The problems with TRON: Legacy can be traced back to its origins. According to lore Disney execs spent years kicking around various ideas for revisiting or remaking TRON Steven Lisberger’s groundbreaking 1982 sci-fi flick which among other achievements originated the concept of CGI but nothing stuck and the project stagnated until producer Sean Bailey happened upon an effects test reel created on spec by Joseph Kosinski a commercial director by trade and architect by training. Disney wowed by the reel and encouraged by its enthusiastic reception at Comic-Con agreed to move forward on a big-budget sequel with Kosinski at the helm.
In other words TRON: Legacy didn’t come into being because of a must-read script or a compelling story treatment or even a clever logline; it came into being at a reported cost of nearly $200 million because of a video clip that looked really really cool. This is rarely the stuff of which classic movies are made.
But it does look really really cool. A marvel of production design TRON: Legacy’s aesthetic delivers on the promise of Kosinski’s test reel and more enveloping the audience in a glossy world of black and teal and amber. But like so many Hollywood creations it is drop-dead gorgeous (especially in IMAX) and yet utterly insubstantial a glittering facade built around a largely hollow core. The principle duty of its script from veteran Lost scribes Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz is to provide just enough of a plot to occupy us as Kosinski readies his next opulent set piece. But the film’s story and design elements interact awkwardly and the film is often weighed down by ponderous exposition and flashbacks. It's almost as if its director and writers are running incompatible operating systems.
As the film opens software pioneer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has been missing and presumed dead for over two decades. In truth he is not dead or missing but trapped inside the Grid an alternate universe first envisaged in the 1982 film where computer users interact with software programs (or their humanoid avatars at least) ride motorcycles that travel on ribbons of light and wage death duels with electronic frisbees.
But the Grid has fallen on hard times since its founding as Flynn’s orphaned son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) a 27-year-old adrenaline junkie with an anarchist streak learns when he drops by the place in the hopes of locating his long-lost dad. Sure there are still the lightcycle races and frisbee fights and the infrastructure has undergone a welcome cosmetic upgrade — snazzy skin-tight leather uniforms have replaced the old plastic circuit-board suits — but it’s now become a neo-Roman dictatorship ruled by a maleficent program called CLU. Short for Codified Likeness Utility CLU was created by Flynn to serve as his surrogate but he eventually turned on his master and grabbed the Grid for himself.
CLU sends Sam to the gladiator arena and he seems destined to die there until a spirited vixen named Quorra (Olivia Wilde) the last living representative of a spontaneously evolving digital species (not worth going into) swoops in and rescues him then reunites him with his dad. Father and son make an odd pairing. Hedlund who is now shooting an adaptation of Kerouac's On the Road speaks in sort of a tired throaty monotone perfect for a beat poet but less so for an action star; Bridges meanwhile has reinvented his character as a digitized Dude. Steeped in Zen wisdom he muses about "knocking on the sky to listen to the sound" and making "bio-digital jazz man " and advises his son that "the only way to win the game is not to play." Sound advice but it doesn't do much to move the plot along. So Sam heads off to take on CLU and the old man soon has little choice but to join him.
In CLU one can find no more perfect embodiment of TRON: Legacy’s fatal flaw. Voiced by Bridges and animated with computers using state-of-the-art motion-capture technology the character is meant to appear as a mirror image of a younger Flynn so close in resemblance that his son wouldn't know the difference. But it isn’t. In fact it’s not even close. CLU may be a technical wonder but it's unconvincing as Bridges' digital doppelganger. The filmmakers fell in love with the technology without considering whether it fulfilled its intended purpose — which in this case it clearly doesn’t.* But damned if it doesn't look really really cool.
TRON: Legacy will probably be a big hit with technology fetishists and it could very well end up a 420 staple but it won't likely inspire the kind of furious dorm-room debates that the first TRON film -- or more recent mind-benders like Inception -- did mainly because its plot doesn’t hold up against the most elementary of logical stress tests the most obvious of which is: How did the Grid survive all these years while the computer servers that hosted it were powered down? (And don't even bother to ask what happened to Cillian Murphy's character granted all of one line of dialogue in the first act.) Questions like this might seem inconsequential to Kosinski but they are essential to us. TRON: Legacy represents a landmark achievement in visual effects sound and production design but it's a disappointment in almost every other respect.
* The filmmakers also appear to have ignored the fact that our voices change with age just as our appearances do. CLU may resemble a younger Jeff Bridges but the timbre of his speech is unmistakeably that of the current older version. For an illustration of what I mean listen to the Beach Boys' original 1966 rendition of "Good Vibrations " then compare it to Brian Wilson's 2004 re-recording of the song. Then if you really want to have your mind blown listen to Mark Wahlberg's version.