December 18, 2010
Gosh, where to start. I’ve been waiting all year to be able to write this review. And kinda dreading it. Before the movie started I told myself, as long as it’s not as bad as Terminator Salvation, it’ll be fine. It can’t possibly be as bad as Terminator Salvation. So, that’s apparently become my benchmark for how bad a big Hollywood FX movie can get. Good to know. I’m happy to report, Tron Legacy is much better than that.
The short review: Hell, yeah!
The longer review, with bonus analysis of cyberpunk literature in general, and very minor spoilers:
I could nitpick. The film wasn’t perfect. But it did so much right. It respected its source material, made subtle and not-so-subtle nods to the fans (like when Sam turns on the power to the arcade and Journey is playing on the jukebox). The action sequences were smooth and beautiful, they all strung together in a mostly cohesive plot. I liked the characters. I looked forward to seeing what happened next. The wormhole sequence when Sam went through to the Grid? Smashing. Got me hook, line, and sinker. I spent the whole movie chortling from the sheer joy of it all.
The reviews kinda make me feel sorry for people who seem to shut down all interest in a movie the moment it shows off some geeky bit of sci fi neepery. They’ll say it’s all visual and that the story is weak. They said that about the first Tron, too. And I think I’ve figured out some things.
First off, here’s the movie I saw: This is the story of a man who was consumed by his revolutionary vision — literally. He vanished from the world without a trace, and his disappearance irrevocably damaged his young son. Twenty years later, his son finds him, and they struggle for some kind of reconciliation, to replace all the time they’ve lost. It doesn’t go very well. (Kevin: “So, you go to college?” Sam: “Yeah, Caltech.” Kevin (beaming): “Ah, my alma mater!” Sam: “Um, yeah. I dropped out.” Kevin (grasping, now): “So, um, you have a job? Girlfriend?” Sam: “I have a dog. Marvin. He’s a rescue.” Kevin: ….) These are two people who have failed each others’ expectations. And now they have to work together to defeat a villain who is all the more heinous because he’s Kevin’s shadow-self, with bad programming — Clu was meant to build the perfect system, but perfection was never defined (in what I can’t help but think is a nod to Hal 9000, just like Kevin’s room has to be a nod to Dave’s room at the end of 2001).
And then — and this is where I think a lot of people lose interest in this movie, not to mention the original Tron — they launch into a classic fantasy quest adventure story. Because most cyberpunk stories are fantasy quest adventures, set in cyberspace instead of random medieval kingdoms. The heroes (or Hiro) have to go on a journey, to find the thing, to rescue the princess/AI, to defeat their enemy, to save the world. And most cyberpunk stories, like most fantasy quest adventures, have messianic undertones. The hero isn’t just the hero, he’s the Chosen One with the mad skilz to solve to the puzzle. He’s the User, or the Son of the Creator. It’s all Lord of the Rings but with computers. The disk instead of the ring. And you know what? That’s okay. And despite what any number of reviewers will tell you, it doesn’t detract from the human story of a son trying to reunite with the father who abandoned him. I’m wondering if people just have trouble reconciling the very classic fantasy story with the futuristic SF setting and then just fail to get it? Hmm…
I got the feeling the filmmakers read a lot of cyberpunk as kids, and got all this. This was so chock full of old-school cypberpunk plot bunnies — hardware hacking in the megacorp server farm, spontaneously generating AI lifeforms, gratuitous nightclub fight scenes — I just about imploded. So yes, I enjoyed the movie quite a lot.
Plus — it’s really, really beautiful. That climactic dogfight? That actually gave us a chance to see what was happening? Gorgeous.
A real conversation that happened after the film:
Me: Well, just about all cyberpunk literature is messianic and this goes right along with that.
Max: I suppose you could make a case for that.
Me: It’s not exactly a neo idea.
Max: Shall we make a count?
And then the rest of the group beat us up.