For over a decade, Disney's Tron was the red-headed stepchild of '80s genre movies, seen as a blatant attempt to cash in on the arcade craze, a film bursting with style but lacking in substance. But as times changed, Tron was re-evaluated: arcade culture was now fashionably retro, and as our world became increasingly digitised, the film's ideas of virtual reality and complex computerised systems became oddly prescient. It also didn't hurt that this coincided with Jeff Bridges's rise from dependable leading man to countercultural icon.
Even so, the announcement two years ago that Disney was beginning work on a sequel seemed optimistic in the extreme: not only would this be the longest-gestating franchise attempt in cinema history, but were there really enough retro-nerds around to make the film a genuine commercial prospect? Now, thanks to a geek-targeted marketing campaign of staggering intensity, Tron: Legacy is one of the most anticipated multiplex releases of the season. But can the film live up to the slavish hype?
The answer is... sort of. Appropriately, the sequel suffers from almost the same problems as the original: while it's visually dazzling (particularly in 3D), thematically intriguing and fronted by the single coolest man in the universe, it's also empty, derivative and rather directionless. We pick up the story a few years after the events of the first movie, as Kevin Flynn (Bridges) waxes lyrical about the possibilities of this new technology to seven-year-old son Sam. But when Flynn goes mysteriously missing, control of his company passes to a board of faceless corporate drones. Sam, now a rebellious 27-year-old played by blandly handsome mediocrity Garrett Hedlund, decides to go digging into the past and soon finds himself zapped into the computer and thrust onto the infamous Game Grid.
There's a lot of story in Tron: Legacy: pretty much every character in the computer world, from Flynn's digi-Hitler nemesis Clu (also played by a creepy, digitally youth-ified Bridges) to Michael Sheen as bizarre pantomime Bowie-alike club owner Zeus, has their personal history sketched out, usually in portentous flashback. But this can't compensate for an absence of actual character development: even Sam, the supposed hero, is little more than a winning smile and a missing-Dad complex. Bridges makes the best of an underwritten part, but his amiable, dedicated character from the first movie has been reduced to a shaggy Zen master spouting sub-Lebowski hippy-isms ('radical, man!').
There's no doubting the film's visual ambition: the first act is essentially one breathlessly impressive action sequence, making the best imaginable use of 3D technology to thrust the audience right into this gorgeous, intricately detailed fantasy world. Daft Punk's pulsating Moroder-esque soundtrack is another highlight, as is the band's sly, appropriately faceless cameo.
But as the story becomes more convoluted and less convincing, as entire plot strands are left hanging, as Hedlund smoulders and Bridges clings to his dignity, it becomes clear that this Tron isn't going to satisfy any but the most undemanding fans. The door is left wide open for a sequel and the prospect remains a welcome one -- but let's hope they can do a comprehensive de-bug, and get this system running smoothly once more.