Like Avatar, Tron: Legacy takes us into a world of digital imagination, a dreamscape of blacks and blues and neon-lit "programs" and disc-duels for the teeming masses of bits and bytes.
It's a gorgeous sequel to 1982's Tron, a video-game movie and a cult hit that was decades ahead of its time.
But like Avatar, Legacy is too in love with its own good looks. And like the original Tron, the sequel's a bit of a slog. It's a generally humorless quest inside the computer "grid" in which a son searches for his digitally disembodied father and the father seeks salvation for humanity through the digi-verse he created that has taken on a life of its own.
Garrett Hedlund (Friday Night Lights) is Sam Flynn, son of Kevin (Jeff Bridges), the games-and-grid guru who stumbled into the Digital New World back in 1982. Dad disappeared, the film says, in 1989. So Sam has grown up a rich, motorcycle-riding rebel, smart enough to hack his way into his father's now billion-dollar company but aimless enough to do that only as a prank.
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But dad's old partner (Bruce Boxleitner, back from the original film) says he's been paged by the long-defunct phone from Kevin's long-closed arcade. That sends Sam to the office where Kevin was digitized, dropping him onto the same "grid" his dad created, forced to race light cycles and do disc battles to survive the machinations of the evil Clu, dad's alter ego, played by a digitally de-aged Jeff Bridges, who looks as if he should be the new conductor on The Polar Express.
Sam's efforts to escape this world lead him to others, and here's where the movie goes right. Olivia Wilde of TV's House is so otherworldly gorgeous and physically perfect that she seems to fit, playing an "isomorphic algorithm" in the film's alternate reality. Other lady programs look like painted-up models ready to remake Robert Palmer's music videos should the need arise. The "real world" corporate villains are forgotten as Sam journeys on and off the grid, trying to reconnect with his father and his father's creations. And much else is dispensed with as the film overtly rips off earlier sci-fi masterworks in search of its own soul — sets from 2001, battles and robes and such straight out of Star Wars.
Then, 80 minutes in, that Underworld/Twilight and Frost/Nixon/The Queen character actor Michael Sheen shows up as Castor, aka Zeus, a big-haired bon vivant who looks like David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust incarnation but is played as if Sheen is ready to star in a revival of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sheen's hamming brings the movie to life.
"Behold," he bellows to the programs that are drinking at his swank digital bar, "the son of our creator!"
When Bridges himself, an aged guru stuck in time, blurts, "You're messin' with my zen thing, man," we're left to wonder how this might have gone down had the movie's creators not taken the damned thing so seriously. That lack of humor and personality robs it of emotion.
Alas, it's a legacy of Tron for its sequel to be as slow and dense, humorless and emotionally sterile as the original.