Tron: Legacy (2010) *½
I wonder what the record is for lag-time between a movie and its first sequel? Psycho II, The Rage: Carrie 2, and The Birds II: Land’s End are all pretty impressive in that regard, coming in 22, 23, and 25 years after their respective originals, but the 28 years separating Tron from Tron: Legacy edge out even them. I’m sure there must be an even tardier sequel out there somewhere, but right now I can’t think of what it might be. In any case, there’s something even stranger about Tron: Legacy’s existence than the complete human generation that elapsed since the release of the preceding film. All of the other latecomer sequels I mentioned just now were spun off from movies that were both highly successful and highly regarded in their own day, and that subsequently ascended to classic status. That is, it’s easy enough to understand how greed or desperation could lead the rights-holders to try turning them into franchises decades later. Tron, however, was none of those things. Panned by critics as a silly and cloddish exercise in style over substance, and saved from bombing only by a surge of interest drummed up at the eleventh hour by an unusual tie-in video game, Tron was never anything more than a double historical footnote. It forecast the emergence of computer graphics as a major special effects technique on the one hand, and on the other it exemplified Disney’s rather ham-handed efforts to hold onto audiences over the age of ten in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Evidently one should never underestimate nostalgia as a motivating force for people of my generation, though. In 2008, when Disney released a speculative trailer for a notional Tron sequel on the convention circuit, it generated enough excitement not only to earn the project a green light from the studio leadership, but to secure the biggest budget ever entrusted to a first-time director. And if we make the natural assumption that Tron: Legacy was intended mainly for fans of the original, then the target audience should have every reason to be pleased with the result. Tron: Legacy is even more hollow, incoherent, nonsensical, and stupid than its predecessor, but boy is it ever shiny!
When Kevin Flynn (a returning Jeff Bridges) regained his corporeality after his unintended sojourn in the virtual reality of the Encom computer network, his experiences gave him such insight into the workings of the digital realm that he quickly became far more than Encom’s star video game designer. From that moment on, he was basically a hagiographic caricature of Steve Jobs that would be dismissed as a bit much by even the most uncritically worshipful Apple cultist. By 1985, Flynn actually owned Encom, and while his techno-mysticism always made the hard-headed capitalist faction on the company’s board of directors nervous, there was no gainsaying the profitability of the products Flynn masterminded. People like Richard Mackey (Journey to the Center of the Earth’s Jeffrey Nordling) might not get Flynn’s messianic pronouncements about electronic miracles and technological revolutions in the human condition, but that didn’t much matter even to them so long as Encom had the world’s best-selling operating system and both of the two most popular video games in history. Then, in 1989, Flynn disappeared. I mean, just *poof*— gone. Not even his family knew what became of him. Flynn’s son, Sam (portrayed as an adult by Garrett Hedlund, of Eragon and Troy), was much too young to take over in his place even after the vanishing act persisted long enough for “missing” to become “missing, presumed dead,” and Encom spent much of the 90’s circling the drain of bankruptcy, kept afloat only by a few talented second-string programmers like Flynn’s friend and confidant, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, also back from the first film). Money speaks louder than vision in such circumstances, though, and by the time we get serious about telling this story, Mackey is in charge; Bradley is a sidelined minority of one on the board of directors; the top Encom programmer is Edward Dillinger Jr. (Cillian Murphy, from 28 Days Later… and Inception), the son of Flynn’s early-80’s nemesis; and Sam Flynn is a barely tolerated weirdo whose sole contribution to the company he technically owns is to drop in once a year with an elaborate prank, usually so as to sabotage the launch of whatever new product was getting the most hype in the information technology press at the time.
Nevertheless, Bradley continues to believe that Kevin Flynn is alive somewhere, still working on his digital miracle. He even still has the pager that Flynn always used to contact him in emergencies back in the 80’s, just in case. And what do you know— one night, that pager does indeed go off. What’s more, it goes off in response to a call from Flynn’s old video arcade, the cellar of which used to double as his mad computer lab. Naturally, Bradley assumes that this is the call he’s been awaiting for over twenty years, but he doesn’t rush off at once in reply to it like you might expect. Instead, he gives the pager and the story behind it to Sam, leaving it to him to make first contact. I guess Alan figures he comes in second to the missing man’s son among the folks to whom Flynn owes an explanation. Sam makes a big show of disbelief and disregard when Alan hands him the beeper, but we all know he’s got a visit to the arcade in his immediate future anyway. Amazingly, everything still works when Sam turns the power back on at Flynn’s, even though the place has been shuttered for two decades. That includes the equipment in his father’s secret laboratory, which Sam recognizes from stories he was told as a kid. We recognize a device that Sam apparently doesn’t, however— a digitizing laser just like the one that zapped Flynn Sr. into the Encom computer system back in 1982. We also can’t help noticing that it’s pointed right at the chair where Sam sits as he tries to hack his way through his dad’s old security software. Sure enough, the access code that Sam eventually cracks doesn’t do quite what he expected, and the next thing the boy knows, he’s standing inside a virtual-reality version of the lab, which serves as a portal between our world and the digital one that Kevin Flynn was building when he disappeared.
It’s weird, though. This computer world looks an awful lot like the one where Flynn was accidentally trapped all those years ago— a place he thought of so highly that he destroyed its whole fucking social order on his way out the door. If this is the world Flynn made, then why is it a dystopian digital hellhole just like the old one? We’ll let that question marinate for a bit while Sam discovers firsthand how much like the MCP’s fallen dictatorship this place really is. No sooner has Sam set foot onto the street (or onto the Grid, to give Flynn’s virtual world its proper name) than he is placed under arrest by a squad of warrior programs (remember, in the Tron universe, all computer programs are fully sentient artificial intelligences, whether or not their human users are capable of recognizing them as such), and sent to an updated version of the original Tron’s game arena. There Sam has no choice but to demonstrate the formidable disc-fighting skills he developed by playing his father’s video games, until finally he is pitted against Rinzler (former Justin Bieber backup dancer Anis Cheurfa), the arena’s champion gladiator program. Basically, it’s the same thing as being pitted against Darth Maul, only with two light discs instead of a double-bladed light saber. Sam gets his ass roundly kicked until Rinzler notices that the blades of his discs are drawing blood instead of data. Realizing now that he’s been fighting a User, Rinzler stops the battle and brings Sam to his master, Clu. Clu is also Jeff Bridges, electronically de-aged to match his appearance in the 1980’s, which should tell us a thing or two based on the rules established the last time around. Real answers will be forthcoming, but for now we can be sure only that Clu sees himself as the liberator of the Grid, the hero who overthrew the tyranny of the Users to create an operating system of the programs, by the programs, and for the programs— which naturally means that Clu doesn’t care much for Sam. When the lad is returned to the arena for a light-cycle death race, it’s Dear Leader himself captaining the opposing team, and again Sam is obviously outmatched in the long run, even if he holds his own okay at the outset. This time the ass-saving change in the terms of the contest comes in the form of a sexy female program (Olivia Wilde, from Cowboys & Aliens and Turistas) who crashes into the arena in an armored light-buggy, and then crashes out again with Sam in the cockpit beside her.
Sam’s savior spells her name “Quorra,” but pronounces it “Cora.” To the surprise of nobody but Sam, Quorra works for his father, whom she’s taking him to see for the mother of all exposition dumps. The Grid was Kevin Flynn’s attempt to create the perfect computer system, and Clu was to have been Flynn’s proxy on the inside for running it. Flynn also installed Tron (played in the flashbacks by Boxleitner, who has also lost 30 years’ worth of sag and wrinkles via the magic of CGI), Alan Bradley’s old security program from the MCP days, to act as Clu’s right-hand app. The trouble was, Flynn basically Forbined himself. He failed to grasp how seriously a computer program would take the concept of perfection, and he also failed to appreciate that he himself— and humans in general— would quickly stand out in the eyes of an artificial intelligence as a prime source of imperfection in any system. Then there was that miracle Flynn was always going on about. It turned out the Grid was so goddamned good that it spontaneously generated a never-before-imagined form of intelligent electronic life. Flynn dubbed these beings the Isos, and his hope was that they could someday be brought out into the material world for the mutual benefit of themselves and humanity alike. Again, though, Flynn didn’t figure on Clu’s obsession with perfection. Clu understood that concept strictly in systematic terms (as he would, since that’s what Flynn designed him for), and there’s nothing less systematic than the spontaneous generation of life. Eventually, Flynn’s benign digital dictator couldn’t take all this squishiness and imprecision anymore. He mounted a coup against Flynn, and launched a campaign of genocide against the Isos. Then Clu shut down the digitizing laser that made possible transit between the two worlds. That was in 1989. Ever since then, Flynn has lived literally off the Grid, hiding out in an unformatted section of hard drive, and shielding Quorra, the last of the Isos, from Clu’s forces.
Things are potentially different, though, now that Sam has arrived. His meddling in the old laboratory turned the laser back on, and it should stay on for another eight hours or so. That means both Flynns could go home again, provided they can make it past Clu and his armies to reach the portal (which, bewilderingly, is in a completely different location now than it was when Sam came through). Hell, Kevin could even bring Quorra out with him, just like he hoped to do with all her people. Sam wants to get right on that, but his father sees cause for a more cautious approach. Flynn Jr. was drawn to the arcade by a call to Bradley’s pager, right? Well, how the hell could Flynn Sr. make any such call? He’d need a modem connection to the arcade’s phone line to do that, but he’s been living out here in the cyber-boonies for whatever amount of computer time equates to twenty years in the physical world. No, the only one who could have sent that page was Clu, and if Clu wants Sam on the Grid, it must be a plot to draw Kevin and Quorra out of hiding. So frustrating as it seems, the smart thing to do is clearly to sit tight until an opportunity arises that won’t play Quorra and the Flynns directly into Clu’s hands. Kevin even thinks he might know what such an opportunity would look like. The last he ever saw of Tron was during Clu’s big putsch, when the security program stood and fought so that his User could escape. That was a long time ago, of course, but you’ll recall that Tron had been a resistance fighter under the MCP’s tyranny, and going underground is just what resistance fighters do. Kevin believes that Tron is out there somewhere, setting the pieces in place for an uprising against Clu. Fair enough. But we know— or at any rate we suspect— something that even the elder Flynn doesn’t. The story of Clu’s power-grab came with a flashback, so we got to see what Tron looks like in a fight. Funny thing… he fights exactly like Darth Maul, except with two light discs instead of a double-bladed light saber…
A tip for the screenwriters and aspiring screenwriters out there: if, when penning a sequel, you decide to bring back the number-two hero of the preceding installment to act as the number-two villain in your script, you really do need to establish a reason for the face-heel turn! And when the movie is actually named after the character in question, it behooves you also to give him more than two scenes in his true identity, and more than one line of dialogue. The handling of Tron himself probably isn’t the laziest or most misguided bit of writing in Tron: Legacy, but it’s certainly the most evocative of what went wrong here. Honestly, the whole film plays more like somebody’s half-baked Tron fanfic than a legitimate sequel. Especially fanfic-like are all the plot points and character beats stolen shamelessly from other properties not even distantly related to Tron. Take, for example, Sam Flynn’s introductory raid on Encom headquarters, whereby he torpedoes the introduction of the company’s new OS-12 operating system. It’s right out of one of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, all the way down to the bit where Sam makes his escape from Encom’s security staff by leaping off the top of the building and engaging a jet-black parasail to carry him to his waiting motorcycle on the street below. Then, later on, there’s a bizarre subplot (about which I’ll have more to say later) that pits Sam against a computer-program crime lord who is roughly equal parts Caesar Romero’s Joker and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. And just in case two Batman references weren’t enough for a single Tron movie, the casting department was kind enough to throw in a third; Edward Dillinger Jr., who briefly looks as though he’s being set up as an antagonist for Sam, is played by the same actor as the Scarecrow in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Let’s not forget the Star Wars references, either. I’ve already observed the marked resemblance between Rinzler/Tron and The Phantom Menace’s Darth Maul, but that’s nothing beside the way Tron: Legacy reinvents Kevin Flynn as Obi Wan Kenobi. He even dresses like Obi Wan now, if you look past the luminescent hemlines of his Jedi robes. The Flynn-Clu dynamic is suspiciously similar to that between Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker in Episodes II and III, even to the extent of reusing the extermination of immature beings as the act that finally puts the apprentice-turned-villain completely beyond the pale. If there’s a surer sign of pure creative desperation than ripping off the Star Wars prequels, I don’t think I even want to know what it is.
Tron: Legacy’s other big problem is its writers’ insistence upon drawing the maximum possible attention to the most nonsensical elements of the original premise. Once again, “computer programs are people” is the real deal-breaker, not because it’s absurd (a lot of what goes on in science fiction is absurd, after all), but because the writers have plainly not even considered the ramifications. Let us start with Clu. As I’ve alluded, the conflict in Tron: Legacy is essentially the same as that in Colossus: The Forbin Project. Kevin Flynn gets himself (and everybody else) into trouble by creating an artificial intelligence dedicated to imposing perfection on its surroundings, failing to consider as he does so how differently a non-human mentality might interpret that mission. But everything we see— Clu’s behavior included— indicates that the program-people of Tron have minds that work exactly like ours. They value liberty, autonomy, and justice. They feel anger, sorrow, fear, gratitude, personal loyalty— even lust, to judge by the behavior (hell, the existence) of the staff of latex-clad Arena Bunnies that outfit Sam for the games after he’s picked up by Clu’s gendarmes. The only apparent difference between them and us is that they have color-coded glow strips all over their clothes. (Incidentally, Tron: Legacy’s costume designers seem to have forgotten the purpose of those glow strips. They were supposed to suggest the hardwiring on computer circuit boards, but all they suggest as redesigned for the sequel is some of the more regrettable excesses of raver fashion.) In other words, Clu should experience no inherent difficulty in understanding the evil of his actions, so instead of a cautionary personification of Flynn’s hubris, he’s just another megalomaniac with a messiah complex. Now let’s consider Zuse (Michael Sheen, from Mary Reilly and Underworld), that Ziggy Smylex figure I mentioned before. Seriously, a computer-program crime lord?! What on Earth could that even mean?! And the fact that Zuse operates out of a dance club in the rough part of the Grid raises a host of questions about the private life of software that Tron: Legacy is ill-equipped to contemplate, even if that had been its creators’ intention. I mean, what— is Zuse’s cyber-ghetto supposed to be the folder where Flynn keeps all his illegal file-sharing downloads and copy-saved internet porn?
The clearest indication that no one involved in making this movie spent a single second thinking about its story, however, is the matter of the Isos. Remember, the idea is that the Grid was so revolutionary that its very system architecture gave rise to sentient digital life, without any input from humans to direct the process. I ask you, though— how is that different from what we’ve already been shown about programs in general? Nobody ever set out to make iTunes, Quicken, or MS Paint into living, thinking, feeling organisms, but the Tron movies proceed from the assumption that software developers unknowingly do just that every time they put code to disc. If every copy of every word processor, media player, spreadsheet generator, and firewall ever made is a sentient being— which Tron and Tron: Legacy assure us they are— then Flynn’s digital miracle is old news. There’s nothing special about the Isos except perhaps that they were not created to serve any particular function. Tron’s general premise therefore knocks the floor out from under Tron: Legacy’s specific one. But boy is that sequel ever shiny, right?