The original TRON, about a man trapped in a computer world he created, was only a modest success at the box office. It probably wouldn’t seem like much of a candidate for receiving a sequel, particularly years after the fact, even given Hollywood’s current tendency to sequelize or remake absolutely everything from the 1980s. But the movie developed a cult following in the years since its release, and in 2010, Disney evidently felt the time was right to revisit the property.
It’s a rare instance of a 30-year-later sequel actually being worth watching in its own right. And it even manages to pull off the delicate balancing act between paying heed to the original while standing on its own legs. People who haven’t seen TRON could still enjoy TRON: Legacy; people who have, will have a little more grounding in which to enjoy it.
TRON: Legacy opens in 1989 with Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges reprising his role from the original film) bonding with his son, Sam, with some storytelling of his exploits from the original movie. He finished by telling Sam that something miraculous has happened, and he’ll explain it soon. For now, he has to go and investigate it further. It’s the last time anybody sees Flynn.
20 or so years later, we see that Sam (played as an adult by Garrett Hedlund) has become something of a wastrel; a college dropout, living alone, earning his living off the majority share he holds in his father’s company, but having no interest in the company itself other than occasionally pranking them. It seems like he has no real ambitions in life. And then Flynn’s old friend and co-worker Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, also reprising his role, and that of Tron himself) shows up. Alan has received a page… from the office of Flynn’s arcade. It’s been disconnected for 20 years. Alan and Sam know it must be a message from Flynn.
Sam goes to the arcade, and finds a hidden office. In it is the digitizer that transferred Flynn before, and it does so for Sam now. Sam finds that his father has been trapped in the digital world all this time (which doesn’t really come as a surprise to the audience, of course.) Kevin had created a new Clu program, with a template based on himself, to run the city while he was away, and make “a perfect world”. (Clu is also played by Jeff Bridges, with some digital de-aging to render him as a 30-year-old. It works reasonably well, and if he looks just a bit unnatural, this is at least excusable for an unnatural being.) The arrangement worked until the development of the “ISOs”, programs that spontaneously came into being without human intervention, and are actually digital lifeforms. Kevin Flynn’s miracle.
And an imperfection in Clu’s perfect world.
When Flynn sought to nurture the ISOs, Clu turned against him, defeating Tron (Boxleitner again, also de-aged) and initiating a purge against the ISOs. Flynn was unable to make it to the portal outside before it closed. Ever since, he’s lived in exile outside of the city, aided only by Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a program who has become something of a surrogate child for him.
With Sam in the digital world now, the stalemate between Flynn and Clu has changed. Clu now feels he has the opportunity to obtain Flynn’s identity disc (the lynch pin of Clu’s plans), and is prepared to do just about anything to get it. Sam, Flynn, and Quorra have a simple set of tasks to accomplish: stay alive, resist Clu, get to the portal and make it home.
Most of the focus in the film is on Sam, and it would be easy to paint this as “Sam’s story”. In some ways that’s true. We see him grow as an individual, most of the action sequences are centered on him (or occasionally Quorra), and the main “quest” is largely from his perspective. But this is also Kevin Flynn’s story. Flynn is the Creator of the system, and Disney heavily plays up the Messianic symbolism with him. He’s grown a beard during his years of exile, and wears white robes. When he shows up in a club, there’s a sense of awe and wonder even from his opposition. He’s become something a zen guru during his exile, with pearls of wisdom about the merits of doing nothing, and (in a line gently lifted from WarGames) how the only way to win Clu’s game is not to play. There’s even something of the redeemer in him; when he quietly confronts Clu with the impossibility of perfection, you can hear him hoping that Clu will come back around, that his creation will come home. (Of course, there’s also a bit of the Dude from The Big Lebowski in him; when Sam irks him as only family can, Flynn snaps “Sam, you… you’re really messing with my Zen thing, man!”)
Most of the actors do a reasonable job in their roles, although there’s not much to strain their talents on. Hedlund’s Sam is the typical devil-may-care playful hacker type. Olivia Wilde’s Quorra is tough in combat, but awkwardly shy and innocent in private. Michael Sheen (no apparent relation to other cinematic Sheens) plays Castor, a night club owner patterned after David Bowie; entertaining enough, but familiar. Bruce Boxleitner brings a quiet dignity to Alan Bradley, but doesn’t get very many lines as Tron. (Of course, Tron also didn’t have much of the focus in the original film. Between the two movies, it’s possible that Tron has the lowest screen time ratio of any eponymous movie character.) Jeff Bridges, naturally, has the lion’s share of the best scenes and does the most to show off his acting chops, as the Zen-guru Flynn and the hammy totalitarian Clu.
As one might expect, this film has great visual effects. While the then-cutting edge effects of TRON may look rather dated now, TRON: Legacy takes full advantage of today’s graphical achievements. The result is an updated look to the neon wonderland, but one that is still very consistent with the original portrayal. It’s easy to believe that this is the same world, just rendered better.
There are some plot holes that detract a bit from the movie; I would have liked to have seen exactly how re-purposing programs worked (given its importance to one character), and what, exactly, Flynn thought the ISOs would be able to accomplish in the real world. There’s another sequel planned for 2014, so it’s likely the second question will be addressed then. (Of course, there are some big pitfalls for it to overcome for it to be good in its own right.) But even with these holes, TRON: Legacy is still a fun movie that succeeds in building on the original while still being its own movie.
This is what Hollywood is aiming for when they do super-belated sequels. Would that they hit the mark more often.