I recently went to see the new movie TRON: Legacy, the biggest cyberpunk-related movies this year. It’s the sequel some of us have waited decades for. I’m sure all the hard-core fans here have already seen it, but in case you haven’t I’ll be including a few spoilers. Go see the movie if that’s a big deal for you. Otherwise, read on and then leave a comment with your thoughts.

TL;DR version: Yes, I enjoyed it for the most part. But, like all things that try to benefit from nostalgia, there are a few things that just rub me wrong. But, if you keep in mind that the original movie was hardly a perfect work of epic art, it’s easy to keep things in perspective for this movie.

The original TRON

Why did the original resonate with us so much? For some of us, it used (then) cutting-edge computer graphics and tricks to present a world that was entirely alien to us yet related to something we were starting to see on a regular basis: computers. To those of us captivated by the early IBM PCs or the Apple II in school or those lucky enough to own a home computer like a TRS-80 or Commodore 64, we saw the potential. As a fellow game developer says in his own review of this movie, “[TRON was] an influence on me. Possibly a big one, I guess, as I grew up to become a video game programmer. I would probably have done that even if I had never heard of Kevin Flynn. But redundant or not, it was a push in that direction, one I remembered well over all those years.”

But, as time passes, stories become bigger than life and legendary. How could the sequel live up to the original, built up over time?

Computer graphics

One area where I think everyone will agree the movie shines is in the graphics. The computer world of the grid is beautifully and fully realized. I saw the movie in 3D, and while that added a bit of (literal) depth to the movie, I don’t think it was strictly necessary. Computing power has marched forward, and given us access to higher performance tools allowing for better graphics. For example, they were able to re-imagine a lot of the now iconic vehicles from the original. Recognizers and light cycles got a fairly impressive makeover, with a lot more detail added. Light cycles in particular are impressive looking with a lot more exposed moving parts in this movie, an allowance for better computer horsepower. The old tanks make a brief cameo appearance in the background, but they aren’t featured prominently in the movie. And, if you’ve seen the trailer, you know that they extended the light cycle concept into “light jets”.

However, I do have to admit that I finally got “creeped out” by the uncanny valley for the first time in this movie. One of the most talked about parts of the movie was the effects to make CLU which should look like Jeff Bridges from nearly 30 years ago. Although it looks pretty good, there’s still a bit in the back of my mind that was wondering if George Romero was directing the movie when the “young Jeff Bridges” was on screen, especially the closeup at the end.

The story

Let’s look at the story on two levels. On the immediate level, the story is boringly predictable and rather scattered in focus. You hear about the “ISOs” being wiped out and you know that a lone survivor will be central to the storyline. Any character with a mask with an obscured face and voice modulation will be someone important later. The whole mystery about what happened to TRON is insultingly obvious, especially since the only people who would care would be fans of the original. Gee, think that contact is going to betray the hero? And, for someone who “plays all angles”, Zeus was pretty stupid for not considering the easiest route is to just kill him to get the item. At no point are you ever in any real suspense if you have the type of sharp mind typically attracted to the original movie. I also think the writer stuck a bit too slavishly to the classical monomyth/Hero’s Journey. You can almost pull out plot points one for one to match with each stage.

There’s also a bit of lazy storytelling in the movie leading to some plot gaffes. Why do light cycles now move in graceful arcs instead of right angles? How does one create food in the grid? Why would programs need to eat? Why do programs need to go to what looks to be a human night club? Why would a jet “stall out” in a virtual world by climbing too steep? Engines stalling are a phenomenon based on real-world aerodynamics; is there actual air to have aerodynamics on the grid? Lots of little things that add up to be annoying to someone who pays attention to the story.

But, dig a bit deeper and you see some interesting themes emerge. In particular, the conflict between older “Zen master” Flynn vs. the idealistic copy of Flynn embodied in CLU is fascinating to consider as a lesson in how people become more conservative and accepting as they age. Some people have put this in terms of a youthful zealot turning into a gray old hippie. The nearly mechanistic pursuit of perfection when we have an imperfect idea of perfection is also a really fascinating topic, related to the conflict between Flynn and CLU. With age and wisdom, Flynn realizes that perfection is both unachievable and “right in front” of him all this time. When you consider it on this deeper level, the story becomes a lot more satisfying.

The soundtrack

What does cyberpunk sound like? I think one could make a strong argument it sounds like Daft Punk. I thought the soundtrack fit the movie perfectly. Then again, I’m a fan of that type of music (although I’m not a committed fan of Daft Punk), so you might not see it that way.

And, when the power was restored to the arcade and some 80s tunes started blaring out of the speakers, I was instantly transported back to my younger days. You kids these days don’t know what you missed. :P

What got missed?

Of course, it wouldn’t be a real geek review without some complaints about missing elements. For me, the one thing missing was Bit from the original movie. Perhaps the figurines on the mantle were supposed to be an homage to the original, but I would have loved to have seen the return of one of the most iconic bit parts in film. (Yes, I’m ashamed I typed that.)

And, while the original movie wasn’t what anyone would call technologically authentic, it seemed that they dispensed with a lot of the computer metaphors. There are still programs, but none of them have any depth like Ram who was an actuarial program. Maybe Daft Punk were supposed to be MP3 player programs? But, you never get any of that, and the presence of more human elements like the nightclub remove the computer metaphor even further, much to my own disappointment.

Overall impressions

As I said, I enjoyed it for the most part. A few things irked me, but it’s a worthy sequel to the original brilliant (if flawed) movie. It’s geek nature to always want more detail and depth, and I think it’s not unreasonable in this case. But, we don’t always get what we want. In the end, I’m happy the sequel was made, but it’s not something that gets a place of worship in my personal pantheon of geek media.

What do you think? Will this be the movie that inspires kids to become the next generation of game programmers? Or will this just be a dusty DVD case next to the beloved copy of the original movie?