In the original Tron, video game programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is unwillingly transported to “the grid” — a virtual world representing a corporation’s computer network. Flynn needs not only to escape, but to recover evidence that proves his work has been stolen by a corrupt CEO (played by consummate baddie David Warner). Flynn succeeds, returns from the digital world, and becomes head of the company. Tron: Legacy picks up years later, as Flynn (once again played by Jeff Bridges) returns to the grid and becomes trapped by an anthropomorphic computer program named Clu, which was created by Flynn and tasked with perfecting the virtual world. Flynn is subsequently presumed dead by the outside world, until his son Sam, a young boy at the time of his father’s supposed demise, now a man of 27, is sucked into the grid himself. After finding his dad, the two must figure a way out.
This time, however, the threat is greater than loss of intellectual property. According to Flynn, any attempt to escape the grid would give Clu a chance to escape as well. Should Clu succeed in doing so, the results would be catastrophic to the real world. We’re never told what kind of threat Clu poses, nor is it explained what kind of transformation would occur should a program enter the real world — whether it would retain its digital construction in the same way Sam (who at one point is shown bleeding during one of the gladiatorial games staged by Clu) appears to retain his organic physicality in the grid, or be converted to a biological entity, thereby losing any digital traits that would prove a threat or benefit to our world. Such questions are ignored in this film, as are explanations as to how Flynn and Sam were digitized in the first place. The emphasis here is on visual action and imaginative adventure, much in the same manner of the original Tron or another of Disney’s “science fantasy” films, The Black Hole (glimpsed early in Tron: Legacy on a poster in young Sam’s bedroom).
The father and son relationships, not only between Flynn and Sam, but between Flynn and his other self-styled creation, Clu, at times suggest something deeper at work, even if nothing substantial surfaces. The shots of Clu addressing his digital followers recall Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi films, but also Apple Computer’s famous “1984” ad, and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs himself. Though look beyond these superficial likenesses and not much comes into focus. Is it technology that’s oppressive, or just the pursuit of perfection? Are we becoming more and more dehumanized as we put more and more of ourselves onto our own “grids,” our own virtual worlds of Facebook, Twitter, et al.? It’s unclear if the film is making any such assertions, but in the end, as in the original, it feels as if it probably wasn’t intended to.
Tron: Legacy owes something to the original film, of course, but also to the Matrix films (which owe a fair share to the original Tron themselves). The super-slick visuals, beautifully stylish virtual-world avatars (Olivia Wilde as Quorra and Beau Garrett as Gem are particularly striking), and impossibly acrobatic slow motion fight shots recall the virtual world of the Wachowski brothers’ films, even as those films recall the virtual world concept of Tron. Quorra is very much like Trinity, and Michael Sheen’s Castor — the proprietor of a chic nightclub who Sam must seek out in order to find the way off the grid — echoes Lambert Wilson’s turn as the Merovingian. (I was also reminded of a scene from Logan’s Run where Logan, himself attempting to escape beyond the confines of a futuristic city, must pass through a hedonistic sex club in order to evade authorities.) It’s as if Tron had been re-processed by the Wachowski Brothers and came out The Matrix, and Tron: Legacy, in turn, is reaping the rewards of its own influence.
Most like The Matrix are the simultaneous feelings of triumph and (perhaps unintended) uncertainty at the film’s end. Sam is told that he will be able to change the world — the real world — once he returns, much in the same way we expect Neo to change the relationship between the real world and the Matrix. In the end, however, we’re left wondering just how Sam will do so, or if he really needs to at all.