Thursday, December 23, 2010

TRON: Legacy Review

So, thanks to my good friend Leigh B, I saw TRON: Legacy at the Navy Peir IMAX last night.

After the pretty awful reviews that had been heaping up, mixed with a few by people who desperately wanted it to be good, I was not hopeful. I expected a stultifying, inert film, with amazing visuals.

Y'know, pretty much the original all over again.

I guess maybe my expectations had been lowered enough that I really didn't find the film as offensive as some people. That said, it is not a great film, and certainly not memorable. It happens, you soak in the visuals, and leave. That's it, nothing more.

I felt the plot was pretty clear, and there's no urgency in getting through it. Plenty of time to figure out what's going on. (Maybe too much - stay tuned for spoilers.) I wasn't confused, but I can't say it was gripping. There's been a lot of talk of the material in this film only there to set up more movies, but I didn't find it that obvious or annoying, no moreso than any number of other franchise pictures. I also didn't find it intriguing enough to really care what they were trying to set up.

What is somewhat annoying is the absolute adherence to the story structure set up in the first film. Flynn, Jr, gets thrown onto the grid, immediately placed in the games. We have a disk game, corresponding exactly to the ring game in the first film. Then, in both films, Sam and Kevin gain some knowledge about the world they're in. From there, both films go to the light cycle sequences.

The light cycles in both films are the best sequences. It's kind of annoying that they occur in the first act, and both movies kinda run out of steam after that. I will say that TRON: Legacy maintains forward momentum a bit better than the original.

Here's another thing that started to bug me. In TRON, the games were linked to actual video game play. There was even a cut that took us from Kevin Flynn playing "Space Paranoids," to the game actually happening within the computer world. The inference was that the games were played for the entertainment of the unseen users. That's a huge, somewhat creepy, element that could be exploited, and feed all sorts of actions by the programs, but it's gone. TRON: Legacy shows a vast arena of programs watching.

There's a lot of re-positioning of the way the computer world works. TRON gave us programs that had specific functions, RAM was an actuarial program, and would spout financial advice. TRON was a security program, and thus he was a warrior. They also, implicitly, looked exactly like the users that programmed them, so Bruce Boxleitner played both TRON and his programmer, Alan Bradley. This was logical, and set ground rules that could be exploited. You felt for these mild-mannered programs that were being forced to play the video games.

TRON: Legacy gives us games that feel like high-stakes sports. Sam Flynn meets an array of programs that all look very extreme, the idea of a close connection between a user and his program is gone. The design has overrun it. Maybe that's a reflection of the changes in computer culture, maybe it was intended. Certainly, I've seen lots of people who use the concept of an computer avatar to create something very extreme, very different from their true selves. However, even if it was intentional, it forsakes something that felt immediate and personal in the first film.

The acting is actually pretty good. There's been a lot of blasting of Garrett Hedlund, but I didn't feel like he dropped the ball too badly. He's a ingenue hero, it's not a flashy role. It's about plot mechanics and being stalwart. I mean, did anybody think Orlando Bloom was amazing in Pirates of the Caribbean? Anybody? I'd dare to say that Hedlund is a more compelling screen presence than Bloom, honestly.

The real find in the cast, however, is Olivia Wilde. Her QUORRA has more life on screen than any other character. Whereas everyone else seems kind of constrained in some way, Wilde is brimming with excitement and emotion. She's fun, and you want to see more of the character. She also comes off as a warrior without overdoing the "bad ass," far too often that overwhelms any other character trait. QUORRA comes off as a child, endlessly fascinated by the users she's interacting with. Yes, yes...Easy on the eyes, too.

With that, we do come to Jeff Bridges.

I'm a huge fan, and Bridges doesn't slack off. He's doing that Jeff Bridges, "I'm not acting, acting," that he's a master of. The guy just seems comfortable no matter where you place him. He seems connected to the film, and committed to the performance. He's doing his job.

He's also playing two roles, Kevin Flynn, the user, and creator of this environment (which doesn't ENTIRELY make sense, because it was there before he entered the world in 1982...oh, well.), as well as CLU, the program Flynn created to help manage the grid, and villain of the piece.

Bridges does create two distinct personas. Flynn does hang on Bridges "The Dude" reputation, but CLU is a nice dark spin on that. It's as I sit here now that I realize that they did seem like two different entities. Kudos to Bridges in really pulling that off.

However, no kudos to the FX team that created the "young Flynn" CGI mask that CLU and, well, the younger version of Flynn "wear" in the movie. It's a poster child for the uncanny valley. The mouth doesn't work right at all, and it never really looks like CLU is speaking. I worked with it, but, as Leigh said last night, if Avatar can make the Na'vi seem real and do such exquisite facial capture work, why couldn't Disney?

A few words on the 3-D element.

The 3-D revolution has really been underway for about a year now. In that time I can only think of two movies that really and truly used the technology in any sort of exciting or integral way. That would be Avatar, which used 3-D to create amazing depth and a real sense of immersion in the world of Pandora. The other would be Night and Day, the animated short that ran before Toy Story 3. That one is far more difficult to explain, and is flat-out the most clever use of 3-D I've ever seen. It's still amusing and enjoyable in 2-D, but my jaw was on the floor when I saw it in the theater, in full 3-D.

TRON: Legacy is definitely aiming for the former. Nothing gets poked in your face, or anything. That said, it really didn't work, or matter. I would advise anyone to just go ahead and see a 2-D screening. It's cheaper, anyway.

Although, it might be the IMAX. IMAX 3-D has never worked as well for me as 3-D in a regular digital theater. I saw Avatar in regular Digital 3-D, and was blown away, then saw it again at IMAX, and grew annoyed. Every move of my head would muddle the image, and the glasses would catch glare off the screen. Neither of these problems has ever occurred with a regular digital 3-D screening, but happen every single time I see IMAX 3-D. Perhaps it has to do with re-using the glasses. IMAX has done a great job with convincing people it's the best movie experience, ever, but I personally can't agree.

There's also weird choices in TRON: Legacy of when to switch back and forth from full IMAX frame to widescreen. The long, rather dull conversation between Sam and Kevin on the solar sailor gets full IMAX, but the climactic fight is regular widescreen? Huh?

Some of you out there might be asking at this point, "what about TRON?" I mean, TRON is a character, and it would seem odd to have a movie with TRON in the title, not featuring that character. Well, in order to get into that, I'll have to go into spoiler territory. So, the basic non-spoiler wrap-up is this; I can't say TRON: Legacy is a great, or even really good film, but it's not a total disaster. If you want to see it, and haven't (box office seems to indicate you have), it's worth it. It's not going to stick with you, or make you feel like a new franchise has risen, one you can't wait to see the next installment of, but it's diverting enough for two hours.


 Go back if you don't want to know.

Ok, so RINZLER is TRON. Fine, but it's also really, really predictable. I pegged it (Leigh will back me up) right from the moment Kevin Flynn tells his story about TRON. That's fine, the elements are there so that you don't feel like the reveal is a cheat, but here's what is a cheat.

When RINZLER switches back to TRON, and we hear the line from the first film, "I fight for the users." It should be emotional, it ought to mean something. It doesn't, at all, because we don't see TRON, we just see this blank, black helmet, and hear a disembodied voice. It's the moment when we should see him rip off the helmet, and reveal the "young Bruce Boxleitner" CGI mask. Doesn't happen. If they were trying to cut the budget, it's the absolute wrong moment to get cheap. 

It's a key emotional moment in the movie, a re-connection with an old friend for both Kevin Flynn and the audience, and it's played by a literal cypher. A blank slate. It could, literally, be anyone! How are we supposed to care about that?

It's the one moment in the movie that really made me mad. It's just...nothing. Saying a name doesn't mean anything in a visual medium, especially when your movie is designed to be a massive visual experience. I won't even get into the fact that this movie tells us basically nothing about TRON, other than a couple of brief mentions, so if you haven't seen the previous film, you're just not going to get it.

Horrendously bad storytelling. Just awful. I can give the film a pass on quite a bit, but this is just offensively poor thinking on a story level. It's something that professional filmmakers should be able to avoid. Take that as you will.

1 comment:

  1. I saw Tron Legacy on Christmas eve day just to kill some time. I didn't have really any feelings about the movie! I was touched by Bridges' acting as Kevin Flynn reached out to Sam Flynn in the Father/Son act of sacrifice. Beyond that, not much there. But, you're right! Jeff Bridges is brilliant as usual!
    Why is Iron Man better than Iron Man 2?
    Answer: Jeff Bridges is in the first one!