“Tron: Legacy,” another unnecessary sequel

It’s easy to forget just how ahead of its time the first “Tron” movie was. In 1982, the movie’s light cycle races and disc duels–laughable compared to today’s special effects–were jaw dropping then, and the film held at its core a warning about the dangers of living in a world overrun by technology. “Computers and programs will start thinking and people will stop,” predicts an exasperated programmer. Turns out he was right.

Arriving twenty-eight years after its predecessor, “Tron: Legacy” is a prime example of Hollywood’s Unnecessary Sequel syndrome. And while it isn’t as big of a question mark as, say, the last two sequels of “Terminator,” it still comes across as an inconsequential addition to what arguably should have remained a standalone film.

In terms of aesthetics, “Tron: Legacy” is flawless, offering a stunning expansion on the original’s simpler, two-dimensional green and black grid–an evolution that accurately mirrors the real world’s rapidly advancing technology. The population of ‘programs’ now inhabits an actual city, complete with vast, interactive arenas and exclusive nightclubs. Skyscrapers loom over the once-barren virtual landscape, reaching into perpetually rumbling clouds bisected by angular lightning bolts.

The world of “Tron” has matured from its comparatively primitive origins into something sleek, sexy and soul-less. The attention to detail is fascinating, but it raises an important question: Why does a movie that looks like it was directed by an iPad have to struggle so hard to seem relevant in today’s (Mac) world?

The problem isn’t so much in the execution but in the storyline. Instead of a following up on the tech-fears and sense of foreboding in the original, “Tron: Legacy” limits itself to an underdeveloped plot built around the disappearance of the series’ original protagonist, programming genius Flynn. While the plot was always an excuse to showcase truly state-of-the-art special effects, it’s a little too flimsy, considering how much more reliant on technology we’ve become since the first “Tron.”

At times, the stilted dialogue briefly threatens to reveal a hidden theme. Genocide, the “human condition,” religion, father-son conflict, and the right to free information are all mentioned but quickly dismissed in favor of another jaw-to-the-floor set piece, thrilling at first, but ultimately frustrating. Too often, “Tron: Legacy” is about as engaging as watching someone play a videogame.

Starring as Sam, Flynn’s son, newcomer Garret Hedlund is predictably awkward, but given his character’s place as a human outsider in a digital world, it works mostly in his favor. Olivia Wilde’s role exists only to fill out her skintight light-suit (her character supposedly has the power to “change the world forever,” although we’re never told exactly how) while Jeff-Bridges-as-God turns out to be strikingly similar to Jeff-Bridges-as-The Dude–“You’re really messing with my Zen thing, man!”

Despite the film’s flaws, “Tron: Legacy” remains a remarkable debut for director Joseph Kosinski, displaying extraordinary confidence and strong visual sensibilities. The first twenty minutes inside the grid are absolutely thrilling, and the film is peppered with neat tricks–from the Oz-like structure (the film only goes 3D when the action shifts to the virtual world) to the inspired score from Daft Punk. The customized neon-lit Disney logo that opens the film is clever. It’s also refreshingly dark for a Disney film, with barely a hint of humor, and several deaths complete with pixel gore.

But none these qualities redeems Tron from a formulaic storyline and convoluted climax. “Tron: Legacy” is great to look at, but a pain to watch.

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