Jeff Bridges and Garrett Hedlund are ghosts in
the game grid in "TRON: Legacy." © 2011 Disney

TRON: Legacy

(Reviewed December 17, 2010, by James Dawson)

The techno-existentialism of the first "TRON" was fairly unusual stuff in 1982, and certainly unexpected from the House of Mouse. Also, the Disney movie's videogame-style, neon-in-limbo animation segments were undeniably cool—in both senses of the word.

Nearly 30 years later, animation that puts human actors into artificial high-tech environments is nothing new, and glitch-in-the-machine flicks have run the gamut from "WarGames" to "The Matrix" and beyond. That makes it impossible for this "TRON" sequel to seem uncommon or unique, but the franchise definitely still looks cool—and still in both senses of the word. The spooky low-light landscape of the computer-world "game grid" remains stylishly distinctive, and inhumanly chilly.

"TRON: Legacy"'s adequate but sometimes sluggish screenplay, by former "Lost" producer/writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, requires the same leaps of logic that were necessary to appreciate the first "TRON." Once you accept the idea that humans can be physically transported inside computers without feeling mighty cramped on a hard drive, it's a cinch to believe that the programs there could look like people, enjoy arena sports and patronize disco bars.

Videogame designer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) left a digital doppelganger named Clu behind to run the grid after the events in "TRON." But Kevin mysteriously vanishes from the real world again a few years later, leaving his motherless young son Sam to be raised by his grandparents.

Two decades pass. Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is now a disillusioned loner who hacks his father's software company to make its newest product free for all. That's because the firm is now run by the kind of greedy corporate suits whose idea of product innovation is changing a program's operating system number.

Kevin's former coworker Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, who played the same character and his grid double TRON in the first movie) is the only board member Sam trusts. When Alan tells Sam he has received a mysterious page (how last century!) from Kevin, Sam heads for the place it originated: his father's long-abandoned video arcade. He locates a secret room there, appropriately hidden behind a coin-operated TRON console, and soon is transported to the game's permanent-midnight cyberland.

Sam abruptly is captured, suited up by a quartet of bodysuit-wearing babes, and forced to take part in gladiator-style death matches. "What am I supposed to do?" he asks. "Survive," replies a pulchritudinous program in platforms. A fast-moving split-level version of the first movie's "light cycle" competition, rebooted but still elegantly retro, is a joy to behold for any joystick junkie.

Sam learns that Clu has been corrupted, gone dictator and wants to invade our world. Thanks to some amazing computer effects work, Clu is played by the present-day Bridges but doesn't appear to have aged a day since the Reagan administration. The years haven't been as kind to the now grizzled and gray-bearded Kevin, who has been in hiding on the grid for 20 years.

Olivia Wilde (best known as 13 from TV's "House M.D.") has the odd role of Kevin Flynn's heroically resourceful companion Quorra. She looks like a black-clad bondage pinup, but is as naive and enthusiastically wide-eyed as a child. Considering that she also apparently lives with Kevin, it's hard to believe that Sam doesn't raise an eyebrow and ask dad if she is his trophy byte.

The movie slips its sectors when it introduces Michael Sheen as a hammily glam-tastic albino club owner. Sheen's flamboyantly campy performance is very out of place. Also, Bridges as Kevin lapses into too many "Big Lebowski" moments, sounding winkingly Dude-like with lines like "you're messing with my zen thing, man" and riffing about "bio-chemical jazz."

First-time director Joseph Kosinski otherwise takes the story seriously enough that he doesn't provide much in the way of lighthearted fun. Hedlund's Sam, for example, is a 20-something who comes across as an actual adult, not the sort of immature wisecracking man-child that moviegoers have come to expect.

The film's great synth-heavy score, by the duo Daft Punk, has electronic echoes of Depeche Mode's more Wagnerian B-sides and Philip Glass' "Koyaanisqatsi." Another '80s flashback is the screenplay's very "Blade Runner"-reminiscent ending.

Even with its minor flaws, "TRON: Legacy" is a worthy upgrade that's worth seeing, and definitely worth hearing.

Back Row Reviews Grade: B