By Amy Nicholson
Remember the last time you yelled at your computer? It does. Twenty-eight years have passed since software genius Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) created his personified programs—bytes that become men inside the matrix—and they’re still mad at their maker. Three decades, the lifespan of ten modern laptops, is a long time to carry a grudge against the Users who order them about with a clattering on their keyboard. Especially when the programs won.
In Joseph Kosinski’s update, the computer swallowed Flynn in 1989 and sentenced him to exile in their matrix. Hidden in his secret laboratory, untouched by power outages, his computer gathered dust in our world while within its circuits, hacking program CLU 2 (a Bridges hybrid) claims to be a liberator who herds his underlings thorough a hermetic revolution, bloodless only by biology. (Death is but defragged pixels.) Think Kim Jong Il meets Caesar, plus a few lines of code from Bill Gates.
In 1982, only 8.57 percent of Americans had a home computer. The first Tron stumped audiences who couldn’t grasp that the plastic box wasn’t one genius, but a house for small, smart, individual programs. Revisiting Tron feels archaeological. When Kevin Flynn’s son Sam (Garret Hedlund) unlocks his dad’s shuttered arcade, the plastic tarps flutter over the old stand-up games and the jukebox blasts Journey. He’s Indiana Jones of our distant yesterday—only in a lightning-speed world can our own childhoods feel ancient.
Before you can say, “Don’t click Enter!” Sam finds his dad’s computer and is zoom-swooshed into Tron Town. His body bursts into bytes and the screen goes black and green and gorgeous and 3D—it’s the boldest brave new world moment of the movies since Dorothy blew into Oz. Director Kosinski started his career as an engineer and architect and it shows. Tron: Legacy is a beautiful machine. Aristotle wrote, “The mathematical sciences particularly exhibit order, symmetry, and limitation—and these are the greatest forms of the beautiful.” I’d love to sit next to him in the multiplex watching Kosinski paper his world in hexagons and detonate fireworks that explode into puffs of spheres and squares. The light cycles are glorious, the new light planes nearly as cool. The sound design rattles the seats and if a scene in Tron can be shot thorough through a pane of glass, he’ll do it for the shiny 3D depth.
But there’s little disorder—a.k.a. life—in this matrix. One of the biggest laughs comes when CLU 2’s henchman, the silicone-mohawked Jarvis (James Frain) accidentally knocks over a vase. Newcomer Hedlund has a heroic, tiresome steadiness; his crush Quorra (Olivia Wilde, a promising talent) is a robot. It’s up to Bridges to give the film the human touch in tone deaf stoner quips, describing one of his discoveries as “Digital jazz, man,” and later griping, “You’re messing with my Zen.” It’s as though Kosinski looked down at his graph paper and decided to unleash The Dude.
In the film’s last minutes, it reaches for philosophy. Just as God created Satan, who’s really the problem when a program goes bad? (Those of us who’ve ever cursed out our laptop know that minutes later you feel a pain of hypocrisy and guilt.) But the movie is ambitious only in its beauty, not its brains. It’s a numbing, entrancing pleasure, and it’s fleetingly perfect in those moments when Daft Punk’s blippy soundtrack switches on and the green grid stretches to the horizon. Frank Capra once said, “Film is one of the three universal languages; the other two: mathematics and music.” And Tron: Legacy speaks each language well, even if it’s not saying anything important.