By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn December 9, 2010 at 5:03AM
The legacy of "Tron" signifies a paradox that insults its biggest fans. That's probably unintentional, but this "machine to dazzle and delight us," as Roger Ebert called the original movie in 1982, no longer simply rejoices in the prospects of technological invention. Instead, a franchise built around the fetishistic obsession with cyberculture now preaches its evils.
In "Tron: Legacy," the highly anticipated follow up, much has gone wrong in the hyper-advanced program that hustling programmer Flynn (Jeff Bridges) invented back in the halcyon days of arcade games with blocky graphics and electronic beeps. After destroying the evil Master Computer Program in "Tron," it seems Flynn got trapped in the game by a digital lookalike of his own invention named Clu (Bridges again, digitally altered to look eternally young and thus a special effect himself).
Two decades later, Flynn's alienated, bratty son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) investigates his dad's disappearance and winds up following his pixelated trail down the rabbit hole and into the heart of the program, where Flynn lives in exile and the traitorous Clu prevails over a computerized fascist regime. It's dark stuff, especially when you consider that the cause for all this chaos was hardly more than Flynn's pure desire to invent something out of nothing.
Originally, that made him into a hero. The first "Tron" celebrated the prospects of human invention, both on the level of effects and narrative, even if there were a few kinks in the system. The flimsy character named Tron served to rectify the program's flaws, and where he failed, Flynn stepped up to the plate and saved the day. Since then, Flynn has become a tragic figure whose product turned against him. His program corrupts itself, and he stands a better shot at destroying the whole thing than cleaning it up again. The story suggests an inherent destructive quality shared by all technology, from which nobody escapes unscathed.
Of course, that very thematic implication, conscious or not, runs counter to the sleek, pricey visual accomplishments that define the appeal of "Tron: Legacy." (Here's Anne Thompson's take on the production background.) See this sucker on IMAX (or your next best option, as I will for a friend's birthday gathering next weekend) and make sure they turn up the volume. You'll undoubtedly enjoy at least some of it, because time has validated the existence of a new "Tron" movie more than anything else. Before the redundant exposition where Sam attempts to save his dad, followed by an underdeveloped showdown between Flynn and Clu, the movie delivers morphine for the eyeballs by giving physical expression to digital mayhem. It's as if director Joseph Kosinski and company mean to say: It feels so good, but it hurts so bad.
So we arrive at a contradiction: "Tron: Legacy" simultaneously glamorizes technological progress and snorts at it. Kosinski has created an absurd, expensive, accidentally subversive and borderline incoherent indictment of man's relationship to the same machine that dazzled Ebert twenty-eight years ago. The saga of Flynn now has a stronger kinship with "Modern Times" than "Man with a Movie Camera." (Update: Spout's Christopher Campbell points out that I'm not the first pick up on a connection to the Charlie Chaplin film.) Rather than rejoicing in the ever-increasing polish of contemporary special effects, it warns that they can trap us.
The "Tron" sequel also cautions against the danger of playing god, a concept related to the feeling of ubiquity bestowed upon the individual in the Internet age. In a fantastical development that refers back to Disney's behind-the-scenes presence, Flynn's program gives birth to digital organisms. (Or, as Flynn the Digital Dude puts it: "Bio-digital jazz, man.") But this new race of encoded thingamajigs soon face the merciless oppression of Clu's dictatorship. Flynn brought them into this world and must share the guilt for their suffering. The invention of new life invites its inevitable death. Like I said, dark stuff.
I suppose "Tron: Legacy" contains enough of a cream filling to justify the hype, but there's nothing surrounding the cream. The accusatory tone is a byproduct of its overall flimsiness. It works decently as entertainment for at least an hour or so because it distances viewers from the nonsensical plot. The sci-fi component mostly exists on an abstract level; forget about real science. The characters are enjoyably familiar archetypes and thoroughly acceptable on that purely superficial level. (Pixar's writers supposedly doctored the screenplay, although it seems as though they gave up after the first act, which features the best scenes and fewest effects.) The quest isn't nearly as problematic as the increasingly diminishing sense of humor that ultimately gives way to self-importance. "Perfection," Flynn says at one point, "is unknowable." Such pop philosophy worked in "The Matrix" precisely because the Wachowskis always lingered on the edge of parody, but in "Legacy," Flynn unleashes his knowledge with a straight face. It's impossible to take the movie seriously when everything flashy on the screen functions as a spectacle of nothingness.
The real strength of "Tron: Legacy" arrives in the giddy build-up of the early scenes, as Sam gets closer to discovering a gateway to Flynn's world. A single line from the trailer -- "I got in!" -- acknowledges the fantasy of exploring virtual worlds. Naturally, Sam comes to the realization that he prefers being on the outside looking in. That's the "Tron" most people know and love: A playful suggestion that real life provides the biggest gaming challenge of all.
In 1982, that idea was given a cosmic treatment in the final scene: The movie closed with a rapid shot of movement in the city streets, seen from high above the ground, borrowing an experimental page from "Koyaanisqatsi" by reveling in the ceaseless motion of human productivity. In contrast, the penultimate shot of "Legacy" is nature, followed by an intimate close-up of two happy human faces. Escaping the ills of civilization, the legacy of "Tron" closes its self-made loop. Naturally, Disney will open it again for the next sequel in the works. As the machine gears up for its third round, maybe it can weed out some of the self-hatred clogging up the system.