We don’t do a lot of film commentary here at Two Dudes, due partially to the dearth of decent SFF movies, but also because writing about film is an entirely different animal than dealing with books. Still, after finally watching Tron: Legacy a couple of nights ago, I couldn’t contain myself. I’m not much of a film critic, so I’ll leave the finer points to Roger Ebert, but I am uniquely qualified to add my two cents. Why? Because who else out there can simultaneously rant about the Tron canon, electronic music, and Zen Buddhism? (Don’t answer that, because I really don’t want to hear that hundreds of people not named Pep are better than I am at all of it.)
Full disclosure time. I am exactly the limited, but vocal, demographic that Tron: Legacy targets: geeky fans of the original who happen to like Daft Punk and think that Jeff Bridges’ best work ever was in The Big Lebowski. (I wonder what a young Bridges would say if we told him that one day, when he was a respected winner of multiple awards and a grizzled veteran of countless influential movies, his legacy would be largely defined by The Dude.) As such, I will openly confess to digging the movie from start to finish, occasionally uttering a Keanu Reeves-style “Woah,” and silently whooping and high-fiving myself. (The kids were asleep, so Mrs. Pep would have been angry with any vocal enthusiasm.) I have decided not to think too hard about the plot, which is incomprehensible, the hero, who is a dork ala Shia Labeouf, or the logical repercussions of an army of anthropomorphic computer programs invading a hastily Photoshopped Vancouver. These have all been addressed by numerous respectable film critics, I have other fish to fry.
So yes, I am one of those obnoxious people who suddenly crawled out of the woodwork a few years ago, going on interminably about how amazing and underrated Tron was. Perhaps not interminably, in my case, but I am willing to defend the groundbreaking FX, the cyberspace before there was cyberspace, the wild aesthetic that transferred so well to my four color computer monitor (cyan and magenta, baby!), and the off-kilter religious underpinnings. It wasn’t Star Wars, but I think it’s right up there with Flight of the Navigator or The Last Starfighter on a list of dorky 1980s science fiction. (“What do we do now?” * glass eyepiece closes * “We die.”) Was Tron an epochal event, a watershed moment in science fiction film that demands a retelling? No. Is it a potentially interesting world that would be well served by modern film making technology? I think so. Tron: Legacy squanders a bit of the storytelling potential, but maximizes the aesthetics, which is what most of us remember about the original anyway.
Tron: Legacy is especially gratifying to nerds of a certain age, for whom the progression from the original wire-frame animation and blocky light cycle trails to fluid, stunning CG is reminiscent of the awe we feel watching Skyrim after cutting our teeth on Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. There aren’t very many movies I will watch just for the effects, but this is one of them. I hope there is an extended cut out there somewhere, with twenty more minutes of light cycles and disc battles. I loved the use of light and water, the shattered liquid glass when a program derezzes, and the Blade Runner meets The Apple Store ambience. Something else I appreciated, but haven’t seen mentioned in other reviews, was the 80s aesthetic that infuses The Grid. This makes sense both as an homage to the original, but also in the story, as Flynn was trapped there in 1987. This 80s feeling is at its strongest in Zuse, who channels New Wave rock, that crazy Dune movie, and who knows what else in a classic club scene. Again, I suspect that one has to be over 30 or so to enjoy (or notice) this, but it’s one more point in the style department.
This is a natural time for a segue into the music. Daft Punk are a perfect choice for the task, because they are masters of applying a futuristic sheen to vintage disco and electro sensibilities. Listening to the soundtrack by itself, I was struck by the absence of melodic or harmonic innovation relative to the praise it receives. The music isn’t revolutionary in this way, nor is it the most fascinating listening in isolation. (Most soundtracks aren’t.) Daft Punk’s genius instead lies in the seamless transitions between traditional orchestral scoring and the electronica they are better known for. It is the first movie I have seen where the soundtrack maintains thematic and atmospheric unity despite frequent changes between live, acoustic instrumentation and sequenced electronics. Of course this approach isn’t appropriate for every movie, or even every sci-fi action movie, but it could still point the way forward.
But what really grabbed me, and I am now open to charges of being a broken record, is the screenplay’s casual takedown of Zen Buddhism. When the hero finally meets Jeff Bridges, they have a brief argument over whether to “Be cool, man” or “Just do it.” Bridges is, of course, the meditating, zen-like aphorism speaking hippie, while the hero is the typical proactive white male. Despite just arriving in The Grid, escaping the games by the slimmest of margins, and having absolutely no idea what is going on or what to do about it, the hero is ready to charge back out and fight. Bridges, who is assumed to know far more about everything, counsels patience and caution while saying things like “remove myself from the game,” is completely ignored. The hero suffers a few setbacks for obvious reasons, but it is abundantly clear that ACTION is the answer. This is a minor theme and probably unrecognizable to many, but I was surprised at the casual dismissal of the Buddhist way of looking at things. Even the Zen meditation is more of a gag than a viable path to self-discipline. I probably would have been less conscious of this had I not just read and reviewed 10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights, but it is yet another chapter in a long running conversation I am involved in concerning Western tropes and their intellectual hegemony in science fiction.
In the end, we are left with a visually and aurally stylish production, a fairly incomprehensible script, and a fabulous hodgepodge of homage, reference, and imitation. In addition to the requisite Tron cues, alert viewers will catch nods to kung-fu cinema, the obligatory slow-motion Matrix shot, anything ever made about gladiators, and a lot of Star Wars. The turret bit at the end is the closest match to Luke and Han, but a lot of the movie felt like an extended riff on Luke and Obi-Wan in the Death Star, if Obi-Wan were replaced by a glowing version of The Dude. All in all, it is 126 minutes of sci-fi easter eggs for the exceedingly nerdy. Because of what I am, I forgive Tron: Legacy its many flaws and will no doubt watch it again. I hope that the rumored sequel surpasses both its predecessors, but will make do for now with what I have.
Rating: Manchester City, 2011-2012. A huge budget, undeniable artistry, unexplainable lunacy, and enough fatal flaws to keep them from the summit.