‘Tron: Legacy’: Too many zeroes

December 15, 2010

I’ve been a movie critic long enough that I reviewed “Tron” when it came out in 1982. It was a dud as a movie and a box-office flop – the first film with computer-generated imagery, but a story that either went nowhere or went in circles.


Of course, if you were a 5-year-old (or even a 10-year-old) in 1982, then you’re exactly the right age to be calling the shots at a Hollywood studio today. And so you’re the perfect age to say, “Hey, you know what movie I loved when I was a kid? ‘Tron’! Why hasn’t anyone made a sequel of that?”


“Tron: Legacy” carries the legacy of the original – it’s deadly dull, self-important and besotted with its own computer graphics. While there are a couple of action sequences that grab the eye, “Tron: Legacy” mostly rehashes the story of the original, with flashier effects but not much more dramatic sense or sense of drama.


It’s 20 years since Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who got sucked into “the Grid” in the original film, disappeared for good. He’d reemerged from inside the video games he was creating to become a sort of proto-Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, leading a tech company that’s now threatening to take over the world. But then he disappeared.


Now his post-juvenile delinquent son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) gets a clue that Dad may in fact be alive: a pager message sent from the old video arcade where Kevin once had his lab. When Sam visits, the equipment springs to life and digitizes him, pulling him into the Grid too.


There, he meets CLU (Bridges, given a digital facelift to look like he did in the original film), the program Kevin had created to put the Grid in order. Instead, CLU is a digital dictator, working on finding a way for the computer programs to rise up and escape the Grid into the real world. Same old same old.


Sam is hijacked into digital-gladiator mode, hurling deadly glow-in-the-dark Frisbees and riding those silly light cycles that leave a solid wall of exhaust for opponents to run into. That battle is much more free-form now, operating on multiple levels, even while the script remains locked in a single dimension.


Rescued by another program named Cora (Olivia Wilde, in a Louise Brooks “Lulu” wig) before CLU can mow him down, Sam is taken off the Grid to a distant digital penthouse, where he finds the now gray-bearded Kevin Flynn. So their mission becomes to get Kevin and Sam back to the real world, without letting CLU and his digital forces get access to “the portal.”


Now I’m no techie, but I think I understand the notion that all digital information is programmed in a series of 0s and 1s. Yet somehow, in the Grid, there are places that are off the Grid where CLU and his folks are incapable of traveling. Hmm. And somehow, in this digital realm, Kevin is able to summon up a dinner featuring a suckling pig. And CLU’s minions each look different – not just different but diverse, as in: They’re all dressed the same (in a Fashion Week wet-dream of black neoprene and neon) but played by actors of an assortment of ethnicities.


And – oh, why go on? If you start questioning the logic of this world, it will shatter and crumble into little digital shards, the way those gladiators do when they’re hit by one of those Frisbees. Which raises the question: What would happen if Sam got hit by one? When his opponent thumps him at one point, he sheds actual blood so … what?


Director Joseph Kosinski has created shining towers and dizzying visual effects in this digital world. But the script by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz (a pair of “Lost” alumni) is so short on either sense or actual drama – and Hedlund is such a limited actor – that it’s all like a sample reel of special effects, with a little action thrown in, rather than an actual movie. Even seeing it in IMAX 3D, which I did, can’t gloss over the hollowness of the enterprise. It would be lovely to see this kind of visual sense applied to something like a film version of William Gibson’s “Neuromancer,” a visionary book in its time that dealt with similar worlds.


Of course, we all live in the Grid now. So for “Tron: Legacy” to come back, almost 30 years later, with something as tame and lame as this seems like the film equivalent of a computer trying to tell a joke: It does not compute.