Perhaps I shouldn’t be so willing to give Tron: Legacy an easy ride, and yet I find myself unable to hate it for its numerous flaws. Is it because of nostalgia for the Tron franchise? Not really: the original movie excited me as a child only until I actually saw it. The build-up to its release – with all of the chatter about its groundbreaking computer generated effects and integration of live-action and animation – promised more than could possibly have been delivered. Even as an undemanding kid I was underwhelmed, though I will admit the images of light cycles and disc battles stayed in my mind after the clunky and tedious movie ended. Even so, these memories were not persistent enough to encourage me to seek out any subsequent franchise efforts, such as the Tron 2.0 game.
Is it because I saw it in IMAX, where the visuals are truly breathtaking? I will happily grant kudos to the filmmakers for using full IMAX images at exactly the right moments for maximum impact: a trick that has only been used by Christopher Nolan and Michael Bay to this point, as far as I can recall. Nevertheless, it’s not just a big-ass screen or nifty 3D that make a difference. I’ve seen enough films on the IMAX screen to be able to differentiate good from bad without bias. At least I hope I can. I’ll wait to see it on a normal sized cinema screen, or on my beloved TV and get back to you on that.
Is it because I am a sucker for big stupid sci-fi movies with pretty images and a loud soundtrack provided by legendary French pioneers of electronic music? Let’s say that accounts for about 40% of the love. I’m only human, and as anyone who has seen some of the dubious films in my my DVD collection can tell you, if I buy into something early on, then I’ll usually ignore glaring problems with plot, execution, or rampant nonsensicality and then defend it against its attackers for years. Though Tron: Legacy regrettably makes the same mistakes as the first in not really spending enough time building up its world (all we get are tantalising hints and the odd quirky detail), it mattered little to me when scenes like the disc battle and light-cycle sequence are as beautifully constructed as they are here.
Is it because I love hard luck cases? Early reviews of Tron: Legacy have been highly critical, with Drew McWeeny’s impassioned demolition of the movie being particularly brutal. To be honest, there’s not much he’s said there that I can argue with. This version of Tron follows the structure of the first in a way that smacks more of laziness than a payment of respect, and certainly the CGI en-youngenising of Jeff Bridges is not that great (though as someone I follow on Twitter pointed out, the Uncanny Valley effect works well to make antagonist Clu seem other-worldly). However the script by Ed Kitsis and Adam Horowitz (who wrote the excellent Lost episode Expose as well as a whole lot of really not that great episodes) is an acceptable template for an action movie, with room for some surprisingly affecting father/son dynamics between Flynn and his son Sam, not to mention his Frankenstein creation Clu).
Criticism of director Joseph Kosinski is also a bit far off the mark. Anyone hoping that the world of ads would belch out another David Fincher or early-career Ridley Scott will be very disappointed, but he moves things along with enough zip, stages action acceptably well, and harnesses an amazing design team to construct a world of eye-fondling beauty, cast in neon and well-gradated shadow, as if adapting the best avant-garde car advert you’ve ever seen. Much of the fun of the movie is derived from having each scene feature some nifty little detail or visual quirk. In fact, many times during the movie I expected this well of pointless but amusing doodles to run dry, but it never does. As for his direction of actors, it’s worth noting that while he gets some fun performances out of the cast — Old Jeff Bridges’ wacky hippie/Jedi turn is especially amusing — he seems unable to make Garrett Hedlund do anything other than occupy space onscreen. It’s not a massive problem, though, as I will explain in due time.
I’m also mystified by the complaints that the finale of the movie borrows too heavily from the end of Star Wars. If adding turrets to some flying vehicles in order to stage a dizzyingly-staged dogfight counts as a rip-off, then I guess it does, though in that case it also “plagiarises” Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as well, seeing as that features a long sequence with Henry Jones blasting Nazi scum from the skies (the lovable old fart!). I know that George Lucas has tinkered with the Star Wars movies a lot, but not so much that the final scenes that I remember from my last viewing look anything like the end of this.
I have to admit, I expected more borrowing from Star Wars than there actually is: Kitsis and Horowitz wrote the Lost episode Some Like It Hoth, in which Hurley memorably re-wrote The Empire Strikes Back to hand to Lucas during his trip to the past, so their Star Wars fandom is now well-established. The mild homage they add to Tron is more than acceptable, and no reason to denounce the movie (though the subsequent inexplicable last-minute turnaround of an antagonistic character makes little sense: complaints about that are fine by me).
No, the main reason for this faint-praise-but-still-praise-dammit review — a reason that accounts for 50% of my new affection for the Tron franchise — is one character: Quorra, the “Warrior Ninja” personified by Olivia Wilde in a fetching catsuit-and-off-kilter-bangs combo. Though her ninja skills don’t really get a work out, she is the one truly relatable character here, simply by being recognisably awestruck by the momentous events around her. If the rather trad Race to the Portal / Quest for the Disc plots work at all, it’s only because it’s important to Quorra, who actually runs through a gamut of emotions during the movie while most other characters are merely grimly determined. In contrast to Sam Flynn’s pouty self-absorption (a character trait that transforms by movie’s end, of course), Quorra’s curiosity, courage and unstoppable affection for her two companions is utterly charming.
We can be grateful to Wilde for this. She was the best thing about House for a long while, and here she gets a opportunity to fill a large screen, an opportunity she grabs with both rubber-clad hands. It’s a very pleasant surprise to see her leave the box she has found herself in, having been stuck with grouchy Thirteen in House and snarky Alex Kelly in The O.C. Her spritely energy, hither-to untapped playfulness and instantly iconic look are enough to vault this movie up from mostly forgettable to highly watchable, and it’s notable that while she’s onscreen poor Garrett Hedlund disappears as if by magic. If this movie is successful enough to launch a new franchise, I only hope so in order to see more of Quorra — her journey is far more interesting than anything else going on here — and Olivia Wilde.
(BTW, if you think my calculations are off and I’ve missed out 10% of my love, fear not. I drape that love all over the amazing Michael Sheen, here trying very hard to steal the show by playing a flamboyant night-club owner as a cross between Fred Astaire, Lady Gaga and Larry Grayson. He should be employed to ham up every movie ever made.
ETA: Twitter pop-culture maven Dan Pittman has pointed out to me the debt Sheen owes to David Bowie and Labyrinth: there is a recognisable element of Goblin King in this hysterical amalgam of extravagant actorly tics.)