I’m the right age and the right demographic to have been a Tron fan back in the day: I was going into high school that summer; I was a movie buff; and we were, for 1982, a fairly computer-savvy family. An effects-driven movie about a computer programmer sucked into cyberspace should have been right up my alley, but somehow I only saw it in bits and pieces, never the whole thing. The lightcycle sequence burned into my brain. I loved Snake, and could play it on our Commodore PET until my tail filled the entire arena with only a few spaces between my nose and my tail, at which point the program invariably crashed.
If you are a fan of the original Tron, there is this to be said for you. Tron is not a good film, but it was trying to do something new. It was a first step into a new world that was both medium and message. It didn’t have the word “Legacy” in the title, and it wasn’t living down a 28-year cult following. It used computers to do video-game style things that made sense only in nonphysical space, such as lightcycles making 90-degree turns. It featured futuristic ideas such as tabletop-sized computer interfaces with virtual keyboards, technology that we are only now catching up to. It didn’t have Pixar writers at its disposal, and was not trying to be a heartfelt father-son story.
In the years since Tron, of course, video games have come closer and closer to approximating reality, and computer-graphics in movies have gone further still—and, in a way, this is the problem with Tron: Legacy.
Yes, the lavishly designed, cutting-edge graphics are impressive, and there’s some nostalgia for the world of the original mixed with the generic Matrix-y vibe. Yes, the redesigned lightcycles look really cool—the lightcycle sequence is the easily the best thing in the film, almost the only thing in the film really worth looking at, unless you count the pixie-tressed Olivia Wilde in a neon-neoprene jumpsuit as a computer program named Quorra.
But the lightcycles now behave exactly like dirt bikes in the real world—much more impressive technically, but paradoxically less powerful and less cool as a weapon, which is what they are. The filmmakers are all but liberated from technical constraints, yet the characters are no longer free from inertia. This is not a failure of technology, but of imagination.
The upgraded lightcycle sequence does bring at least one cool new idea to the table, the multi-plane playing field. Why not go further? Look at the games the kids are playing today. Gravity? Who cares about gravity? Why not an Escher-like playing field in which gravity is relative and all directions are equally navigable? Why not allow jumping cycles to leave behind trails that could later be ridden on, not just crashed into? Perhaps my fellow Register critic Tom McDonald, who writes about games, could explain what’s wrong here better than I, or offer suggestions for fixing it.
The problem is exacerbated by the lightjet dogfight that comes late in the film, playing a whole lot like any dogfight scene in any action movie, but, you know, with light trails. The jets strafe each other with old-fashioned rat-a-tat machine-gun fire, which worked for Star Wars in 1977, but haven’t there been any new ideas since then? Yes, there have: On “Babylon: 5” we saw ships armed with continuous rays that sliced enemy ships instead of peppering them. Plus, the jets fly just like jets in any action movie. What’s the point of setting the story in cyberspace if cyberspace is no different from meatspace?
If Tron: Legacy were one slam-bang set piece after another, there would be a case for ignoring everything else and focusing on the whiz and the bang. Unfortunately, after a leisurely real-world prologue and a big first-act gladiatorial sequence, the movie comes to a crashing halt—and never really gets going again prior to the stumbling, muddled climax. In between, we’re left with plot and characters, and there’s no getting away from the movie’s failure.
Look. I’m not saying you can’t enjoy Tron: Legacy as eye candy if you want to. But don’t come to me making excuses like “Hey, Avatar was all empty eye candy too.” In terms of plot and character appeal, Tron: Legacy makes Avatar look like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Well, okay, not Raiders, but at least Romancing the Stone. Cameron is a master manipulator, and Avatar sucks you in from the get-go. Sully’s emotional journey is eminently relatable, there’s a hissable villain, and a world that you fall in love with.