April 3, 2015
From the Way Too Late Files, I'm going to talk about TRON: Legacy, the sequel to the seminal, if flawed, Disney movie from the 80's, TRON.
After pulling some images off my copy of TRON: Legacy for kicks and giggles, I mused to myself, "I'm going to write a blog post on how the movie could have been better, while simultaneously espousing how it's couldn't have been any more than what we got, and that's pretty darn good." Who doesn't like a little paradox around midnight with work in the morning.
Let's come out and say it. Was TRON: Legacy a great movie? No. Was it a good movie? Yes. At least I think so. Could it have been better? Maybe.
The biggest obstacle to overcome was the fact the first movie came out in 1982, and the decision was to make a sequel, not a reboot. So 27 years later, in 2010, we get that sequel.
Those that love the original TRON, LOVE the original TRON, so to tap into that built-in audience, a reboot would have been out of the question. People love Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner (seriously, so much so that when Bruce wasn't in the first finished version, fan pressure got him into the movie). It had to be a sequel.
I could go into a whole backstory on the development of a sequel and how it wasn't even greenlit until after the crowd at Comic-Con went totally apeshit over the concept teaser, but that story has already been told, and is available all over the internet if you need a primer. But let's into the movie itself.
I have three improvements that could have, and should have, been made to really lift this movie up, and I have three reasons explaining why we actually get a better than hoped for movie. Be advised, it will appear that I'm constantly contradicting myself. It's what I to. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead)
First, let highlight what went wrong and should have been fixed.
1) Flat characters than Stanley.
The primary concern that critics had with the movie was the lack of character development. No one in the theatre cared about the characters. And frankly, it's because in the movie, most of the characters hardly emote. If they're not engaging, why should we be engaged? Given the talent of the actors in previous works, I'm going to blame the director (and he was a first-time director).
Quorra, played by Olivia Wilde, has a child-like quality to her. However it's played very subtly. You see brief flashes of it: being amazed by the world around her, the playfulness, the naivete. But these flashes are very brief, and you only really start to see them on repeat viewings. At quick blush, her character is just Kevin Flynn's muscle. There's no depth. She's an ISO, but I'm not made to care too much about it.
CLU, played by a "younger" Jeff Bridges, doesn't flex any emotional muscle until the very end, almost too late in the move. You might argue that as with any fanatical tyrant, they will come across as cool and collected, but in a movie where everyone is cool and collected, show me something else. The CGI used to de-age Jeff did a really good job, but it can't pick up on the finer nuisances that could have really delivered in this performance.
Then take our protagonist, Sam Flynn played by Garrett Hedlund. Perhaps the worst offender. Show me some shock, some awe. You just got transported to this amazing new world, and you seem entirely nonplussed by this. Sam showed more life in the real world, than his did in the Grid. Again, you see small flashes of something more here and there, but not enough, especially for the lead. I don't blame Garrett, though. I felt he was best in scenes opposite Jeff Bridges, but outside of that, Sam came across as flat. Again, I think the direction undercut the actors a bit.
The one beacon of hope was Michael Sheen as Castor, the Ziggy Stardust-inspired owner of the End of Line Club. He looked like the only one having fun in the movie. Just when you think he'll go over the top, he pulls it back. Sheen owned his character more than anyone else in the movie. He was going to chew on the scenery, everyone else be damned. Sadly, his screen time was very limited, but enough to wonder what if everyone else had a little more "character" to their character.
If the main characters showed some depth (any really), the movie becomes significantly more enjoyable. You had an audience that wanted to buy in, but weren't being sold anything. The seeds were there; they just weren't nurtured enough.
2) The story (and backstory) surrounding Kevin Flynn.
You have Kevin Flynn, a early version of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs rolled into one. Dynamic, charismatic, and full of vigor. A titan of industry commanding a room full of thousands. And then, 20 years after being stranded in the Grid, Kevin Flynn turns, literally, into modern-day Jeff Bridges, all zen and whatnot.
Sadly, I think the length of time between TRON: Legacy and the original TRON does the most damage here. I found it hard to believe that in all that time, a vibrant Kevin Flynn would turn into a bitter old man. From being the hero of the first movie, he's now someone I'm not entirely invested in one way or the other (see item #1 above).
You might countered that CLU forced him into hiding, and ultimately, to be trapped in the Grid. But let's not forget, Flynn is the god of this world. He created it, demonstrated the ability to do amazing things simply by touch, and can really do as he pleases, even after the betrayal of CLU. But he just goes into hiding. It's one thing to be a prisoner, it's another to be an omnipotent one.
Again, it really is the amount of time that passed between movies. For us to have a second movie with Flynn in it, Flynn had to go Howard Hughes on us. Not impossible, but I just don't buy it. Plot holes abound with this one.
3) It was too busy being a love letter to the original TRON.
I think the story, at certain points, took a back seat to the impressive technological display, just to show off a fresh visual take on the classics from the old movie. Recognizers, disc wars, lightcycles, and de-resolution are all showcased in the new movie in new and fun ways. The re-imagined recognizer is very cool looking, but appears oddly shoehorned into a role of an inefficient prisoner transport.
Some will argue that any TRON movie needs to have this things, but I disagree. Seriously, if CLU is building an army, why subject, and lose, potential soldiers in the disc wars? The movie makers were modernizing old concepts for the theatre-going audience just because they could.
You could have had a few, but not all, of these things, just to give it the right flavor, and maybe the pacing and character development wouldn't have suffered as much.
And we can all agree that Dillinger Junior's presence was gratuitous, a "wink and a nod" too many? Ok, good.
Those are pretty legit gripes. But let's focus on how actually awesome this movie was.
1) Oh my goodness, it is beautiful.
A TRON: Legacy Blu-Ray on an HDTV is an absolutely treat. A veritable feast for the eyes. The world of the Grid is breathtaking. And while you're busy admiring the CGI handiwork, the movie staged, framed, and filmed some wonderful shots. Yes, praise the CGI, but also praise the cinematography which was spot-on.
The best part is that while the original TRON feels horribly dated, the worlds created for TRON: Legacy will hold up over time. I really could go on and on about it, but if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about. The visuals may have single-handedly saved the franchise.
2) Successfully tying the old with the new.
Let's look at Star Trek for a moment. Twenty years after the Original Series went off the air, Star Trek: The Next Generation hit the airwaves. Everything was different; the only thing that was the same was the ship was named Enterprise. It was able to pull it off because you had, in-universe, a Federation that existed before the Original Series and would continue onwards. For us, as an audience, to just somehow pick up the action 70 years in the future was not far-fetched.
But the world of TRON was, literally, a finite system. With computer systems coming and going through obsolescence, we couldn't just pick up the action later. They had to be a one-off somewhere (in this story, a secluded server in the basement of an arcade), where the story could continue to unfold without reality derailing it. Jeff Bridges' character had to pass to the torch to someone else, like his son.
Yes, an attempt could have been made to create a story that didn't include any of the old cast, but their specter would have cast a large show over the production. Having them there, and appropriately cast, allows us to move on with the world of TRON.
A new Grid, the betrayal by CLU, and CLU's attempt to enter the real world was the best possible story in this scenario. You have a believable antagonist and a conflict you could reasonably resolve in 2 hours of movie time, which simultaneously bringing everyone up to speed while paving the way to the future.
Sure, this does seem to contradict my earlier beef with Kevin Flynn's storyline, but I still believe that Flynn's 20 years in the Grid backstory could have been improved significantly, while keeping the CLU maniacal perfection angle in play.
2.5) Not including Ram or Yori in the movie, but including them in the project.
This ties in neatly with item #2. Though fans really wanted Cindy Morgan to reprise her roles as Lora in the real world, and Yori on Grid, I'm glad they didn't. It would have fallen into the "love letter" concern from earlier.
However, she did appear with Bruce Boxleitner, in his Alan Bradley character, at WonderCon as Alan's wife. That was a very pleasant surprise, as it connected her to the whole experience. Dan Shor, who played Ram in the original TRON, features in a DVD extra that was also well done, without needing to actually be in the movie proper. Using the old cast in these peripheral projects is the best way to help connect the old movie with the new, without forced cameos.
3) Daft Punk
Believe it or not, Daft Punk existed before TRON: Legacy, but their work on the soundtrack really caused their star to skyrocket. In my eyes, it's not a coincidence that they took home a truckload of Grammys for Random Access Memories after doing this movie's soundtrack. Just sayin'.
Daft Punk did an amazing job scoring this movie. Purposely avoiding their standard synth and drum machine routine, they brought in an orchestra to really bring the movie to life (when they do go synth and drum, it's for the club scene so it totally works).
Dare I say, the music for this film added more depth to the characters than the director did. When Kevin Flynn appears on screen in the End of Line Club, and touches the floor, and "Fall" starts playing (OST track 14) you know shit is about to get real. Suddenly, Kevin Flynn had an air about him that was missing up until that point, and it was believable. It was because of Jeff Bridges, it was because of a pair of robots from France. That, my friends, is good music making.
In the end, what are we left with? TRON: Legacy could have been so much more, and all it needed was some fine tuning. It's not like it needed wholesale changes. The scenery did have more depth than the characters, but again, the seeds were there, they just need more cultivation.
Personally, I like TRON: Legacy a lot. It's an entertaining film, and I'm glad I own it on Blu-Ray. Though it was a commercial success with over $400 million made, it had its detractors and gave Disney pause as they were looking towards pursuing an whole series of franchise films. The world of TRON is beautiful and rich. It just needs the right storyteller to flesh out the right tale to tell. It can be done, and I hope they do it.