a film that reveals more of its subtleties after repeat viewings. It's a lot to take in the first time you see it, and I'm already looking forward to a second round.


I said to all of my friends months ago that I wouldn't be like those Star Wars "Prequel Apologists". Personally, the worst thing I could say about those films is that I didn't find anything to overly hate *or* like, really -- they were just an excuse for me to close the book on my personal relationship with Star Wars. Which is a shame, really.

That didn't happen for me with TRON: LEGACY. While it's not perfect, and may not appeal to everyone, what I got from the film was a visually innovative, jaw-droppingly cool, ear-melting adventure. It's exquisitely well-crafted, and left me wanting more, in the best possible way.

(10 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:December 15th, 2010 01:46 am (UTC)
I look forward to reading the spoiler section of this soon. It's killing me because I don't think I'm going to be able to see the movie until the 21st with my schedule. The safe part of your review is encouraging though.
[User Picture]
Date:December 15th, 2010 01:53 am (UTC)
I'll give it a go and let you know what I think.
[User Picture]
Date:December 15th, 2010 02:34 am (UTC)
Since I'm a self-admitted TRON fanboy

I would have never guessed... ;)

I'll be seeing this one soon. My inner geek requires it.
[User Picture]
Date:December 15th, 2010 02:59 am (UTC)
I'll revisit this post and read the spoiler parts you put behind the cut next week after I've seen the film. Thanks!
[User Picture]
Date:December 15th, 2010 03:00 am (UTC)
Caught it last night (Monday 12/13) as part of a last round of free screenings happening across the country. I'll just have to say, for ease of typing, that I quite agree with you and look forward to seeing what other avenues the future chapters (if any) follow.

About Castor/Zeus (Michael Sheen)...I had no idea who the actor was and I was initially thinking it was Simon Pegg and he kept it all VERY hush-hush.
Date:December 15th, 2010 04:00 am (UTC)
Date:December 15th, 2010 06:16 am (UTC)
My sentiments exactly. The movie resonated with me, being a hardcore fan of the original Tron, and there was little I didn't like about the film. I'm also looking forward to repeat viewings to see what other plot nuances I can pick up along the way.
[User Picture]
Date:December 15th, 2010 09:06 am (UTC)
Your telling phrase;
"Well Crafted"
which means somethings like
1. Good 3D
2. In color and in focus
3. Good surround sound
4. Good Pacing and Screenplay

But do you come out of the theater at the end of The Story thinking it was a great movie and feeling moved ?
Movies that are great rely on the story,
like Lawrence of Arabia or Women In Love.
Disney put on a stunning NARNIA promotion at the National Religious Broadcasterscon at Opryland called "The Power of a Story.
I guess I'll see how I feel about the Tron Legacy 'story' in a few days.
[User Picture]
Date:December 16th, 2010 12:25 am (UTC)
Like I said in the review -- as a fan, I was moved by the story. But your mileage may vary. :)
[User Picture]
Date:December 15th, 2010 04:26 pm (UTC)
thanks for including info on the 3D, I'm so over 3D in movies that really don't need it but it sounds like this is one to make sure to see with the screen popping :)

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