TRON: Legacy (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Before TRON: Legacy gets rolling, a caption alerts audiences — even those who purchased 3-D tickets — that portions of the film were shot in the standard two dimensions. It's not hard to figure out what director Joseph Kosinski has up his sleeve: The transition to 3-D comes when the action moves from the "real world" to The Grid, the digital world first visited by programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, then and now) in the original 1982 TRON. In an attempt to grab a technology-jaded generation, Legacy would try the 21st-century equivalent of the sepia-to-Technicolor transition in The Wizard of Oz.
It's a savvy approach — and it definitely feels necessary in the first act. A 1989-set prologue shows Flynn telling his young son Sam a bedtime story on the night that Flynn vanishes. More than 20 years later, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is an angry 20-something with plenty of daddy issues: Though living off the income from being primary shareholder in Flynn's old company, Encom, he feels the need to tweak the business with hacker pranks that show off his programming prowess. He's a daredevil, a rebel, but deep down inside ...
Blah blah blah. The perfunctory psychological setup is just filler until Sam finds his dad's old lab, makes a few ill-advised keystrokes and discovers the 2.0 version of The Grid. Even though we're now accustomed to movies that essentially feed us big-screen video games, the shift is unexpectedly breathtaking.
The cityscape itself is darkly Blade Runner-esque, the skies swarming with the bipedal, flying Recognizers familiar from the original. Sam finds himself sent to a gaming arena, where the classic disk-throwing competition gets a gravity-defying post-Matrix updating, defeated combatants "de-rez"-ed into shattered bits. Before long it's off to the light cycle arena, for a variation on the high-speed, leave-a-solid-wake race that now incorporates multiple street levels. For that 20-minute, no-downtime span, TRON: Legacy is just flat-out cool.
That's what TRON 1.0 had going for it back in the day — and as simplistic as the visuals may seem from a nearly 30-year distance, the streamlined narrative knew how to keep a focus on the cool stuff. Eventually, however, it's time in Legacy for Sam to reunite with his dad, who's living in off-the-Grid exile with a unique "program" named Quorra (Olivia Wilde). It's refreshing to see the grizzled human version of Flynn, since Legacy also features a digitally younger Bridges — as his now-dictatorial program counterpart, Clu — with the unnerving motion-capture plasticity of the characters in The Polar Express.
TRON: Legacy returns to its arcade roots after its long, expository middle section, incorporating both a big hand-to-hand combat set piece and a dogfight with more than a hint of Star Wars to it. Kosinski understands how to make an action movie that's snappy and visually enticing, and Legacy clicks along wonderfully when he simply wants to take us to a 3-D, big-screen arcade.
It's just hard to embrace the idea that there's really anything at stake emotionally in something that feels like you should be pumping quarters into it every 15 minutes. And while plenty of fantasy films successfully reach for something primal and archetypal, this one never quite makes its central relationship resonate through the plot-heavy chatter.
Legacy lectures us about immersing ourselves in the digital world at the risk of our interactions in the real world, but we could have enjoyed its candy-coated delights without having to be warned that there's no place like home.