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Movie Review

Tron: Legacy

‘Tron’ sequel doesn’t live up to the legacy of the 1982 original

Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund, right) enters his dad’s computer world in “Tron: Legacy.’’ Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund, right) enters his dad’s computer world in “Tron: Legacy.’’ (Disney Enterprises)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / December 17, 2010

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So you’re a guy who rides a motorbike around town. You’re about 25, and your father’s been missing since you were 12. His computer company has just released a pricey new operating system meant to be distributed for free. And his old business partner has just been paged from somewhere inside dad’s long-defunct video arcade. You find a secret lair behind a console of the game he invented.

Suddenly you’re zapped from boring old Earth into dad’s computer program. The slashes of neon circuitry are galactic disco, the ground is nothing but moving shifting panels of macrochip and light. You stand in the middle of an enormous chamber as hot femme bots drift out of Svedka vodka ads — or seem to, anyway — and make sex faces as they strip then dress you in a sleek, laser-lit unitard. You know exactly where you are, and it’s awesome. Yet, all that two screenwriters have given you to say is: “This can’t be good.’’

And it isn’t.

“Tron: Legacy’’ gives us a dud stud named Garrett Hedlund as Sam Flynn, the hero of this petrified sequel to 1982’s “Tron.’’ None of what he sees impresses. The feeling is mutual. At an alleged cost of $200 million, that’s some yawn. If he can’t be thrilled, why should we?

Wonderland intrigued Alice. Dorothy was in awe of Oz. Jake Sully so learned to love Pandora that he came to rule it. Sam is content to become an action figure, slinging discs of light at anonymous opponents for the thrill of computer-generated crowds. He’s looking for his father, Kevin Flynn, and discovers that not only has Flynn’s hacker-program avatar turned evil and taken over this digital world (it’s called the Grid) but that Jeff Bridges plays both men. The latter is heavy and grizzled, the former is fit and digitally reupholstered like Tom Hanks’s train conductor in “The Polar Express.’’ It’s “Crazy Heart’’ Bridges versus “Starman.’’

You’d think that as Sam made his way around the Grid, his eyes would at least go wide — or his brow would furrow — at the fact that his father’s game and Disney’s visionary movie have changed. This sequel is as obsessed with the decor of “2001’’ as “Inception’’ was, but really Sam is now in “Star Wars.’’ Everyone on the Grid wears Stormtrooper white or Darth Vader black. And that headgear? Luke, I am your father’s helmet. Once Bridges starts gliding around in baggy spa whites and oracular robes with halo-glow insets, spewing koans of sub-“Lebowski’’ dudeness (“The only way to win is not to play!’’), you wonder how Obi-Wan Kenobi came to be reborn as Laurence Fishburne in “The Matrix.’’

The “legacy’’ of the title appears to be that of George Lucas. Which, of course, should be the last thing an admirer of “Tron’’ wants to see: Bill Gates taking over Apple. The original movie remains a landmark fantasia. Some of it was computer-animated, bits of it were hand-drawn, and, while it saw the future of gaming entertainment and the predominance of special effects, it still looks like nothing else. That’s an achievement for a movie under so many influences: the silent era, classical architecture, jai alai, ultimate Frisbee, Pong, futurism, ancient Rome, Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,’’ Chris Marker’s “La Jetée,’’ Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,’’ Leni Riefenstahl, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, math class.

“Tron’’ comprised so many references that the allusions produced a wholly new movie. The grid-bound chase sequences among the light cycles — motorbikes that leave behind hard walls of color — are still a kinetic high-point of movie design. “Tron’’ had an almost Japanese fidelity to space and framing. The movie was an expression of paranoia about the end of privacy and the ominous omnipotence of the corporation. It used Orwellian ideas to express proletarian concerns. It didn’t go that deep — writer-director Steven Lisberger was cautioning more than chastising. But the movie had soul and pop and personality. It felt electric. At the time we knew outer space all too well. “Tron’’ was the rare film to conceptualize a kind of inner space.

The colors in this sequel look richer, thicker — the lights are more licorice than the bubble-gum palette of the original. The cycles have been replaced by “light jets,’’ which provide an appealing-looking, decently orchestrated sky chase. The Grid scenes, meanwhile, were shot using 3-D, and it’s a terrible sign when a film warns you, with great seriousness, that some of the scenes were shot in 2-D then implores you never to remove your glasses. Why the surgeon-general tone?

The lush, electro-orchestral score is by the French duo Daft Punk, who put in an appearance at a DJ booth, and their music is 3-D for the ear, a perfect expansion of Wendy Carlos’s original synth, fuzz, and blips. Director Joseph Kosinski is credible, but his movie says nothing yet weighs a ton: the heaviest gas available. The opening quarter is bad in the same wooden, over-explicated way that, say, “Mulholland Drive’’ and “Avatar’’ were. “Tron: Legacy’’ simply lacks that conversation moment where you stop worrying and fall under a spell. In Kosinski, the movie has a mechanic when it needs a magician.

Either way, his hat here would be overstuffed. Did this movie need both Michael Sheen queening it up as an albino David Bowie (inglorious alabaster) and news of a nonhuman girl (Olivia Wilde) who holds the key to the future of humanity? That means the movie has designs on a franchise. This can’t be good.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

TRON: LEGACY

Directed by: Joseph Kosinski

Written by: Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, and Michael Sheen

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX in Reading and Natick

Running time: 127 minutes

Rated: PG (sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language)

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