Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tron: Legacy

We now interrupt the string of movie reviews of movies I watched while travelling, for a... movie review, of a movie I watched after travelling. We saw Tron: Legacy in 3D the opening weekend, and I definitely think it was worth seeing in the theater, and in 3D.

Avatar has really set the bar for using 3D the right way: to bring you into the world and intensify the action, without cheap gimmicks (like the "axe flying at you" thing that the Resident Evil movies, at least according to the trailers, seem to think is what 3D is for, harkening back to Friday the 13th sequels). Tron: Legacy doesn't do as well as Avatar but it does a hell of a lot better than Clash of the Titans at using 3D. Notably, it uses 3D both for some breathtaking visuals and for some story elements (such as the transition between worlds).

Visually the movie is amazingly done. Very little of it feels too frenetic to be watched, even in the fast action scenes -- the director hasn't bought into the idea that the key to intense action is not being able to see it, and there's no shakycam and only occasional overuse of too-close, too-fast cuts. Compared to the digital world of the original, it's even darker, and there's less color, but the color that's there provides greater contrast. I don't just mean that in the sense of the colors popping off the screen (though they do); I also mean there's more contrast between one place in the digital world and another, and what kind of feels those different places are intended to have.

The story feels a little less deep and full of wonder than the original to me. They can't just make another version of the first movie because so much of the first movie was built around the wonder of Flynn figuring out what was going on around him, and us figuring it out with him. The original made the wise decision of not having Flynn stagger around in disbelief for half the film, as many movies with that much "culture shock" do; and the sequel, again wisely, has Sam do even less of that, because Flynn has brought him up with stories of this world (though told as bedtime stories which maybe Sam wasn't supposed to believe literally, or maybe was). 30 minutes of Sam going through the same discovery as Flynn would simply have felt dull to us now.

But what do they replace it with? There are a few new things to discover: changes in the world from what we knew, and new developments. But mostly the movie fills that gap with a new story that raises the stakes, but in a conventional action-movie sort of way. It's compelling, but not in quite the endearingly goofy way that the first movie had.

Both movies also go much farther than most movies in failing to spell out just how things work, except when the story requires it. If you try to imagine running a roleplaying game in that world, you'll see just how much we don't know about what programs can and can't do, what powers users have, what would happen if you did this or that. Despite that, in some ways, the internal physics of the digital world holds together a little better in this movie than the previous one.

Though there are three glaring exceptions that make no sense, but which probably won't bother anyone. Since they're all spoilers, I'll encode them with ROT13. Click to decode:
gur fcbagnarbhf trarengvba bs Vfbf juvpu unir punenpgrevfgvpf fvzvyne gb bgure cebtenzf vapyhqvat fncvrapr; gur snpg gung Pyh naq Sylaa pna qrfgebl rnpu bgure bayl ol pbzovavat va na betl bs zhghny qrfgehpgvba; naq gur vqrn gung gur erny-gb-qvtvgny genafvgvba pna or erirefrq, cebqhpvat n jbexvat obql bhg bs abguvat va gur erny jbeyq sbe n cebtenz
As far as acting, very little is asked of Garrett Hedlund; he just has to be cocksure and swaggering a bit, and he does just fine. Olivia Wilde gets a little more material and handles it well, but one feels a bit short-changed that she isn't explored more and given more of a chance to act. But Jeff Bridges does enough acting to make up for everyone else in the film. The man really can carry off some complex balancing acts between different viewpoints. Kevin Flynn seems on the surface like a jumble of oddly mismatched mannerisms and ideas, but they absolutely work together and make sense. And when you're seeing Jeff acting opposite his digitally-younger self, the two Jeffs absolutely come off as two distinct characters without making you conscious of the duplication, as you often see in the slightly stilted timing and movements you're used to seeing in actor-playing-against-himself trickery in the movies. Jeff is pulling off some very impressive expression of considerable depth and non-obvious character exploration at the same time as he's treating the challenges of acting against a green screen like they didn't exist, like he was really in the computer. The man deserves a lot more credit than he gets, and given in what low regard effects-heavy action movies are held, more than he's ever going to get for the performance he gave here and the challenges he overcame giving it.

If you haven't seen the original movie, or just not recently, you might actually miss the many allusions, which just goes to show how gentle they often are -- and still just as satisfying as a stroke for those of us good kiddies who remember the first movie. A number of key lines got repeated, but very rarely did they feel forced in, or recited because they had to work them in somehow. Wisely, there was no allusion at all to Bit. (There's one thing that might have been intended as one, but it wasn't really that shape, so if it was, I don't know why they did it like they did.) There are also some lovely allusions to the time of the original movie; the authentic arcade sounds when Flynn's gets powered up are a little bolt of amusement for anyone who lived then.

I love the way they updated the light cycles game. The original game seemed a bit limited: a faster engine or greater numbers should always win, and there was no good reason why the engines got faster and slower at times, but tactically the game just didn't seem like it could go anywhere. The new twist preserves what was great in the original game, is visually exciting, and also makes the game itself a lot more compelling. Usually they pay no attention to making the game also work as a game, and focus only on it making good movie footage. (Space Paranoids certainly fits that, from the original movie.) Maybe they thought about how the Tron arcade game made tons more money than the Tron movie, and that's even more important nowadays when that kind of game/movie tie-together is de rigeur (it was fairly odd back in the days of the original movie).

Speaking of which, I know their focus for games will be consoles and PC games, and those already are lining your Best Buy's shelves. (I still don't know if the PS3 game is Move-compatible; I want to throw discs!) But will they make a new coin-op arcade game? They do still make coin-op games, and most of them are tied in with movies, so there was never a more natural extension; yet I haven't heard anything about one. I wonder if it's pie-eyed to imagine a Tron arcade game reviving interest in coin-op arcades just a little bit.

In all this is a movie well worth seeing. I don't think it's going to have quite the impact and longevity of the original, but it's still a great movie, which both inherits the legacy of the original and manages to refresh and reinvigorate it. There are so many interesting ways the next movie (I assume there will be a next movie) can go, and I look forward to seeing which one they take.

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