As Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) descends the shadowy stairway in his father’s abandoned videogame arcade, one of the machines is blasting “Sweet Dreams”—by the Eurythmics, not Manson. “Everybody’s looking for something,” you know, “Some of them want to abuse you / Some of them want to be abused.”
Sam’s looking for his dad, Kevin (Jeff Bridges), of course. That’s the motivation behind Tron: Legacy, a father-son story whose end you can guess right away. If, in the process, he’s abused and abusive, well, that’s less a characterization than a plot point: the kid has got to play the game in order to find his father, assert himself, and oh yes, ensure that users everywhere have access to free software.
This was, after all, the dream Kevin once had, way back in 1982, when he was a whiz-kid software and games designer, frustrating the companies still hung up on profiting from such invention (or replication). That his own company, the odious Encom, also decided his ideas were too costly had something to do with his disappearance in 1989, which the new movie offers up here as a kind of tabloidy scandal, with TV monitors floating in space while talking heads pronounce the question surrounding the missing genius. He was also a dad, as Legacy also reveals in an opening flashback, wherein little Sam (Owen Best) watches his digitized-faced dad ride off on his Ducati into the night.
The boy believes Kevin’s promise that he’ll come back, which leads pretty much directly to his 20omething self’s resentment and cynicism. He is, like is dad (no mom in sight), a rebellious genius, and so his first young-adult scene has him breaking into Encom and letting loose a brand new super-secure software, thus embarrassing the board (including an uncredited Cillian Murphy, looking somewhat bemused) and so establishing a background for his own disappearance.
In fact, Sam does not disappear in quite the same way, meaning, he stays very clearly in your view even as he descends those stairs and then finds himself sucked into the Grid. This is the same space where Kevin has gone, and so they are reunited, twice. Sort of.
The Grid is the all-games-all-the-time world Kevin devised so long ago, and so it is home not only to Kevin but also to Clu, the helper program he conjured so long ago to help him build a “perfect world.” This program—like all the other programs inhabiting the Grid—takes a human form, though in Clu’s case, that form is more approximate than convincing. He’s stuck with Bridges’ face from 1982, here digitized to resemble a very disturbing plastic surgery job, a face immobile and sinister. When Sam first meets this guy, he mistakes him for his dad, and Clu plays along, until he confesses, well, no, he’s not Sam’s father. “But I’m very happy to see you!” Clu adds, his plastic brightness indicating just how precarious Sam’s situation has suddenly become.
That precariousness is rendered in games, no surprise. And it happens that even if Sam is a user, as opposed to a program, once he’s outfitted with the bodysuit-roped-with-light and an info-disc on his back that doubles as a frisbee-like weapon, he’s as good at driving light-cycles as his digital opponents. It’s true that they shatter into dazzling digital bits when they’re beaten/destroyed/over and Sam would, presumably just die like a regular human, but other than that, their battles that span over multiple planes of dark and light, not so much floors and walls as a version of 3D chess.
Like Tron, the sequel is less interested in characters than in concepts, mostly designed to appeal to and approximate a fan-boy’s ready-to-be-dazzled worldview. And in its giddy battle scenes, Tron: Legacy does exactly what it’s supposed to do: the visuals are just legible enough to seem exciting, resembling videogames and not pretending to accommodate any rules of physics. Add to these images Daft Punk’s brilliant soundtrack, less expressive than propulsive—a series of throbbing, groaning, and sometimes soaring synthetic noises, part ‘80s dance track, part orchestral onslaught, and all forward motion. It’s like music, but better, shaping the fight scenes even more effectively than the necessarily abstract visuals.
When the film comes down from these battle scenes, it offers a decidedly mundane plot, with a whiff of potential perversity. This has to do with Sam’s fierce determination to bring Kevin home (that is, back into the users’ world) an Kevin’s equally powerful resolve to get his son out of the Grid, even if that means (as he’s guessing from the start, that this means he must stay behind). The key to either end is the portal through which Sam entered, which inevitably has a limited lifespan.
The good reason to get out, in addition to the obvious, is Quorra (Olivia Wilde), his dad’s current helper program. Unlike Clu, she looks noting like Kevin; in fact, she’s the sort of babe that a film about video games must deploy. While it’s not clear exactly how Quorra “helps” Kevin—apart from rescuing his son when the kid drops in, or maybe possibly servicing the old man in other ways—she’s very eager to help Sam in all ways.
And so these two crazy mismatched kids, user and program, set off in hopes of escape, aboard light-cycles and ships and headed toward that distant doorway. They must get past Clu, as well other programs like Zeus (Michael Sheen, looking slightly like David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust phase) and the massively mascara-ed and seriously vavoomy Gem (Beau Garrett, a little like the stewardesses in 2001: A Space Odyssey). They also confront the decidedly enigmatic Tron, once the helper program for Kevin’s partner Alan (Bruce Boxleitner, looking quite youthful, even without effects), and now an aggressive gamer with a dark shiny helmet and no visible face.
Here, in the second movie named for him, Tron more or less embodies all that’s frightening and relentless about programs, seemingly ambitionless but unstoppable too. As Sam keeps running into Tron, their battles are more or less foreplay for the predictable and oh-so-ultimate confrontation between Kevin and Clu. When the film comes close to storytelling (rather than, say, noninteractive gaming), it lays out a rivalry—or perhaps a kinship—between Kevin’s two abandoned sons, with Clu the program resenting dad’s rejection (his obsession with perfection is the one Kevin gave up in appreciation of unavoidable imperfection) and Sam the user resenting dad’s 27-year immersion in the world of programs.
Both sons appreciate the particular prize represented by Quorra, though in different ways. She’s actually a unique program (all those like her were destroyed in a genocide carried out by Clu), and holds within her some information that will, as Kevin puts it so very unimaginatively, “change the world.” By this he means altering possibilities for religion, culture, and science, the ways they limit generosity and love and other Zen notions. (In this, she recalls Leeloo [Milla Jovovich] of The Fifth Element, more an object of desire than a person with her own desires.) Just how Quorra can do this remains unanswered, but she’s a figure of “hopey changey stuff,” perhaps, something along the lines of Kevin’s grand scheme for ever available freeware than the stickier business of, say, WikiLeaks. However Quorra works, Sam believes in her (see: Tinkerbell), and so his own possibilities are transformed right away. He means to change the world, and if he has to use (or abuse) Quorra to do it, that’s his legacy.