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A Digitized Shadow of Science Fiction

MOVIE REVIEW
TRON: Legacy (2010)

Tron-legacy-jeff-bridges
Disney Enterprises

"TRON: Legacy," a movie that has been in the works since the mid-'90s, is finally here. It wears its reported budget of more than $200 million very much on its sleeve, with amazing costumes, lighting and C.G.I. work combining to create a believable — and pleasingly three-dimensional — computer-focused world. But all the money in its budget was unable to buy the filmmakers a single original idea. On reflection, that's perhaps what "TRON: Legacy" is meant to be: the first major studio mash-up movie.

Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund, who seemingly has very carefully studied the work of Christian Bale) goes on a white-knuckle motorcycle ride to break into the headquarters of his father's old company, Encom. While a board meeting takes place, he hacks into the company's mainframe and uploads its new software product onto the Web ahead of the new release. Incidentally, the unbilled cameo in the boardroom sequence is a red herring.

Then Sam does a bit of BASE jumping, and there is some business with Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) — who has mentored him since his father disappeared — which sends Sam back to the arcade his father abandoned at the same time as him. Fortunately someone kept on top of the electric bills, so Sam is accidentally blasted into the same digital grid that swallowed up his father 20 years ago.

Before Sam can adapt to his new circumstances, he is picked up by some characters lost from the flesh fair sequence from "A. I. Artificial Intelligence," and taken to a fight to the pixelated death (more on which later) in a three-dimensional fight sequence combining the public spectacle of "Gladiator" with the equipment of "Mad Max." But then he is taken to a spaceship, staffed by people in elegant black capes, to meet his father. I had to stab myself with my pen to keep from shrieking, "Luke! It's a trap!"

On my train home from the preview screening, I overheard a young couple sitting near me decide that it must have been awful living in the mid-'90s, when you had to make your own fun by enjoying whatever happened to be on the television that evening. How did they do it, they wondered. And I realized the answer to the question which had puzzled me from the moment of the opening credits: Who is this movie's target audience?

A lot of people who are so eager to see "TRON: Legacy" — or who Disney believes are interested in seeing this movie — will not have seen the original "Star Wars," "Minority Report" or "Ghost in the Shell," nor would they wish to. After all, those movies were made in the dark days when filmmakers had to make their own fun. They had to rely on physical special effects (or hand-drawn animation), clever scripts and more than seven actors with speaking parts to build amazing worlds where anything could happen. Now everything is in the C.G.I.; There's no real effort involved for the people on screen. Nothing is at stake, and this always, always, always comes across in the acting despite that Hollywood is desperate for us in the audience not to think so. I found myself wishing for just one sequence from "The Fifth Element" — a movie I can't stand — where you can see Bruce Willis breaking a real sweat. But there are no such flesh-and-blood experiences here.

In fact, "TRON: Legacy" has gone so far the opposite way that the villain is a C.G.I. versions of Jeff Bridges's younger self — an electronic avatar that looks like Mr. Bridges of the time of the original "Tron." This character is seamlessly integrated into the rest of the film, but unable to get out of the uncanny valley. How can we possibly care what it does or says when we know it's not really real?

The real Mr. Bridges is also in the movie, playing yet another version of the Dude from "The Big Lebowski." "It's bio-digital jazz, man," he cries at one point when explaining something to Sam in his off-grid apartment that looks exactly like Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" video. It's where he has spent the last 20 years with only Quorra (Olivia Wilde, who is much better in her part than necessary, or that the movie deserves) for company. Although Quorra is forever leaping into fights to get Sam out of trouble, they never even kiss, perhaps to avoid the icky question of what exactly Quorra and Sam's dad got up to in all those years off the grid.

But will someone unaware of the romance between Deckard and Rachael in "Blade Runner" — made in 1982, the same year as the original "Tron" — care about this? Will someone used to characters being rebooted in video games be shocked when that happens to a major character in the movie without repercussions? Will kids who've been taught to hunt faceless enemies within video games wonder why Sam is the only character in the movie capable of being hurt? All the others are programs: When they are killed, as in the gladiator sequence, their bodies disintegrate into pixelated oblivion.

Now, this is only a movie. But an idea such as this was fresh in 1997, when it was used for the vampires staked in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." But the vampires were able to inflict pain; Buffy was aware of the effect her actions had on others; and enough non-vampires died to make sure that the audience did not get blasé. When "Black Hawk Down" came out in 2001, Ridley Scott was attacked for presenting only the American side of the battle in Somalia, showing the Somali fighters as an indistinguishable horde. Even the aforementioned flesh fair sequence from "A. I.," also from 2001, was firmly on the side of the mechas being destroyed.

Director Joseph Kosinski has built a world where there is no there there, and the fact that these deaths are not even worthy of comment has a much nastier connotation in 2010. The enemies Sam must battle in the grid are both indistinguishable and completely computer generated. This is a kids' movie in which the main character must kill dozens to survive, and he does it without thought. The other people in this world are not people to him. The fact that they are not people to us in the audience either is incredibly disturbing. Let's not forget that the American army uses drone planes, controlled remotely from the United States, to bomb real people on the ground in Afghanistan. If movies such as this, where death is bloodless, pain-free, instant and unremarkable, are permanently affecting how we Americans are capable of thinking about death in the real world. The main thought I left the cinema with is that the target audience for this film will be old enough to fight in five years' time.

But how does this thoughtless, senseless slaughter look and sound? The highly anticipated soundtrack by Daft Punk is excellent, drawing attention to itself only in the best ways, cleverly combining its synth-pop with orchestral heft. And although the four credited screenwriters wasted no effort on original ideas, one must begrudingly admit the movie looks fantastic. The bad guys are marked in red or orange (as from the original), and it uses hexagons as a recurring motif to make us think of worker bees scurrying around their hive. Regular people wear black and that weird crystallized, glowing white — none better than Michael Sheen, in his small yet crucial role. Mr. Kosinski has made a movie that looks good and hangs together, two significant achievements for a first movie. But the only special effect in the 125-minute running time which got gasps of delight from the audience — and don't forget this is a 3-D movie — was the special Disney castle logo right at the beginning.

There is also a character named Gem (Beau Garrett), who is not a hologram. When I was a small child, I loved the "Jem" cartoon. I loved the idea of the secret rock-star identity, and I loved the songs. But I did not know at age eight or nine that the songs were pastiches of various '70s and '80s music. Nor did I know that the cartoon was made by the toy company Hasbro as a gimmick to sell more toys. Later, when I first saw a video of Karen Carpenter singing, I really, genuinely thought she was ripping off Jem. Oh, how my parents howled with laughter when in all innocence I told them. Kids, if you are thinking of going to see "TRON: Legacy," listen to me: Do not make the childhood assumption that only works of art made in your own lifetime can speak to you. Please understand that there are movies made before you were born which were as good, if not better, than some of the movies being made now. Go see "TRON: Legacy" if you must, admire the graphics, enjoy the ride; but please, don’t think it's doing anything that hasn't been done before. And remember that, just as "Jem," it is only a gimmick to sell you more toys.

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