Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Twenty-Eight Years: Worth the Wait

When Tron was released in theaters waaaay back in 1982, it was right on the forefront of what was then a technical revolution. Though you may not think so to look on it now, the film was far more advanced in the special effects department than anything that had come before, and paved the way for generations of big budget special effects blockbusters. Because of Tron's financial success at its release, I'm hesitant to call it a cult classic, but it's obviously difficult to deny the effect this film had on both people and filmmakers, whether or not you could agree on the film's quality.

It's Tron! Oh, wait, it's just Alan
And so all these years later, we finally have a Tron sequel. Tron: Legacy takes place in the modern world, one in which your standard .jpg file is larger than that of the 1982 Grid, the digital universe Kevin Flynn had gotten trapped in so many years ago. In 1989, Flynn (Jeff Bridges reprising his role) disappeared off the face of the planet, leaving behind his tech company, ENCOM, and his young son Sam. Fast-forward to the present day, and Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is still the largest shareholder of ENCOM, but doesn't have much interaction with the company. When his father's friend Alan (Bruce Boxleitner, also reprising his earlier role) arrives with a clue that might lead Sam to find his long-lost father, it sets him on a journey to the very place dear old dad told him stories about in his youth: the Grid.

Looks like somebody's got a battle disc with Sam's name on it
Frankly, any trailer you've seen or commercial you've witnessed advertising this film doesn't do justice to the special effects present here. Granted, I saw Tron: Legacy in a digital 3D Imax theater, and I couldn't really recommend you see this film for the first time in any other capacity, but since the effects are the meat and potatoes of the film-going experience in movies like this, it's a relief to not be let down in this capacity. Like those of Avatar or Resident Evil: Afterlight, the effects do an amazing job of drawing the viewer into the film's atmosphere. Almost everything is impeccably rendered, from the light cycle battles to the flight path of hurled identity discs to the lights of the Grid's great city. The 3D aspects of the film are not necessarily needed, but do add a bit of depth to the effects that are obviously already light-years ahead of the film's predecessor.

Hey, digital boots off the couch!
Like the original film, the sequel has a bevy of acting talent that make their mark on the digital plane. At this point it's obvious Jeff Bridges can do any damned movie he wants, even (and perhaps especially) a Tron sequel. Playing two roles, as the Grid's creator Kevin Flynn and antagonist Clu, Bridges has the opportunity to literally be all over the place, and being not one but two driving forces behind the story is no small task. Bridges does a great job in both roles, matching the patience and paternal instincts of Flynn with the rash arrogance of Clu. Hedlund is surprising good as Flynn the younger, and while the "spurned son looking for his father" role is a bit trite, he makes it work well, and makes a fairly convincing hero. Olivia Wilde is no doubt attractive, but I've yet to see her play a character with much in the way of depth. True, she gets kudos for her role on the TV show House, but that's unfortunately not a show I've been watching and I don't know how good she really is. She seems to be experiencing a career surge right now, but hopefully the roles she gets in the future will be stronger than the mainly useless Quorra, who manages to be both an important plot device and incredibly inconsequential all at the same time. I want to believe Wilde is talented, but I've yet to see her in a role that proves it. Boxleitner appears in no more than a few scenes as Alan, and even fewer as the film's namesake, but that's fine as he's stepping aside to let a younger hero step up. And Michael Sheen is quite entertaining as a flamboyant program who owns a nightclub in the city, which I know sounds weird but you don't think about it when you're watching the movie. Sheen, who has made a name for himself by portraying real-life personalities such as Tony Blair, David Frost and Brian Clough, is positively cheeky in this nice change of pace from his more serious fare.

The digital young Jeff Bridges is scarier than the new, older Jeff Bridges
If there's one complaint to be had with Tron: Legacy, it sadly has to do with the film's main antagonist. Clu is a digitally-represented model of the younger Kevin Flynn. While, when we're seeing Clu on the Grid, he USUALLY looks fine, once in a while - and especially in an early flashback scene when the same style is used to depict a young Flynn - the model looks no more advanced or realistic than those used in the CGI animated film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within... which was back in 2001. When talking about CGI characters, people may make mention of "uncanny valley", which is a robotics term referring to artificial humans. The more realistic and "human-like" you make a synthetic, the more direct a revulsion that creation ellicits from a human audience. It's a problem with most human CGI characters in film, and only children's films seem to not be affected like this, since most human characters in that genre have exaggerrated features to make them more animated. Regardless, being creeped out by the film's antagonist is certainly not a disaster, simply my biggest problem with the film. Some people had problems with the plot and story at parts, but Tron never claimed to be Shakespeare. This was a problem the original film had as well, a weak story overshadowed by state-of-the-art special effects and good acting. I'll let the minor quibbles be handled elsewhere and enjoy the film for what it is.

What, do all digital women just lounge around until needed?
And enjoy it I did! Despite the fact that the original Tron was not a very good film and to outshine it would have not taken an enormous effort, Tron: Legacy took today's technology and told Tron the way people could have only dreamed of doing so almost thirty years ago. The directorial debut of Joseph Kosinski has been a success, if not exactly a perfect opening. Sure the story is silly and hackneyed, I'll fully admit to that. However, the visual spectacle is the main reason you're going to see this film, and the good acting is simply icing the cake. It's got problems, but this sleek, sexy world is unlike anything you've ever seen and even its eventual release on DVD will be impressive if you've got a blu-ray and a sufficiently high-tech entertainment rig. It's my new #10 film for the year, and while it's appearance in the Top 10 will certainly be short-lived, I reiterate my statement that you should absolutely see it in the biggest, loudest movie theater showing it while you can.

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