It’s bio-digital jazz, man
I did my usual spot of market research beforehand, which consists of asking young people who’ve seen the film what they thought of it. The overriding feeling was “it’s AWEsome” and that the latest Tron experience really ought to be maximised in 3D, and Imax if possible. As I have both at my disposal, I paid top dollar for the privilege of watching some unknown director’s take on a sequel of a 1982 sci-fi revolution I had not seen – and it was a digital blast.
Tron: Legacy starts with a brief backstory of young Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund, in a 2-dimensional yet strangely charismatic starring role that will surely catapult him into the Big-Time) being effectively orphaned when his technology mogul father (Jeff Bridges) disappears at work one night. Years later – about 19 by my count – Sam is the stereotypical renegade heir who wants nothing to do with his father’s business that has been turned into a commercially profitable operation by a vaguely malevolent board. Prompted by the avuncular Alan, Sam visits his father’s old office, types in some code and slips down the rabbit hole into a parallel, computer-programmed world.
So far, so Batman/Matrix/Narnia. Fathers abandon their children all the time, but few kids expect to find their erstwhile dad running a futuristic universe known as the Grid, and presiding over brutal, gladiatorial games like something out of The Running Man. Accosted by four beauties straight out of a Daft Punk video and re-costumed in a reflector-strip wetsuit, Sam is immediately hauled off to meet his end in a deadly game of “Wipe-Out” which is basically stupid, but quite simply the coolest stupid I have ever seen. Strangely, Sam encounters each surprising development with the typical cool of any arrogant, tech-savvy, rich kid who has dropped out of CalTech (presumably out of boredom rather than stupidity) and simply wants to find his dad inside a computer program.
Jeff Bridges, now an Oscar winner, donates as much depth and pathos as is possible for a fairly thin plot that has cannibalised a lot of sources. There are elements of Star Wars (although the immortal line here is “Sam, I am not your father. But I am very happy to see you”), biblical references galore (Cain & Abel, the Creation story, fallen angels and sacrificed sons), and the underlying dramatic arc is a pretty basic one of “save the world (real, and programmed)/girl/dad”. So, too, some of the key characters are pastiches of classics past – British actor Michael Sheen steals his scenes doing a rendition of Frank-N-Furter-meets-Clockwork Orange, throwing in a few Charlie Chaplin moves but thankfully eschewing a stutter or limp.
If soundtrack can be considered a key character (and I think it can), this too borrows – seemingly on long-term loan – from everything that’s ever worked in cinema before. The overriding theme echoes Inception with its heavy bass, we have the exhilarating string ostinato of the Bourne movies, flourishes of Danny Elfman from his Batman phase, and towards the end a rewarding punch of Vangelis-inspired ’80s pomp, reminiscent (of course) of Blade Runner. Notably, the aforementioned Daft Punk produced original music for Tron: Legacy and this heightens certain scenes to an almost unbearable level of excitement.
All in all, Tron: Legacy is about style, not quite over substance, but certainly it’s the aesthetic that makes the movie work. It’s amazing what a glow ring and some fluoro-reflector stripes can do to an otherwise drab, utilitarian (and ubiquitous) outfit. The stark white production design of Father Flynn’s house, set against the dark, foreboding world he originally created, extends the heaven and hell metaphor with scant concern for subtlety, but this is a spectacle worth experiencing. And the bigger and more dimensional, the better.