More than Inception, and certainly more than Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the act of seeing Joseph Kosinski’s TRON: Legacy on the big screen was the best time I had with a ticket-buying audience in 2010. The fact that, as a critic, I take in most new releases at least a few days, often weeks or even months, prior to opening day (at press screenings or through screeners) limits the amount of movies I feel compelled to pay for considerably, but this should not be taken as a hit against Kosinski’s film and the great many delights that are to be found within it. With the amount of visual data and processed imagery we take in daily rising by the millisecond, the amount of films that summon an audience to convene in a theater, though nowhere near as grim a percentage as many believe it to be, is nonetheless on a downward slope. Blame VOD, if you like, though I can’t see how giving more original and international films a place to be viewed when distributors lose their courage could ever be a bad thing, especially when a family of four has to pony up nearly 40 bucks just to see a movie in the theater, and that’s not even taking refreshments and gas into consideration.
More movies will justly head to VOD in the coming years, but the theater will always have an ace in the hole: spectacle. It’s what puts butts in seats and whether the politics happen to be mind-numbingly conservative (Michael Bay’s Transformers series) or obnoxiously liberal (Avatar), people will come to see these movies and pay whatever the asking price happens to be. Less political and more pseudo-philosophical, TRON: Legacy is a great spectacle, one where the performances are serviceable and, in the case of the mighty Jeff Bridges, immensely enjoyable; one where the writing, though shallow and largely superfluous, is never obtrusive or cloying; one where special effects are not asked to make something extraordinary appear realistic but are rather asked to simply be extraordinary.
And extraordinary they are: Kosinski, a heralded architect and video game/commercial director working closely with production designer Darren Gilford and the team of geniuses at Quantum Creation FX, unveils a vinyl ultraworld emblazed with orange, yellow, white, and blue neon streaks, complete with oceans of negative space, a dazzling score courtesy of Daft Punk, and perhaps the most sexualized computer program ever put to the screen, in the guise of Olivia Wilde. As much as Wilde might crudely be considered eye candy, she’s quite simply outmatched by her surroundings here, and her role in the film, though not without its moments, is largely unneeded when considering the central father-son reunion that powers the narrative.
Scripted by Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, veteran writers of J.J. Abrams’s Lost, TRON: Legacy begins way outside the grid, as Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) botches the launch of the latest security/operating system from the company his father, Kevin (Bridges, analog version), started. Rebellion against father figures is a pervasive theme, but Sam hasn’t gone completely cynical, as evidenced by his willingness to check on a random call made from his father’s abandoned arcade. Upon investigation, Sam stumbles upon Dad’s secret office and accidentally gets beamed into the same grid that captured his father in the original TRON. Under the watchful eye of Clu (Bridges, drinking from the digitized fountain of youth), the program Kevin created to help him build the sleek “grid,” Sam becomes a competitor in a set of dazzling arena games, including a jaw-dropping digibike collision course that pits Sam against Clu.
Saved by Wilde’s comely data formation, Sam is reunited with his father on the outer perimeter of the grid and here is where things get a bit clunky. Clu’s goal is to lead an army outside of the grid and into the real world with the help of a data ring attached to Flynn Sr.’s back. Numerous chases ensue, trippy philosophical ponderings are doled out, Michael Sheen gleefully showboats as a Bowie-impersonating turncoat, and Bridges, forever the coolest guy in the room, lets his warm, grizzled voice act as a guide as much for us as for Sam. Borrowing freely from Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and any number of other cinematic touchstones, sci-fi or not, the film heads toward its humongous finale on a light boat coasting over a sea of black, electric nothingness.
A similar term might be used as a pejorative against this eye-popper, with critical eyes pointed more at the script’s voids in logic than at the voids Sam and Kevin enter. Does it play like a video game? Well, no, frankly, unless you disregard a solid three-quarter slice of the film and focus rather on the exhilarating action sequences that punctuate those long bouts of Bridges “knocking on the sky.” Films with imperfect scripts and not-exemplary performances have been largely excused under the weight of great production before (I offer the entire catalogue of Edward Zwick up as evidence). The beef with TRON: Legacy ultimately boils down to yet another hissy fit in response to CGI and the rise of the computer as one of the chief tools in popular cinema, an idea that is central to the film’s themes. One might call hypocrisy that the film derives its major pleasures from CGI and yet denounces the rise of technology over man, but there is joy elsewhere (Sam’s opening break-in, that last shot of Wilde’s eyes) and Kosinski seems perfectly aware of the weariness of his seamless computerized creation as the film begins its climactic surge.
Films as equally fun and memorable as Kosinski’s are easy to denounce because Manoel de Oliveira didn’t direct them, but they serve a great purpose in the scheme of things. TRON: Legacy didn’t show up anywhere near my yearly top 25, but sitting in the theater with three of my friends and gazing at the ultraworld through 3D glasses, a walloping reminder of both the base thrill of cinema and its startling, albeit dubious advancements was laid upon me. For those of us who have spent a great deal of our time wading through the marshlands of independent American cinema and unfathomable international markets, it all seems a trifle—another sequel on steroids that allows the rusted cogs of Hollywood to continue to spin without pause. But those cogs need to spin, and until that glorious day when Certified Copy, Uncle Boonmee, and Go Go Tales can be found at your neighborhood multiplex, accomplishments like TRON: Legacy shouldn’t be looked down on.
There’s no two ways about it: TRON: Legacy is the kind of Blu-ray release that sells Blu-ray players. Disney has pulled out all the stops this time with a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that beautifully shifts between aspect ratios, 2D and 3D. Due to the rather dour aesthetic of the film, the colors aren’t plentiful, but they resonate beautifully among the pillars and vast landscapes of saturated blackness. Detailing is superb, with skin tones very well maintained and an excellent, unwavering sense of depth throughout. Even the 3D image, something I personally didn’t think the film needed, looks great on the small(er) screen. This goes double for the sound, which is a scintillating mix of dialogue, atmosphere, and Daft Punk’s larger-than-life score. The balance is simply perfect, especially in the digibike and airship scenes that give the speakers a healthy, extensive workout. If you like to show off your Blu-ray player, this is an essential disc.
The big prize here is the companion Blu-ray copy of the original TRON, which holds up better than one might remember and makes for a fun comparison with TRON: Legacy. This being a Disney Blu-ray, however, a good deal of the extras are marketing doppelgängers, including a feature that sinks with your iPad, a teaser for the upcoming animated series offshoot, a short about the day after Sam is released from the grid, and a featurette featuring Joseph Kosinski stirring up an oversized crowd at ComicCon. The behind-the-scenes featurettes are informative enough, especially "Visualizing Tron," which covers the impetus of the project. A music video and DVD copy of the film are also included.
Call it a guilty pleasure, if you must, but TRON: Legacy is the sort of spectacle that makes people go to the movies and it looks spectacular on Blu-ray.