“He doesn’t dig imperfection, man,” says aging hacker Kevin Flynn of his program CLU, the master of the Tron: Legacy (2010) universe. A zenned-out Jeff Bridges reprises his 1982 roles as Flynn/CLU in your choice of eye-popping Disney Digital or IMAX 3D. The gladiatorial combat, illuminated Frisbees, glowstick suits, and fast-moving lightcycles are back in a multidimensional “grid” that is sure to delight gamers.
The original Tron (1982) was a major breakthrough in CGI – computer-generated imagery with special techniques in live-action photography that marked a milestone in optical and light effects. Characters were set in landscapes that could not physically exist in the real world, a world where terrains and vehicles were created by computers. In the pre-Macintosh world of 1982 when game consoles were just starting to get hooked up to TVs, kids had to go to arcades to play games like PacMan and Donkey Kong. The CGI effects of the original Tron now seem quaint and quite primitive – like the games of 1982 when compared with today’s world of smartphones, PCs, Macs, Wii, XBox 360, and Nintendo 3DS hooking millions of gamers to the World Wide Web.
The 2010 film’s 3D special effects from Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures go far beyond the 2D CGI effects of the 1982 original. The graphics and animation alone are worth the price of admission – even for non-techies. Director Joseph Kosinski provides action sequences that feel like a Disneyland ride – not surprising for a Disney film – but the nerdy plot will likely leave many viewers (and critics) cold, as it did back in 1982 when the preposterous idea of a human (Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn) getting sucked into a computer seemed much more improbable than it does in today’s world of petaflops, Blue Brain, Singularity University, and Ray Kurzweil.
In the 1982 film, the evil totalitarian Master Control Program (MCP) ruled the Tron universe. The program “Tron” helps to liberate cyberspace by defeating the MCP and allowing “programs” to communicate with their “users.” The new film finds Jeff Bridges (as Kevin Flynn) once again trapped inside a computer as a “user.” This time he must contend with CLU (“Codified Likeness Utility”), the controlling avatar of his younger self who’s been corrupted by an attempt to create the “perfect system” and rules with the iron fist of a Roman despot, not unlike the MCP in the original film. And this time it’s Flynn’s son Sam (played by Garrett Hedlund) who gets sucked into the Tron universe.
Sam quickly finds that he’s not in Kansas any more, Toto. Like the famous switch from black-and-white to color in The Wizard of Oz (1939), once Sam enters the Tron universe the film changes from 2D to 3D. And like his father before him, Sam must survive the signature (and awesome) gladiatorial “games” in order not to be “derezzed.” (The implication is that there is no backup for Sam, although it’s never made clear whether being derezzed inside the virtual world means death in the real world.)
Sam is saved by the beautiful Quorra (played by Olivia Wilde) who brings him to dad in a souped up Masarati-like light vehicle that has off-grid capabilities. Quorra, we learn – in seeming technobabble – is an “iso,” the last of a dying breed of AI “isomorphic programs” with “digital DNA.” Like the earlier film before it, the remainder of the new film becomes a quest for liberation – this time, rather than connecting users with their programs, it’s bringing Quorra to life (as a carbon lifeform rather than a digital one).
Jeff Bridges, of course, is perhaps best known for his role as the laidback “Dude” in the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski (1998). At one point in the new film, Bridges as Flynn starts to lose it with his son Sam. “Don’t mess with my Zen thing,” he tells Sam. Hey, so we can’t hack perfection, man.
Ultimately, it’s the special effects and Jeff Bridges that makes Tron: Legacy what it is: good family entertainment. Bridges plays opposite himself as both the Zen-inspired Flynn and his evil, but mislead nemesis CLU – albeit with somewhat kludged CGI facial overlays. But, as the Stranger says in The Big Lebowski, “The Dude abides. I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there.”