In 1982, Tron captivated a small, devoted following of tech nerds, video game players and young viewers with a vision of a day-glo cyberworld. Computer programmer and game designer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) gets zapped into his own video game where he must fight for his life and then return to reality to claim the rightful credit for his work.
Garret Hedlund’s Sam Flynn stands in for the acolytes who’ve been awaiting their return to “Tron”‘s Game Grid universe. He’s a brash, cocky conscientious objector from the corporate rat race, despite being an heir to the Encom empire that his father built. Kevin Flynn’s been missing for more than two decades and his open-source, change-the-world mentality’s been turned into another profit mill by the company’s taskmasters.
A plot contrivance brings Sam to his dad’s old arcade where he gets zapped into the digital world of the Game Grid. After a high-octane disc deathmatch , he awkwardly reunites with his dad, who’s been trapped in the world of his own creation by evil digital doppelganger Clu. Clu wants to claim the real world as his own and has lured Sam to the Grid to force open the portal that connects the physical and digital worlds.
As has been famously hyped, Jeff Bridges pulls double duty as both Kevin Flynn and his CGI avatar Clu. Digi-Bridges looks impressive throughout the movie, except for the climactic scene where he looks fake and emotionally hollow. It’s the worse place for the technology to break down, even if the movie’s emotional notes are unavoidably broad. But, overall, Bridges plays Flynn as a techno-hippie and the Cyber-Dude abides. It’s really his movie and he steals most of the scenes he’s in. Hedlund, however, just delivers a hunky Australian blandness that you could call Sam Worthington 2.0. Olivia Wilde’s comely wide-eyed AI naïf embodies a weird streak of digital nativism about spontaneously generated, self-aware programs. Sadly, that intriguing idea–complete with a cyber version of the Trail of Tears–withers on the vine.
As a grown-up gamer, that’s where “Legacy” most disappoints me. It gestures at some really interesting ideas, but leaves them all woefully underdeveloped. We first see Flynn as a reclusive demi-god and later learn about the ISOs—those self-aware programs–and how special they were going to be. But we’re never shown that specialness. There’s hints of a tension between human and programs–lines about the “Tyranny of the User” and scenes of seething virtual personas angry at their abandonment–but, again, that stuff is left to the viewer to wonder about.
Where the new “Tron” stumbles most noticeably is ironically in the legacy department. The movie works heavy-handedly as a take absentee parenthood, re-purposed creativity or a postponed coming-of-age. But it doesn’t feel digital. Rather, it feels like a walled-off understanding of what the last 28 years of digital advancements means and how they’ve changed our lives. The movie spends a lot of time telling us how gifted Sam and Flynn are, but offers up nothing more than glimpses of said power. Flynn does the occasional trick of virtual hoodoo in the Grid but it mostly feels like weaksauce since he’s the guy who built the place. There’s no hyper-connectivity, no meta-awareness in either Sam or Flynn yet anyone who’s on Twitter or Foursquare knows what it’s like to get a constant feed of info about the world you’re in. That’s the reality we live in now, and as a gamer and a nerd, I wanted Tron to address that more directly. In fact, I kept comparing t to “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” and how Edgar Wright wove in a sort of meme-hungry digital intuition into his adaptation of the video game love story from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels. “SPVTW” pulsed and throbbed and morphed with all the ease of a virtual world, even though it was set in Toronto.
Maybe this is all too much to expect from a Disney holiday blockbuster. Indeed, if you leave aside all the metaphorical hopes and long-brewing anticipation, Tron: Legacy’s perfectly enjoyable as a visually stunning spectacle. The effects and aesthetic dazzle, especially when game objects coalesce from the ether for battle or chase sequences. Those sequences make the movie, especially the set pieces that present game competition as a digital bloodsport NASCAR. Yet, even those scenes frustrate because they don’t feel video game enough. “Tron: Legacy” feels obsolete, even as it’s still uploading into theaters.