Jeff Bridges is God and, as image-captured from the original 1982 Tron, he’s also the devil in Disney’s mega-million-dollar reboot, Tron: Legacy. The notion of a tragically split persona might have been scripted to give the new movie a measure of emotional gravitas, but why bother with writing when Tron: Legacy is so intermittently stupendiferous in its 3-D sound-and-light show?
In the original Tron, Bridges’s game inventor Kevin Flynn hacked his employer’s computer to defend his intellectual property rights, then somehow found himself “in the grid” and obliged to save the world from the tyranny of an operating system run amok. In the reboot, Flynn’s game self, an entity “programmed for perfection,” has become the resident cyber tyrant with the middle-aged flesh-and-blood Flynn his unwilling prisoner. Years pass, and young Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), abandoned as a child when Dad was sucked into the game, gets lasered into the computer (don’t ask) and finds himself transported to the floor-lit disco dives of neon-limned Tronland. The Eurythmics are crooning “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This,” and a boring tale of corporate chicanery gets a blast of ’80s nostalgia.
For the most part, Tron: Legacy takes place inside a computer, a geometrically severe domain somewhere between black-light Oz and Rollerball Wonderland; extending into cyberspace the logic of the old Disney “Silly Symphonies,” many of the characters are anthropomorphized bits of computer code. However ridiculously literal-minded the premise, the idea of a game programmer vanishing into his creation is still an apposite allegory, and the setting is more than appropriate, as just about everything worthwhile about Tron: Legacy is computer-generated.
The original Tron was the first movie to make extensive use of CGI. The elegantly simple mise-en-scène was a factor of the cost and the technology; back in the summer of ’82, audiences were far more enchanted by E.T. (and sci-fi cinephiles impressed with Blade Runner). Tron lost $10 million, a failure credited with precipitating a regime change at Disney and even setting back the development of CGI. Eventually, the movie achieved cult status as the basis of a video game, perhaps the first time that particular tail wagged the Hollywood dog.
Disney has let the first Tron lapse out of circulation, but Legacy’s neophyte director Joseph Kosinski shrewdly maintains, even while enhancing, the original’s streamlined look. Not just the perfect arena for radiant Frisbee wars and zappy bumper bike contests in which the losers shatter like glass and drop into the pit of infinity, Tronland distills the first few seasons of MTV. The primary colors are midnight black, deep blue, and electric orange. The screen is filled with glazed fembot dancers and sinister myrmidons in form-fitting body suits; pasty-faced Michael Sheen appears as the epicene master of revels. “Come away from these primitive functions,” he coaxes Sam, who’s hoping to cross the Sea of Simulation back to reality.
When not delighting the eye, Tron: Legacy, which required at least four humans to script, baffles the brain with mumbo-jumbo, including the promise of “a digital frontier to reshape the human condition.” Cast as a self-described “bio-digital jazzman,” Bridges gets the least felicitous lines. “You’re messing with my Zen thing, man,” he cautions headstrong Sam, after explaining that, just when he thought things “couldn’t get any more profound,” his game program began spontaneously producing humanoid “isomorphic algorithms.” The last of these so-called ISOs is his handmaiden, a vinyl-sheathed dolly (Olivia Wilde) with hair bobbed à la Louise Brooks. The Weimar reference is apt. Legacy’s production numbers have a Langian pulp grandeur and even include a tasteless homage to Triumph of the Will.
After one particularly harrowing escape, the comely and compliant ISO turns to Sam and asks, “What do we do now?” A less noble hero might have replied, “Get a room,” but Sam is vague—this is, after all, a Disney flick. And now that the Mouse Factory owns Marvel’s library, it’s worth noting that Tron: Legacy’s best action scenes have a cosmic headiness worthy of vintage Doctor Strange or the original Silver Surfer. Given the movie’s graphic pizzazz, the best hippie wisdom Bridges might offer the viewer is: Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.