Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
January 2011

A digital space odyssey

'TRON: Legacy' full of good (mood, action), bad (writing) and, yes, ugly (that awful special effect)

TRON: Legacy
Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Screenplay: Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, based on characters created by Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird
Starring: Garrett Hedlund, Jeff Bridges, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, James Frain, Beau Garrett and Michael Sheen
Rated PG / 2 hours, 7 minutes
(out of four)

One thing I did not expect from a PG-rated, Disney-produced movie like TRON: Legacy was direct references to Eyes Wide Shut. But there they were, plain as day. "Kubrickian" is a designation thrown around far too often, but when the influence announces itself as brazenly as it does in this case, it can't be ignored.

When our hero, Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) sneaks in to a rather private party, dressed in a black cloak, with the assistance of an enigmatic, angelic-looking woman, I half-expected him to whisper "fidelio" at the front door before being granted entrance. And that's not even taking into account the shot sequence inside the party itself.

It doesn't stop with Eyes Wide Shut (a clear influence on a few key sequences of the film) - there's some 2001 and A Clockwork Orange (and others) thrown in there, too. When the charismatic, cane-wielding digital gatekeeper Castor pops on screen, you could picture him belting out "Singin' in the Rain" while having his way with a party guest.

Hopefully that doesn't come across as cinematic name dropping - it's not. I just hope that may give some idea of what kind of approach director Joseph Kosinski took for his first feature. There's something peculiar and fascinating in the way he's chosen to tackle both action and atmosphere for a family-friendly studio tentpole. It's not light and breezy fun, I guess is what I'm saying. In fact, the scattered attempts to make it such - namely the hideous sports-movie, one-liner dialogue during certain action scenes - always fall flat.

The overall effect in TRON: Legacy is moodier and more unsettling, akin to the way - I'm name-dropping again - Kubrick would approach a film set inside the world of an elaborate computer program. (This is not to say Kosinski has mastered the craft - far from it. But he shows such skill in creating atmosphere and directing action that he's at least someone to keep an eye on.) In addition to Kosinski's work, that atmosphere also owes a lot to the score - composed by Daft Punk - an evocative and downright thrilling blend of pulsating electronic and orchestral sounds.

The film is a quasi-sequel to the dated but influential (and still-intriguing) original TRON from 1982, picking things up in present day at a time when Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) - whose software company ENCOM International is a global powerhouse - has been missing for more than 20 years. His son and heir apparent, Sam, is the company's largest stockholder but takes no active interest in the job, leaving the day-to-day in the hands of the odious new CEO.

Kevin's old partner Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, reprising his role from the original) gets a mysterious page one night - one that originated, oddly, from Flynn's old arcade, now out of business and covered in layers of dust. A curious Sam heads over to the arcade in what seems to be another in a long line of attempts to find some clue about his father's disappearance, only to find himself transported into "The Grid," a virtual world inside a computer game where, as it turns out, his father has been trapped for two-plus decades.

Exactly how and why Flynn found himself inside The Grid for so long is interesting, heady stuff - its implications (in the film's internal logic, at least) spanning everywhere from science to religion and beyond. But those who prefer matter over mind will be pleased to discover that the film leaves most of those implications and possibilities unexplored, focusing instead on action and half-hearted drama that leads to more action.

Watching Kosinski go to work on this material is both exciting and disheartening. With his stylistic choices, he has made this movie in a way few people would have, and his skills as a technician are obvious. There is real choreography and tight, disciplined editing in the action sequences. Then again, for a movie that surpasses the two-hour mark, TRON: Legacy feels far too airy and inconsequential, especially considering the potential potency of what he had to work with.

Most damaging of all is the film's villain - Flynn's digital doppelganger, Clu. The character is one of the silliest-looking and least plausible special effects I've seen in quite some time, a motion-captured, digitally-botoxed, Benjamin Buttoned, whatever-you-want-to-call it incarnation of a "young" Jeff Bridges. Complete with all the waxy features, dead eyes and complete lack of expressiveness that we've come to expect from characters in a Robert Zemeckis mo-cap trainwreck. The difference being that TRON: Legacy is not an animated movie, and since "Clu" is basically the key to everything, his utter lack of plausibility and presence derails his (its?) every moment on screen. It almost singlehandedly turns the film into a sort of maddening failure. You know when you see a movie get completely derailed by one bad performance? This is like that - only worse, in a way, since it's hard to even look at this character.

Perhaps it's a testament to Bridges' greatness that it took a terrible special effect for him to finally give a bad performance.

One performance I was quite fond of, on the other hand, is that of Olivia Wilde as Quorra, Flynn's foxy digital protégé. Roles like this one are so often thankless and forgettable throwaways, but Wilde gives a real and impressive performance, imbuing Quorra with a sense of intense curiosity and bubbling, childlike enthusiasm that makes her eminently likeable.

(I was also quite fond of her outfit.)

(Also her haircut.)

(Also her face.)

I'm interested to see where Kosinski goes in his career. His talent seems obvious, but a perfectionist like the ones he's trying to emulate in TRON: Legacy would never stand for this result.

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