As a two-hour music video set to a kinetic Daft Punk score, TRON: Legacy is mesmerizing. It´s a triumph of art design that´s fully captivating on style alone: pulsating and hypnotic, the music and visuals grab hold of you in a way that feels fresh and new, enveloping the senses for a full two hours. It invites comparison with the best of science fiction throughout cinema history, from Metropolis to Blade Runner to The Matrix; unlike the original TRON, which employed state-of-the-art (for 1982) special effects inside a more traditional frame, this is truly a visionary work.
There’s just one problem: the story. Clunky, uninvolving, and mostly dull. Four credited writers have delivered an incredibly flat story that is as far behind the original as the visuals are ahead. Director Joseph Kosinski, in his feature debut, seems to have lifted Christopher Nolan´s tone while missing out on his craft: his TRON is dark, brooding, joyless, and de-humanized, but also devoid of suspense or story tension. It´s impossible to deny the problems with the script and direction here, but Legacy is likely the best film I´ve seen to come from such problematic elements.
It´s comparable to last year´s big December tentpole, Avatar: visually dazzling, potential story concerns. But Avatar, with James Cameron at the helm, clearly worked in conventional terms whether you found it simplistic, hackneyed, or cliché. TRON has quite the opposite problem: there are plenty of interesting and unique ideas in here, somewhere, they´re just not presented in any tangible way, leaving us feeling disinterested and cold. For this story to succeed, the viewer will have to do all the work; under the influence of psychoactive substances, it could be quite a ride.
Legacy is less of sequel to TRON than a rich re-imagining of its digital landscape; a few characters return, but otherwise this is a wholly new affair. Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) has grown up without a father: dad Kevin (Jeff Bridges) vanished twenty years ago, leaving Sam a highly successful software corporation that the boy couldn´t care less about. But when old partner Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) receives a page from Kevin´s old arcade, Sam is off to search for his father.
Soon, he finds himself transported from his reality into the Grid: a literalized world of the computer, dark and ominous, where computer programs – represented as sentient beings – battle it out for control of the city. He finds his father, twice: first, as the young CLU, the program his father created years ago who has assumed control of the Grid (Bridges is de-aged to play the ageless part; his waxy, airbrushed features look fine on the grid, less so in real-world flashbacks). Eventually, he finds his real father, an older Obi-Wan-meets-The-Dude Bridges, who has been trapped in the world of the computer for the past 20 years.
Despite the radical story differences, the original TRON is mandatory viewing before seeing Legacy. So little of the philosophy – the relationship between users and programs, the logic of the digital world – is coherently explained here that virgin viewers are going to be straight-up confounded. Not that Disney wants you to see the 1982 film; an expected blu-ray release didn´t happen, and the DVD is out of print and fetching prices north of $100 on Amazon.
I´ve gone back and forth on TRON: Legacy since first seeing it. Is it good? Is it bad? I´m not so sure. It is, as Richard Dreyfuss instinctively declared of his mashed potatoes in Close Encounters, something. Legacy has rattled around in my brain for days, time during which I´ve re-watched the original and listened to the Daft Punk soundtrack a number of times. I look forward to seeing it again as soon as I can. That´s gotta be worth something.
I do know this: the visuals are stunning. Fetishistic cyberpunk bodysuits, electric lightcycle bikes, giant mechanical devices that dwarf their surroundings, neon identity discs that become deadly weapons. It´s CGI beyond eye candy: an artistic expression that uses computer graphics to stimulate the mind rather than simulate reality.
And the Daft Punk score (the electronic music duo also appear in the film as masked DJs) is something completely new in cinematic terms: part techno cyberpunk, part 80s John Carpenter synthesizer horror, and a track that riffs on Zack Hemsey´s Mind Heist, which notably featured in the Inception trailer, it´s electrifying stuff that runs right through your veins and transforms the cinema into a techno club. Rarely have feature film composers (this is Daft Punk´s first soundtrack) been given so much creative freedom.
How´s the 3D? In a word, worthless. A message before the film begins asks us to put on our 3D glasses while informing us that portions of the film will be in 2D, “as the filmmakers intended.” The film begins in 2D, then switches to 3D as Sam enters the Grid. Not all of the cyber scenes are in 3D, however, and many that are barely register: at worst, this becomes a distraction, and I frequently found myself lifting my glasses to discover a brighter, more vivid experience. TRON: Legacy is screening in both 2D and (partial) 3D versions, and I´d recommend catching it in 2D.
Note: TRON: Legacy is screening in a Czech-subtitled version in most cinemas (including all Palace Cinemas throughout the country) but there’s also a dubbed version floating around – be sure to check with your local cinema before heading out.
Daft Punk – Derezzed:
Last year´s Paranormal Activity was a disappointing (sez me) Blair Witch knockoff that at least had the decency to stay true to its found footage gimmick: the actors are credited as themselves, the film ends ominously with no revelation of a production team behind the scenes. How do you faithfully produce a sequel to this? The producers of Blair Witch 2 (a total failure, but they had the right idea) abandoned the gimmickry and presented a transparently fictional film that attempted to pad out the myth surrounding the original.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Paranormal Activity 2 rehashes the first film and expects us to eat it up just the same. It begins with a crawl thanking “the families of those involved ” and dishes out a new round of “actual” home video and surveillance footage, tangentially related to the events in the first film. Stick around after the ending for credits detailing the actors and the team behind the camera. Yeah, no shit; union regulations may have forced Paramount´s hand, but rarely do films hold their audience in such (obvious) contempt.
But that´s not all: this is a film (unlike the first) built around jump scares, as we patiently navigate from security cam to security cam waiting for the ghost to jump out and say “boo!” This happens again and again, but only one such scene is in any way effective: a kitchen pots and pans and cupboard doors sequence that explicitly recalls Poltergeist.
For the rest of the scare scenes, there´s no beating around the bush: laughable. We get floating babies and demonic pool cleaners and the worst offenders, two positively ridiculous on-screen deaths (the first film featured none). I´m sorry, but when you build your film around “authentic” home video footage, you owe the audience more than Rambo-like super soldier kills. I attempted (sometimes in vain) to chuckle politely to myself; other members of the audience erupted in laughter.
It´s a shame, because the film does have a creepy vibe going for it that somewhat approximates the original. I worked (briefly) as a night watchman while in college, and know from experience that there´s something inherently spooky about watching surveillance camera footage; the longer nothing happens, the worse it can get. It´s something the makers of this film never take advantage of, deflating all their tension with each progressive “boo!”
The story here, considering the limitations set by the original, is actually well thought out. During a timeframe that encompasses the original Paranormal Activity, Katie´s sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden), husband Daniel (Brian Boland), and daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim) slowly come to realize that their house has become haunted shortly after the birth of a new son. How this ties into the first film is surprisingly satisfying.
Paranormal Activity 2 gets points for entertainment value: rarely are bad films this fun to watch, and given the production gimmick, the filmmakers are careful never to let utter boredom sink in. The Daniel character (possibly due to – apologies – Boland´s acting capabilities) frequently recalls the father in the ultimate bad movie, Troll 2. His adamant refusal to believe in the ghostly goings-on, and bizarre explanations for them, often reach hilarious heights.
No points, however, for frequently placing an infant, a German Shepherd, and a relatively innocent teenage girl in frequent mortal danger. Cheap and tasteless, but apparently necessary: the adult characters are such total idiots we begin cheering for their demise about halfway through.
Director Tod Williams previously delivered the terrific indies The Adventures of Sebastian Cole and The Door in the Floor. Where did this come from? The gimmick at the core of the film almost precludes a director´s involvement, and indeed, there is no distinctive style to set it apart from the first film. It could have functioned without a director (in traditional terms, at least), and frequently feels as if it had.
Also: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (IMDb) is now playing in English at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům and CineStar Anděl (2D version only).