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Tron: Legacy’s visuals are hot and modern but its story is cold and in need of an upgrade.

The Age of Atarius

The original Tron was released in 1982, the same year as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Blade Runner. In some camps, Tron is regarded as a classic, mostly for its groundbreaking use of computer animation. One of the things that held Tron back from wider popularity, though, was a goofy story that started out about a guy getting zapped into a computer while trying to retrieve data proving he wrote a slew of the world’s most popular video games. The story degraded into nothing more than a Star Wars retread. And, regardless of its innovations, Tron hasn’t aged nearly as well as E.T. and Blade Runner. It’s like an Atari 400 program: fond memories of a low-memory system.

Olivia Wilde is Quorra in Tron: Legacy
Olivia Wilde is Quorra in Tron: Legacy

Tron: Legacy picks up the story in modern times, with software giant Encom reporting its best financial performance to date. There’s some chest-thumping as boasts are made about the company’s new operating system, which is simply the old system repackaged with a new number, as well as the imminent initiation of the company’s stock trading on the Nikkei index.

There’s also talk of a free and open computer society, a concept briefly mentioned in Tron. Think Microsoft. Think Google. There’s even a wisp of a jab at Steve Jobs’ megalomaniacal persona. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t get any more topical than that.

All of those reasons to get excited in the Encom empire come crashing down thanks to a hacker who just so happens to be the son of Encom’s most legendary programmer, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, True Grit). Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund, Friday Night Lights) has clearly spent quite a bit of time watching Batman Begins and other comic book movies. He’s got an incredible sense of derring-do. While Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered, Sam’s father disappeared 25 years ago, shortly after Sam’s mom died, and, exactly like Bruce, Sam’s the ultimate insider acting on the outside.

Lost in Cyber Space

Considering Ed Dillinger’s theft of Kevin’s video game code was the catalyst for the action in Tron, it’s kinda creepy the disgraced man’s son would manage to find a prominent spot in Encom, with Kevin’s own son effectively the majority shareholder. That Cillian Murphy, Scarecrow in Batman Begins and the target of Inception, plays the young Dillinger (in what amounts to a cameo appearance) makes comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s far superior storytelling sensibilities all the more inevitable.

As for Sam’s father, his disappearance, as happens with most disappearances, left many questions and theories. Perhaps he flaked out, maybe he didn’t love his son and wanted a new start. As it turns out, Kevin is once again trapped in the cyber world of his own creation, his Second Life gone horribly wrong.

Sam responds to a mysterious, old-fangled page sent to Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, TV’s Babylon 5) that leads him to Flynn’s arcade. While checking out Kevin’s dusty ol’ haunt, Sam encounters the super zapper that transports him into Kevin’s computer.

One of Kevin’s favorite creations, Clu, has taken over the cyber world and wants to port himself out of cyberspace and enter reality in order to wreak havoc on the world. What’s Clu going to do when he enters reality? There are no precursors, no teases of havoc to come; the consequences are never really explored.

Instead, Tron: Legacy, like its precursor, starts out strong and with a promising story, but the best threads unravel in favor of a standard escape-this-place plot that doesn’t hold together.

System Upgrade

Tron: Legacy certainly does have its positives. At the top of the list is director Joseph Kosinski, a director of TV commercials with a background in architecture and engineering. Tron: Legacy marks his feature film debut and he does have a good eye for the visual element. He’s on the radar with the potential of being the next Ridley Scott or David Fincher.

Kosinski’s best accomplishment in Tron: Legacy is the spiffed-up expansion of the light cycle game, with the cycles now able to move in fluid curves on a multi-level platform that even includes speed stripes on the on-ramps. Back in ‘82, those cycles were stuck on a single flat surface and the movement was confined to the lines on a grid.

The cast is also solid, with relative newcomers Garrett Hedlund (Friday Night Lights) and Olivia Wilde (TV’s House) holding their own with Tron veteran Jeff Bridges. And it’s also great to see Boxleitner reprise his role and bring his calming presence back to the huge screen.

The problem is the story is like a program made out of bits of code from other programs from disparate operating systems; the odds of it running correctly are astronomically unlikely. Sure, there’s code from the original Tron. But snippets from Blade Runner, Batman Begins, The Phantom Menace, Revenge of the Sith, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and heck, even Cabaret and 1970s David Bowie also find their way into the mix.

Flynn Abides

Everybody in Cyberspace 2.0 is super-fit and looks fantastic in the sleek, skin-tight new black neon-accented outfits. At least in Tron there were the heavyset accounting programs that were no match for Kevin’s gaming mastery.

With all the threads presented, it’s a shame the bulk of them are left dangling or are cut too early. After Tron’s release, writer/director Steven Lisberger, who makes a cameo in the sequel, claimed his original screenplay, which allegedly offered more real-world grist, was heavily reworked to its final, watered-down form. Those claims were enough to set the expectation that a sequel would be more tightly knit.

The biggest failure can be summed up in one scene. Once reunited with his son, Kevin asks Sam for a rundown about what’s happened in the real world while he’s been trapped in Circuit City. Sam talks about cell phones and Wi-Fi (which Kevin quips he invented in 1985), and there’s the renewed rivalry between the Lakers and the Celtics, among other miscellaneous items.

Sam failed to discuss the death and resurrection of the video game industry, the miracle of backward compatibility, and the controversies surrounding video game obsessions that have led to reports of child abuse and/or neglect, rising rates of obesity amongst youth, and a nation becoming such a nanny state, McDonald’s Happy Meal is in danger of extinction.

Another opportunity lost: the identity discs the programs throw around like Frisbees loosely touch on the possibilities and dangers of identity theft, but that whole thread is quickly snipped in favor of more standard-grade action in which Kevin zones out in a Zen trance right smack in the middle of a climactic escape sequence.

Maybe Sam should’ve also mentioned how this guy named The Dude has a cult following thanks to a movie called The Big Lebowski. When Kevin riffs on “bio-digital jazz” and says things like “Radical, man,” it’s hard not to snicker and think of The Dude. But Kevin’s most classic, most Dude-like line is “You’re messing with my Zen thing, man.”

Come to think of it, The Dude should’ve been consulted. What this movie desperately needs is a simple little throw rug to tie all those threads together.

End of Line.