“Tron: Legacy” is as much legacy as Tron. You can feel the deep imprint left by the 1982 cult classic with every flip of a light disc, every zoom of a Lightcycle, every wrinkle-resistant smile on Jeff Bridges’ computer-sanitized face. With a homage around every corner, heavy hangs the crown.
As it was in the beginning, “Tron: Legacy” takes us into a glow-stick world inside computers where the games are lethal and the mind can get lost, albeit with new players, a new story line, a new director and nearly three decades of improved technology including all the whiz-bang-wow the latest 3-D has to offer. Unfortunately, there’s not nearly enough new life.
Bridges is back playing an entire galaxy of roles — OK, three variations of the Kevin Flynn video game-making genius who started the whole thing. There is his current-day self — a sort of older, wiser, Zen Flynn; his 20-years-younger self, which should make anyone considering plastic surgery queasy; and his Clu-less self. (For any non-Tronites, Clu is the “program” created in Flynn’s image that lives in the computer grid. If you’re a computer “user,” you’ve probably got a “program” in there too, just FYI.)
There’s a blank space between the end of “Tron” and the beginning of “Legacy,” during which Kevin built a video-game empire and had a son, Sam, who is 7 by the time we first see dad tucking him into bed. Meanwhile, his off-hours are spent teleporting back to the grid. Risky business as it happens, because Kevin, the real one, we learn, has been trapped in the grid for the last 20 years, keeping himself occupied by expanding it into a trillion-watt world radiant against a perpetual dark night. So “Legacy” is definitely tripping the light fantastic more than ever, though tripping (and I don’t mean in a substance-enhancing way) more than you’d wish.
As most of us, including Zen Flynn — flowing white robes, beatific smile, yoga trances and all — know, too much reverence for the past can hold you back. At some point, the kids need to fly solo and create their own future. Instead, Joseph Kosinski, an edgy commercial director making his filmmaking debut, is so concerned with getting it right that he doesn’t quite get “Legacy” where it needs to be, which is to unimaginable heights of invention.
As the story opens, Kevin’s son, Sam (an appealing Garrett Hedlund) is now a 27-year-old rebel with abandonment issues, a souped-up motorcycle and a very cool bachelor pad, paid for by the mega-conglomerate of a family business he’s washed his hands of. Kevin’s old partner Alan (a.k.a. Tron in grid-world and reprised by Bruce Boxleitner) has been watching over the kid since Dad disappeared.
One night, Sam is paged back to the old Flynn video arcade. The ancient equipment that first teleported Kevin is still there and in a flash the son is following in his father’s footsteps after all — into the grid where the beautiful warrior princess Quorra (Olivia Wilde) will serve as his guide. Sam’s searching for his dad and sorting through those abandonment issues are what screenwriters Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz spend most of their time plotting, leaving the sci-fi thrill factor in need of attention.
But “Tron” the first was as much about the look as the story, and in that “Legacy” doesn’t disappoint. With the help of director of photography Claudio Miranda and no doubt a warehouse full of computers, “Legacy” is beautifully constructed. The ribbons of light that trail the Lightcycles as they race across the grid are mesmerizing, with the overall 3-D effect something of an ethereal stunner (and I mean that in a good way). In addition to his commercial work Kosinski studied architecture, and you can feel that background infusing virtually every frame, lending a modernist beauty to the morphing shapes of “Legacy.” He takes great care in building the architecture of the grid, down to the way in which light plays across space.
Following the blueprint of the original, action comes with the battles. Like all warriors on the side of good in the grid, Sam has to be tested. Turns out he’s a chip off the old watt — fast with a disc, flooring it on the Lightcycles, and there’s a lot of racing around going on. In a nod to modern-day gender politics, Wilde’s Quorra isn’t just a tall drink of water but as much an action hero as Sam as they fight to clean up an operating system run amok.
The filmmakers do try to throw in a little fun in the form of a disco run by a questionable impresario named Castor, ( Michael Sheen in Al Sharpton hair and a shiny white onesie that sometimes has the added glitter of a top hat and tails), who may have clues about what’s happened to Clu. It’s a fabulous, pulsing pleasure palace (thanks to an equally fabulous electronic score by Daft Punk) whose every surface, including its patrons, is illuminated.
But with everything awash in all that lovely light, it’s hard to feel that Sam, or anyone else for that matter, is in real jeopardy. And you wonder if the actors were blinded a bit too. They move through their paces with an OS X efficiency, but not nearly enough heart.
In a way, “Tron: Legacy” seems an artifact from the past it’s out to pay tribute to. The film arrives in an age populated by a generation or more who have spent great portions of their days obsessing over increasingly sophisticated video games built around labyrinthine challenges. They are masters of this universe, one in which “Tron: Legacy” turns out to be just an average player.