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Sunday, December 19, 2010

TRON: Legacy - A Real Review From A Real Fan

I'm an absolute geek when it comes to many things in Science Fiction. Although I can't tell you the parts list of a flux capacitor (other than it requires 1.21 jiggawatts, whatever the hell that is) or tell you the inner workings of a hyper-warp drive, I enjoy a good sci-fi flick if it stretches the imagination and makes you wonder if something is possible and plausible.

Then there's TRON.

Yeah, that's kinda how I looked when I saw the special effects for the first time.

I'm not the kind of geek that owns all the action figures of TRON, probably because I don't think there are any from the first movie (EDIT: There are!) or have posters of the movie or its stars on my walls (again, they didn't have any). But I have been a big fan of the movie from its groundbreaking special effects to its "shallow but campy" dialogue. Say what you will, I still use "it's got more bugs than a bait store" when the need arises.

TRON wasn't the kind of movie that got a lot of attention although it deserved way more credit than it got. Especially with the Oscars. In fact, it was disqualified from the "best visual effects" category because the Academy felt that the use of computers constituted "cheating". Really?

Not only that, but when it was released in 1982, a couple of other Sci-Fi flicks took a lot of TRON's thunder; Blade Runner and E.T. Both movies were groundbreaking in their own rights respectively. But special effects, to me at least, belonged solely to TRON for the use of computers and the imagination it created for an up-and-coming generation of geeks like me.

My geekdom comes mainly from the fact that:
  1. I've seen the movie 80+ times, and
  2. I played the arcade game so much, I'm pretty sure I shoved more quarters into the game than the GDP of seventeen 3rd world countries.
Considering some of the crap that has come out passing for movie reviews in recent years, I think I'm more than qualified than the others to properly review the sequel, TRON Legacy.

I've been waiting for this movie since the original trailer showed up online via YouTube when someone taped the then-called "TR2N" trailer at San Diego ComicCon a couple of years or so ago. So much so, I did a few firsts just for this movie, like buying tickets online about 6 weeks in advance, and watching it in IMAX 3D. I also purchased the soundtrack by Daft Punk, my first digital download of a music album. The only thing I didn't do was dress up like TRON Guy.

I will start off with 2 things, one, you won't find any real spoilers here (at least nothing too killer), and two, if you are a computer fan by any stretch, or a sci-fi fan in even the most trivial of degrees, you MUST GO SEE THIS MOVIE! Even if you've never seen the first TRON, there's enough of a back-story to fill you in on what's going on without having ever seen it.

The movie starts out in 1989, where we see Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) telling his son Sam (Owen Best) a "bedtime story" about the Grid. The Grid is the digital world we eventually see later in the movie. He talks about how he makes for the "perfect world" scenario in the penultimate of virtual reality and talks about a "Miracle". As Sam asks about the "Miracle", Kevin tells him it will have to wait until next time. That next time never came, as Kevin Flynn went missing. Fast forward to the present day, and we see that Sam (now played by Garrett Hedlund) grows up to be a rebellious college dropout who has nifty computer skills, but doesn't care to be a part of the Encom empire like his father before him. He does, however, pay Encom a "visit" every so often to remind them of his father's legacy. And by "visit" I mean "break in and wreak some sort of havoc".

Bruce Boxleitner, who reprises his role of Dr. Alan Bradley, is now on the Board of Directors for Encom, and he pays Sam a visit after Sam stops by Encom Tower to pay them another one of his "visits" and tells Sam he received a message on his pager (yes, a pager). The page came from Flynn's Arcade, long since boarded up and all but abandoned, frozen in time 20 years. Sam goes to the arcade to explore the origins of the message sent to Alan's pager.

While in the arcade, we're treated to a heavy dose of retro, from the original TRON arcade game (which aided the original movie in a limited re-release towards recouping it's production costs that year doe to the games popularity) to Journey blasting over the sound system cranked to 11. The sounds of the games in that arcade will bring you back to the 80's all over again (those old enough to have been there) when a visit to the arcade was the alternative to doing homework or nothing being on TV, and the only video game systems were the original Nintendo and SEGA Genesis.

As Sam explores the arcade, he finds a hidden chamber behind the TRON video game, and it takes him to a room below the arcade that contains a tabletop touchscreen computer and laser, covered in dust, but powered on. Sam works to find out what his dad was doing the last time he used the computer and is prompted to activate the laser. He does, and the adventure begins, as Sam is taken into the Grid, a virtual world created by his father. Sam is forced into the games, where he meets up with CLU (played by a virtual Jeff Bridges) who momentarily tricks Sam into believing he's really Sam's father. Once he gets the information out of Sam, he confesses to Sam who he really is, and forces Sam to the light cycle game.

Sam is rescued by Quorra (played by Olivia Wilde) and she helps reunite Sam with his father. They then embark on a journey to get to the portal that will take Sam and Kevin back to the real world, dodging the nefarious CLU and his henchmen. In the beginning, CLU was partnered with Flynn and the original security program TRON, however, after a glitch in the Grid produced the so-called "Miracle", CLU, strict to his programming, turned on both Flynn and TRON and sought to return the system to it's "perfect state" by purging all of the imperfections. Flynn was not able to return to the real world and was trapped in the Grid, autonomous of the outside world and never connected to the internet, since the internet (as we know it) didn't come along until after Flynn's disappearance.

The special effects are just as groundbreaking as the original was nearly 30 years ago. One of the first things we are treated to in the Grid is the familiar "Recognizer", now upgraded and purely bad-ass. The light cycles, too, have been modified from their 2-D locomotion in the original to souped-up hot rods that streamline the rider atop it rather than enclose the rider inside of it (actually a limitation of the computer graphics in 1982 that prevented showing a rider on the light cycles, resulting in a geometric design that encased the rider). Although we are treated to a vintage light cycle, version 2.0 actually.

Several objects of affection in the original make their upgraded appearances in the movie, such as the Solar Sailer and the Transport Carrier, but no tanks are seen, which kinda sucked. What's also improved is the time it takes to get sucked into the Grid. Instead of 80 seconds for Flynn in the original, Sam was there in less than a second. We also don't see any grid bugs, which were prominent in the video game, but only warranted a cameo in the original movie. For the ones like me who were looking, you'll find many references to the first film in the movie. Some subtle, others not so much, but one thing I noticed absent was reference to the MCP.

Now for some of the bad things. First, as mentioned before, no tanks. Come ON...how could you not have them? Oh well, we'll give a pass, since the storyline more or less did not have much use for them. Still it would have been nice to see what one looked like in upgraded form. The story seems to slow down after Sam reunited with his father. The pace was fast and in a near-constant accelerated state up until then. Afterward, we see a significant slowdown but not necessarily anything stagnant.

If I have one real gripe, it was the mouth movements of the younger Kevin Flynn/CLU. It looks so artificial, almost like going to Disney World and seeing one of their animatronic robots, like in the Hall of Presidents. Yes, it's all CGI, but if you watched Forrest Gump, the mouth effects of the Presidents in Forrest Gump was more realistic. They should have incorporated some hand-drawn animation to perfect CLU's mouth to be more natural. But then again, he is a computer program, so maybe that was the whole point?

The plot overall was very good, although at times painfully predictable. Yet, it really made sense of why we haven't seen any action from the franchise for 28 years. In reality, the computer graphics needed to get to this point in the technology in order to produce an epic of this scale.

Garrett Hedlund did a nice job in the role of Kevin's son. Although I kind of felt young Sam (Owen) was a bit better in his brief appearance. I think there wasn't a lot of emotion from Hedlund when it needed to be there, but definitely much better than if Shia Labeouf were in the role. He'd talk Flynn's head off and after 30 seconds he'd shove him out the door...

Costuming for TRON Legacy was revolutionary, incorporating flexible lights and fabric together using techniques never-before tried. You can thank the folks at Quantum Creation FX for the design.

It was good to have TRON's director Steven Lisberger retained as Producer. TRON's Producer Donald Kushner also was retained for this film. In my opinion, if you're going to have a great sequel, you need to keep as many people as possible from the original film in order to keep the ideas and the stories consistent.

The history of TRON has been kind of a love-hate with the Disney gang. I'm not sure why but Disney never gave TRON the kind of push it gave to other movies it oversaw. It seems Herbie and the Apple Dumpling Gang got more love from Disney than TRON. Despite the groundbreaking effects, which Disney seems to enjoy pulling on folks (see Toy Story), there wasn't much hype to the original TRON that I recall back then. Then Disney shelved all of the already-scant publicity and advertising for the first movie soon after its disappointing release. In fact, my first exposure to TRON was an article in TIME magazine reviewing the movie (positively, I might add). Disney considers the movie to be the red-headed step-child of it's movie fleet in many respects. Contrast that to the marketing blitz we've been consumed with for TRON Legacy these last 12 months plus, and it's hard to believe that the first TRON is not really being marketed to those who might want to see what started it all.

My wife liked the first TRON better, but then again, I do too. How many sequels can recapture those initial feelings of euphoria you get when you see mind-blowing effects and incredible action for the very first time all over again?

The first thing I did when I got home was plug in TRON and watch it. Even on my HDTV there's a lot of letterbox space at the top and bottom. And even today there's a lot of things that still show up for the first time despite the fact I've seen it multiple times. There's a lot of people who still like the originals over their sequels, no matter how spectacular the remake or the sequel is. I offer Star Wars and the Matrix as examples.

For anyone who remembers the original movie, it will captivate you and put a lot of the original movie into a greater perspective. For those who have never seen the original, or who weren't as captivated by the movie as I was (like my mom and wife, who went to the movie with me and my brother) but did like the original, TRON Legacy will be worth the money and might make some sense of the TRON concept.

I was completely blown away by this movie. Then again, I am a fanboy. It's the perfect sequel for those who enjoyed the first movie.

So, if you've stayed with me to the bitter end, what's the bottom line? Quite simply, if you are a fan of any kind of computer, science fiction, fantasy flick, or of special FX in general, then this movie is a must-see. And it's best to see in 3D IMAX to take maximum advantage of the movie. I've already made plans to save my pennies and catch it again. The last movie I saw more than once? The Hunt for Red October (suck it, Trebek!!!).

And to the folks that get paid to tell you this stuff: TRON Legacy is not entirely about dialog, plot, or whatever other excuse you can pull to not like the movie. We're talking about a movie involving the computer world and the computer-generated special effects are what runs the movie. That is what people with even a passing interest in technology really want to see.

Go see this great movie. End of line.

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