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Review of 'Tron Legacy': Maybe next time

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 17, 2010 - The new "Tron Legacy" film, opening this weekend around the country, is a pleasant joyride of an action movie set inside the darklight world of cyberspace. The movie is in 3D and interesting enough that I completely forgot I was wearing the glasses.

Beyond that, I was also hoping the offbeat eccentricity of the original story would grow deeper, but that didn't quite happen. Most sequels are just sequels, after all. "Tron Legacy" is predictably more polished looking but less zany than the original, which featured a laughable headpiece or two and some religious talk so goofy that it bordered on profound.

In the original "Tron" (1982), Kevin Flynn, then and now played by Jeff Bridges, was a brilliant young computer programmer and ex-employee for ENCOM, who tried to hack into the company's mainframe to retrieve his own stolen programs. An experimental laser unit digitized him and re-assembled him inside the computer, treating him like a mere program and not a "User." Flynn spent the rest of the story getting back out with the help of Tron, a security program created by another young programmer named Alan, played by Bruce Boxleitner.

In between the two movies, Kevin Flynn has built up the company, had a son, and mysteriously disappeared for decades, never to return. (Take one guess where he may have disappeared to.) And that's where "Tron Legacy" picks up the story.

Alan (still Bruce Boxleitner) is now a feisty oldtimer on the board of ENCOM but treated as irrelevant. Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), Kevin's 27-year-old son, is a Cal Tech dropout who lives in a garage with his cool Ducati motorcycle and his funny little dog. He's also ENCOM's majority stockholder, but he ignores the company except to prank them once a year, proving he's actually the best programmer but also a slacker-rebel. So, the storyline for the sequel is "About A Boy" meets "Tron."

After the opening scenes of "Tron Legacy" tell you almost exactly what I just told you, the story really begins. Sam Flynn get lured into cyberspace just like his dad, where they meet again in the "Grid" and spend the rest of the movie trying to get out again.

The most promising idea comes into the story quickly when Kevin Flynn explains to his son that a miracle happened inside the cyberworld he has been building -- a whole new kind of combination-creature appeared in large numbers, unexpected and unexplainable -- isomorphs, part-program and part-organic. The "isos" looked just like programs but they could go places and do things that programs couldn't. They could also re-generate. Now that concept has provocative potential.

The aging Flynn says, "Bio-digital jazz, man!" and he's right. Holy cybernetics, I thought, here it comes again, more new craziness is about to erupt.

Alas, Flynn quickly goes on to explain that the isomorphs were almost immediately and systematically assassinated in the "pogroms" that followed -- and most of that intriguing plot point has just as quickly evaporated from the movie.

The rest of the plot centers on Flynn's evil alter-ego program named CLU, which tried first to build a perfect world in cyberspace with Flynn, then rebelled when Flynn began to favor the isomorphs. CLU then plots to get itself out of cyberspace and take over the real world. Just that fast, the remainder of the movie starts to look an awful lot like a James Bond story.

Nobody seems to have paid much attention to the earlier "Tron" as a movie that was almost about religion. To most, it was and remains the breakthrough movie with history's first five or 10 minutes of CGI, computer-generated imagery. That's all, and for some, more than enough.

Too bad, because the story also had a genuinely spiritual element, introducing a profound question about human development and the soul, despite some cock-eyed headdresses and cardboard-looking pyramids.

The story proposed a moment in human history when an individual man became less than human (sucked into a computer) and simultaneously more than human (doing impossibly god-like deeds inside that computer). And Flynn became increasingly Jesus-like in cyberspace, as the story progressed. Could Homo Cyber be a new kind of god? A pretty serious idea, even a genuinely dangerous one.

And that idea is well worth devoting more thought to, now that human DNA is being thoroughly mapped, cloning is growing into a serious political issue, and scientists are learning to "harvest' human tissue and are already implanting computer IDs in animals.

The conundrum of being less and more than human at the same time is clearly planted into the story of "Tron Legacy." Clarify and develop that seed-story and religious conservatives of all kinds will probably be incensed and ready to fight. (Remember how quickly Harry Potter caused religious concern without even trying.)

If the "Tron" people cared to, they could create a stunning story about the future implications of an isomorphic creature, part-computer and part-human. And the concept is ready and waiting if anybody tries to continue the series.

The end of "Tron Legacy" is clearly written with a "Tron 3" in mind. So, even if the current sequel is only a place-holder, maybe that's okay. Remember that the second Indiana Jones movie was also a bit of a weakling, but followed by "The Last Crusade," the third in the series, which was a spectacularly good movie.

Maybe "Tron 3" will also arrive in a few years and be better than another mere one-digit change.

Nick Otten is a freelance writer who has covered movies, books and other topics for the Beacon. 

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