Imagine a motorcycle rider wearing a shiny black helmet with a black visor, careering through cyber highway at night. Or granite-colored space vehicles, sleek and futuristic in form, darting through a sky strewn with dark clouds, a grim sea visible below. Or athletic bodies doing acrobatic leaps and somersaults before a cheerless background, clad in black bodysuits taped with white and neon-red-orange strips in geometric patterns from top to bottom –- and you get to the issue over the dark and special look that Walt Disney has given its science-fiction adventure film “TRON: Legacy.”
Add to that the faces of good-looking and remarkable actors – one of them a completely digitized, much younger version of lead actor Jeff Bridges — in wan, icy hues. Now, imagine a movie that has ditched for the most part variations of the colors yellow and red. Then: please put on your 3D glasses. What you get is, depending on your taste or frame of mind, an original and eccentric visual style, or a visual challenge.
“TRON: Legacy” courts being the latter, although its final 20 minutes of spectacular action and pleasing special effects nearly justify this risky exercise in testing the patience of moviegoers. The darkness that permeates the cyberspace of the Grid into which Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), heir to the Encom cybergame empire, is sucked into is not an inconvenience for those who watch the movie in 2D, but it’s close to annoying in 3D: it wipes out the extra spatial depth while denying us full access to the beauty and physical grace of its actors, from the stuntmen to the main characters. The movie’s trailer showed a more brightly lit Grid. Why we should be denied basic visual pleasures is one of the biggest production puzzles among the movies released this year.
An alert is flashed at the start of the movie saying that certain scenes in “TRON: Legacy” were filmed in 2D. I did remove my glasses during some non-action portions and indeed, the images were sharp and non-3D, and it was easy to know when to put on the glasses back again. The advantage of watching the 3D version is that one gets a clear hint of the grand architectural and industrial design concepts realized in this movie and – my initial impression at least – the greater impact of the pulsating, techno rhythms of the French electro-music artists Daft Punk, intrusive at times but as cyber a sound as one can get at the movies these days.
Given the possibilities of digital imaging – again, consider the resurrected youthful face of Bridges — one can imagine a day in the future when Walt Disney reissues a version of this movie that is less dark and therefore less tiring for the eyes of the viewer.
The sequel to the 1982 Walt Disney movie about a videogame programmer who authors a software that engulfs him is one of the year’s most anticipated movies. It was at that time a technical wonder, being one of the first feature-length movies after the Yul Brynner starrer “Westworld” (1973) to make extensive use of computer graphics as a story vehicle. Movie critics also loved it, little realizing that its vision of a human being interacting with a world created by the mind would be prophetic. That trend culminates in the era of intensive Facebook interfacing and intensive gaming through Wii and mobile platforms. As Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) declares in the movie “The Social Network”: “We lived in farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re gonna live on the Internet!”
In the same year that “TRON” ruled the box office, the word Internet — the one that refers to the Internet system as we know it today — started to come into general use; two years later, William Gibson coined the word cyberspace. In this sequel, the hero Kevin Flynn learns from his son of what had transpired during the 28-year gap, including the mobile phone, cyber-dating and Wi-Fi. But his life mission remains constant: in his words, the creation of “a digital frontier to reshape the human condition.” He also stands firm on his idea that no “User” must ever pay for software, and that Users should be protected from fascistic and exploitative “Programs.”
***(SPOILER ALERT: The following may contain details that could spoil your viewing fun.)
Directed by Joseph Kosinski and written by a team of six, “TRON: Legacy” traces the pursuit of Sam of his father, author of the two most popular video games of his time, who we learn disappeared mysteriously some 24 years ago after reports about his “erratic obsessions.” Sam, still haunted by the unexplained loss of his father, is the majority stockholder in Encom, the company that Kevin founded and headed.
Kevin’s surviving loyal partner Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) hands Sam the keys to the old Flynn’s Arcade, where the young man later logs in using an old protocol on a dusty and equally obsolete computer to access the “Grid,” an Internet game environment that Kevin created, where deadly games are now being played with complex sets of rules that were undreamt of in the early Eighties when Pac-Man, the classic arcade game, was still a novelty.
The sequel pointedly shows the computer screen as the thin divider between fantasy and reality. Sam enters a mysterious space of blonde female robots and soldiers sporting Frisbee-like hollow disks that glow at the edges and which are tucked on their backs. The weapon of choice in this cyberspace, not only do they store every data about the User but are also lightweight but deadly discuses that can shatter combatants into heaps of turquoise glass shards.
The villain is Kevin’s own creation, his digital avatar Clu, with whom he once shared two ideals: first, the principle that computer software should be free to the public; and second, a dream to create the perfect platform, that is, a software that would cure the world’s ills, “a golden ticket, a digital frontier” as Kevin puts it, that will “reshape the human condition.”
Creation and perfection are the underlying themes of “TRON: Legacy,” two big words that even a scholar would be at pains to explore in a book. But this movie falls safely under the genre of the comic-strip novel, the band dessinée, and its creators make full use of the creative license it affords.
The central issue is perfection
The details of the row between Kevin and Clu are not clear, but their conflict is clearly over the degree of perfection. Clu, more and more megalomaniac and perfectionist, is outraged that Kevin has created a platform that he detests. For Kevin, his latest digital work is “a miracle,” an inspired creation with a human angle — his “gift to the world.” But for Clu, it’s the betrayal of their common bond. So he traps his own creator somewhere in the Grid and shuts down the portal that could take him back to Flynn’s Arcade.
It’s actually a neat storyline that poses questions about loyalty and camaraderie, and the movie can be enjoyed at that level. It adds a bonus layer of father-son bonding, with Sam rediscovering his father and trying to protect him from Clu. Sam, who likes to make pranks on Encom and its board when they put their stock-prices-driven corporate objectives over the ideals of his father, needs some more growing up to do, and this is his chance to do it.
Bridges and Hedlund bond perfectly, with Bridges’ fatherly face and cool voice and the younger actor’s polished, swagger-free portrayal. Bridges does an Obi-Wan Kenobi turn, practicing Zen meditation in his souped-up Japanese robe (more Kabuki samurai with its jutting shoulder than the prescribed komoro). He captures the stature and nobility of Sir Alec Guinness in “Star Wars.” There is a warm and touching scene of Kevin and Sam reminiscing the past and discussing the present during a lull in the battles between the subversive Users and the vast army of Programs unleashed by Clu. “Remember,” Sam asks, “when you said we are always on the same team?” Kevin then says, “I would have given up the whole lot for one day to be with you.”
Two quirky characters help propel the story to its thrilling climax. Kevin’s smashing blonde follower Quorra, played gamely and with expressive eye-work by Olivia Wilde, provides the love angle. Wilde does justice to her character’s lovely name, Quorra pronounced much like Cora, or heart. Then there’s the memorable cybernet bar owner Castor, Clu’s co-conspirator, who, as portrayed by a funky Michael Sheen, comes out as a creepy and spectral threat to the Flynns’ safety.
Quorra, Castor and the non-combatant cast are garbed in cool, revivalist if anachronistic outfits and Vidal Sassoon-inspired hairdos: the geometric Mod style of the Swinging Sixties meets the fluid high-tech swimming body suits, although none of that era’s Op Art colors. The severe costumes are an extension of the puritanical production design concept, which steers clear of being gaudy. Despite so much of its action happening in boundless space, the movie has a claustrophobic feel to it, as if the battles and the hovering vehicles take place on a stage no bigger than a fashion show ramp.
Blame this movie’s preference for dark images, showing silhouettes of structures instead of their rich details; a foreboding heaven instead boundless vistas; and interlacing white and orange strips instead of red-blooded bodies and amazing aircraft energized by combat. Walt Disney need not bother with an exhibition of concept drawings and scale models of buildings and vehicles from “TRON: Legacy.” What we want is to enjoy them right on the silver screen, that surface that divides fantasy from reality.