Get a ‘CLU’

Like a dumb blonde, the Tron sequel looks great but doesn’t have much to say

I was working at the Campus Drive-In in San Diego in 1982 when Steven Lisberger’s Tron opened. At the time I didn’t so much care that the story was severely lacking because the visuals were so unlike anything I’d seen. Nearly 30 years later, audiences get Tron: Legacy, a belated sequel that measures up to the original film inasmuch as it falls prey to the same priority of flash over substance.

The story revolves around 27-year-old Sam (Garrett Hedlund), the grown-up son of Tron’s vanished hero Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges returns with the same role he played in the original). Sam has a thing for riding his Ducati motorcycle at high speeds, especially if it involves escaping motorcycle cops. He lives a bare existence in a renovated garage under a freeway.

As primary shareholder in his dad’s company, ENCOM (think ENRON), Sam is finally coming around to the idea of taking responsibility for the company’s questionable business practices. Cut to Sam popping up inside the game grid where he survives a few rounds of Death Frisbee before playing a high-tech motorcycle game more suited to his testosterone-juiced skills. The race is the film’s centerpiece, but the rules aren’t explained very well. Rounded walls and drop-through floors keep things interesting, but we don’t really know how to judge the event.

Eventually Sam meets up with Dad, who is trapped inside the grid by CLU, an alter-ego evil twin he created. For a prisoner in a system that grew beyond his control, Kevin is a well-adjusted slacker. He comes across as a Lebowski-inspired hippie who likes to call his son “man” and drop references to his “Zen” philosophy when he isn’t waxing philosophical about “radical bio-digital jazz.” Otherwise, he doesn’t seem to do much. Kevin is like a lazy rich person living within a gated community in a third-world country. He has what he needs so why bother with the rest of the world.

Michael Sheen injects some rock-star theatrics à la David Bowie’s “thin white duke” as a white-haired party maestro named Zeus. As one of CLU’s loyal subjects, Zeus is not a trustworthy fellow. A ticking-clock plot device means that Sam has just eight hours to extract his dad from the grid and return home. Help from a super-sexy Olivia Wilde as machine-girl Quorra promises to advance Sam’s escape plan if only they can foil the do-it-all-villain CLU. Here again, character development is zero, but the up-for-anything Quorra exudes a warm fuzzy feeling that belies her artificial nature.

The filmmakers have gone to a lot of trouble to render a youthful-looking CGI version of Bridges as CLU. But it’s a wasted effort. The character looks like a mannequin. As a figurehead of evil, CLU is too sterile to make much of an impression. There’s something off about the technology that makes the artificial character seem like a robot that would turn to mush if someone kicked his circuit board. It’s a missed opportunity that there’s no mano-a-mano showdown between Flynn and his younger seeming twin. And since CLU never professes much in the way of character-defining ideas, we’re left to presume that he’s just not down with Flynn’s “Zen” philosophy.

If you’re young and easily impressed, then Tron: Legacy won’t feel like a rip-off. As for the film’s non-window-breaking 3-D effects, you’ll be left to scratch your head about why the filmmakers even bothered.

Tron Legacy (PG) ★★☆☆☆

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