Driving home from the midnight screening of Tron: Legacy, I realized that I should have been disappointed by the movie. It’s very difficult to leave Tron and drive home on a deserted highway at 2:30 AM, with the streetlights stretching out before you and the waxing moon rising in the west, and not push the accelerator far in excess of the speed limit. I kept checking behind me to see if I was leaving a trail. Also, looking out for cops. No on both counts.
It says something that it wasn’t until this drive home that I realized the movie might have been disappointing in retrospect. It says even more that at 8:30 PM on a Thursday night, I downed two shots of espresso and headed out to see a midnight showing. I don’t know if I’ve ever bothered to see a movie at midnight the night before it opened. Certainly, I didn’t bother for the new Star Wars fiasco, or the subsequent Indiana Jones debacle. I’m definitely too old for this. Thus is the power of Tron.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. If you are a fan of the original movie, and by that I don’t mean a fan of the impression the original left in your head two decades ago, or a fan of the video games that cemented Tron in the technogeek zeitgeist, or even a fan of Tron Guy, I mean a fan who remembers the original movie well, then you will love the new Tron: Legacy.
I was happy throughout the movie that I watched the original 1982 film less than a week before I saw the new edition. You would be wise to do the same. Not that there is any necessity in remembering the original plot. The new movie is a completely new story, set in a new digital world. There are a few shared characters, but they have changed dramatically since the last time we saw them, almost 30 years ago.
There are references sprinkled throughout. Even more so, there is the overall tone and style of the original, pervasive through the new movie, but updated and polished to a dazzling sheen. Without the original close in your rearview mirror, you might not understand the significance of the young Dillinger who sits on the board of Encom, the company at the heart of the digital world. You might not remember the original Clu, Jeff Bridges’ doppelganger character. You certainly won’t understand why the sage-looking Flynn acts more like The Dude from The Big Lebowski than the Obi Wan Kenobi he more closely resembles (though not by much). But with the older film fresh in my mind, these bits and pieces added some nuance to the new film, and helped to sculpt the characters a little better.
The original, after all, was goofy. It was fun. It didn’t take itself as seriously as Star Wars or, heaven forbid, The Matrix. I was correct in my review of the original movie that the new film would borrow heavily from the style and character of the Matrix films, especially the second in the Matrix trilogy. What alternate reality science fiction movie doesn’t borrow from The Matrix these days? But Tron: Legacy isn’t as derivative as its predecessor. It’s inventive and unique, both in style and substance. It doesn’t pave new ground the way its predecessor did, but it refines the original style in a way that’s fresh and exciting.
I’m not going to bother rehashing the plot of Tron: Legacy here. If you’ve seen the commercials, you know the plot. There is more to the story than what you see in a 60-second TV spot, of course, but there are no significant surprises, and that’s fine. The metaphysics of the original are expanded in some interesting ways, but the director seems to be much more interested in creating a stylized universe than guiding that universe on its path and answering questions about where it might be going.
The new movie did forget some of the original, as well, but only in spirit. Tron: Legacy takes some casual swipes at Microsoft and the profiteering of software companies, seeming to take the side of the open source movement. But that’s not really what the original was about. Certainly, the first Tron was interested in opening up the channels of communication to share information freely, but Kevin Flynn in the original Tron was not interested in giving his software away, as the new film suggests. Quite the contrary. The plot of the original Tron revolves around Flynn’s quest to prove his best creation was stolen from him, and at the end of the original he takes it back and becomes so wealthy that he wrests control of Encom from its board and executives.
That’s not why I was disappointed, though. I was disappointed because there could have been so much more. There could have been more creations. There could have been more characters, more development all around. The movie follows the same basic structure as the first film. The lead character is sucked into the digital world. He fights. He runs. He returns. By the time he escapes back into the real world, the movie is over.
Say what you like about the meandering paths taken by the Matrix trilogy, at least it had something to say about the nature of reality versus experience. It was a true surrealist movie, bending the division between the real world and the dream world and begging the question of which is more important, and does that importance matter. Tron: Legacy never takes on the sort of deep philosophical questions that it could so easily ask. Neither did the first Tron movie, mind you, but I’d like to think we’re at a point where we take our science fiction movies seriously enough that they can make us think, instead of just making us drool.
However, for the entire span of the film, it never occurred to me to be disappointed. The movie is gorgeous. The action is stunning and fresh. The music is pounding and dynamic, a score from Daft Punk with a cameo by the robotic duo barely concealed in the film. The costumes are brilliant, the pure, glowing essence of the vision created in the original Tron. They aren’t as detailed or friendly, but the original movie had little control over its own lighting and special effects. The new movie takes place in a dark world, a world of despair, but when you’re sitting in a dark theater, it’s a glorious show.