There’s really no way around the blatant awfulness and stupidity of Tron Legacy. Apologists may fashion an array of defenses to shield it from criticism, which is fine and all except that this kind of picture is indefensible. From all angles, it’s a mess; it’s bloated but explains far too little, it’s an action spectacle that’s surprisingly light on action, it’s filled with ideas that range between brilliant and half-cooked, and it’s replete with awful performances from awful actors (and one actor who essentially coasts from start to finish– I’ll let you guess who that is). I want to say something nice about the film, but even those areas to which praise should be applied do nothing to offset Tron Legacy‘s perfect storm of badness.
Tron Legacy takes place a couple of decades after the original 1982 picture; Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has disappeared, leaving his company ENCOM in the hands of its board of directors and his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund), who takes little interest in his father’s legacy beyond pranking the people in charge and putting their latest money-maker online for free public consumption. But this isn’t a film about corporate intrigue– eventually Sam finds himself trapped in the digital world called the Grid through a series of events that are neither interesting nor particularly well-plotted, and here is where the film truly kicks off.
Or should, in theory, because until Tron Legacy starts dishing out cool action sequences it’s a completely arid and boring film. Oh, it looks pretty enough– the aesthetic of the film is quite mesmerizing in its starkness, though it does tend to feel a bit one-note at times. If there’s anything positive to say about Joseph Kosinski’s sequel it’s that it’s lovely to behold, enough that it’s a place I’d like to see visited again someday– so long as any further additions to this unexpected franchise come packing a much, much better script. Tron Legacy might look fantastic but its visual appeal only serves to hide the fact that underneath the surface, it’s running on empty.
Red flag number one: the forty or so minutes that transpire after Sam winds up in the Grid essentially are a remake of the most memorable and iconic sequences of Tron. The jaded twenty something ends up in a digital frisbee battle against characters we learn are actually programs in the Grid; after that, he’s shanghaied by CLU (Jeff Bridges, digitally manipulated to look younger) and thrown into a light cycle race. Why does any of this matter? It seems that CLU was put in charge of the Grid when Flynn Sr. created it years ago, but as all computer programs are wont to do he went overboard and staged a coup that put him in total control over the Grid and all of its inhabitants. It’s ancient history, and frequently told through flashbacks and exposition to the point of overload; there’s a difference between laying out a backstory and assaulting an audience with it, which Kosinski doesn’t seem to firmly grasp.
In fairness, these sequences are pretty engaging even if they’re paying tribute to the original film first and moving the film along second. The Grid, again, looks great, and seeing the way that the world has evolved since 1982 is rewarding and entertaining; there’s depth and dimension to the world now, and a newfound sense of geographical establishment. But pretty lights and imagery alone don’t make for a rock-solid and compelling movie.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Tron Legacy‘s storytelling is so fractured and inept, because a successful synthesis of its intriguing conceits with strong narrative sense would have made for a really exciting piece of high-minded science fiction blockbusting. None of the film’s ideas are done any justice by the script, which leaves concepts both big and small on the back-burner of understanding in favor of exhilarating scenes of our central characters taking what amounts to the Grid’s forms of public transportation from one scene to another. (I’m half-joking.) I’m not one to decry a film for explaining too little, but Tron Legacy clearly wants to be idea-driven and introduces a couple of game-changing concepts without ever doing the legwork necessary to hold them up– especially egregious when the film’s flagship idea (ISOs, self-producing programs) serves as the foundation of its stakes; when your film’s forward momentum comes to rest on audience acceptance of ideas this enormous, they bear illustrating.
The film has smaller issues, least of which being how out-of-touch Kosinski appears to be in a post-Matrix world where audiences have been shown what a human being can do in a literal computer-generated environment. But Tron Legacy‘s biggest Achilles heel is its brand of lazy, dopey filmmaking, something the cast supplements with sloppy, grating acting. I know, I know– it has Jeff Bridges in it! Twice! The rub of course is that here Bridges is collecting a paycheck, though he had the good sense to star in a picture released roughly around the same time wherein he actually acts. And he’s fine enough to watch here, so long as expectations are adjusted and no one expects classic Bridges from his dual roles as CLU and Flynn.
The real offenders here are, well, everybody else. Garrett Hedlund brings a virulent anti-charisma to Sam, the sort of vortex of allure and charm that sucks all of the energy out of the scenes unfolding around him; it’s a special type of glamour possessed by few, and which Hedlund appears to have in spades. I grant that this is all that I can remember seeing Hedlund in, so maybe it’s just the role that sucks, but if that’s the case then he doesn’t have the chops to overcome poor penmanship. Meanwhile, Ms. Wilde…well, she’s pretty. I almost don’t want to fault her for her performance here, since she’s given woefully little to do besides stand around and look sexy and dangerous. That rather feels like passing the buck.
And there’s no mistaking the source of Tron Legacy‘s problems. Adam Horowitz’s script is a disaster, a catastrophe of writing so earth-shatteringly horrid that rewrites penned by Brad Bird and Michael Arndt (preceding six days of reshoots) couldn’t shore up the film’s weaknesses. Kosinski doesn’t do himself many favors, either, but one can only imagine that Tron Legacy would improve dramatically if he had a better piece of writing to go on.