Thursday, December 25, 2014

The perfect system


And for Boxing Day, a present to myself.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Written by Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal, and probably your mom, given the story fragments evident in the final motion picture, but let's say "a lot of people who deserve varying degrees of praise and scorn"
With Jeff Bridges (Kevin Flynn), Garrett Hedlund (Sam Flynn), Olivia Wilde (Quorra), Michael Sheen (Castor), Bruce Boxleitner (Alan Bradley), Anis Cheurfa (Rinzler), and Jeff Bridges/John Reardon (Clu)

Spoiler alert: high

And that is how you do a themed company logo!

Ever since Gravity came out last year, I haven't had to worry about what the single best film to be made in my lifetime is.  But before that, on any given night TRON: Legacy might have been my answer.  Naturally, this has marked me as a tasteless idiot by snobs.  But here's the deal: I like simple stories about direct emotions conveyed in a way that is aesthetically rigorous and pleasing.

Recognizing that Legacy embodies these qualities is uncontroversial, but it's also no reason for it to be one of my favorite films.  That's a reason to recommend it as a way to spend two hours while you wait to die.  Legacy is something more than that, because it doesn't just embody those qualitiesit epitomizes them.  I've got an argument ahead of me, I know.  But first, the synopsis:

Many cycles ago, Kevin Flynn, head of the software company Encom, disappeared.  Since we've seen TRON, we have a good idea how this happened.  Sadly, all his son Sam has to go on are his dad's bedtime storties, and, frankly, they sound made up.  Now a grown man, Sam may be Encom's single largest shareholder, but he's not happy.  He wrestles with his pain by sabotaging his own company and living in a shipping container.  But one night, his only ally (and, seemingly, only friend) Alan Bradleywhom the film expects us to also remember from TRONinforms him that he's received a call from his dad's arcade... a number disconnected years ago.  Sam investigates, and because he never had a father to teach him that when a computer asks you if the laser aperture is clear, you say, "NO," Sam finds the world Kevin made, and was lost in: the Grid.

Actually, this is Grid 2.0, and it sucks.  Kevin is nowhere in evidence, except in the digitally-remastered face of his artificially-intelligent doppelganger, Clu.  (Mind you, I just ruined the film's sole excellent twist.  But, then, so did the trailer.)  Clu is a fascist who fights for the Programs against the Users.  Following his own programming, he seeks to create the perfect system within the Gridand in our world beyond.  Sam is only a pawn in Clu's game to find the elder Flynn, destroy him, and use his knowledge to conquer the universe.  But the mysterious Quorra, a Program of incomprehensible provenance, has other plans.  Then things get complicated, although the only surprises are in the parts that do not seem to quite logically follow from the other parts.

This is where I acknowledge Legacy's weaknesses, which are several.  It's obvious that many writers, even beyond the credited four, had their hand in the screenplay.  Artifacts of discarded draftsand sloppy narrative generallyabound.  The most patent is Kevin Flynn's mystical ruminations upon the Iso's, a species of Program that arose out of the code of the Grid in electric abiogenesis.  He sees them as a panacea to the human conditionand it is as clear as a brick wall how this might be the case.  Essentially, we're asked to just roll with it.

The answer to the problem of the Iso'sand to its allied complaints, like Legacy's refusal to engage with the rise of the Internetis that Legacy is a science fantasy film.  The emphasis is upon the "fantasy" to such an extent that the "science" of Legacy begins and ends at the single idea, "kom-pew-tors."  Now, let's leave aside how I don't understand how anyone could walk into a sequel to TRON and expect something thought-provoking about science or technologyat least in any sense other than "look at the science and technology that created this movie."  Let's say instead that putting stress on a TRON film's mythology misses the point.  It's like trying to figure out the origins of the Force, or how the Enterprise's warp drive works: these are concepts that were created by people whose concerns lay entirely elsewhere.

There are also the bits where characters act idiotically and motivelessly, and this is far more damaging.  Take Alan: apparently aware that he is in a Hero's Journey and that he is not The Hero, he doesn't even go with Sam to check out the message... that was sent to him.  We can spot the movie its inciting incident, but it's not the last time that someone does something very important to the plot, even though it is the last thing they would do.  One of these instances is the film's worst mistake: what ought to have been a vital character arc is truncated to a plot point, seemingly upon the sole basis of running time and laziness.  Sadly, I have no answers for the film's failures in this regard.  I can only offer up compensations.

But now I'm happy, because I get to talk about the things there are to love in TRON: Legacy.  (One of these things, I've realized, is not the capitalized name; though "TRON" is technically an initialism, it is as meaningless here as the rest of the fake computer science.)

Counterintuitively, I want to start with the performances.  Legacy has been praised for some things, and the acting has not been one of them.  Let's begin with the single least-praised member of the cast, then, and finally give him his due.  You're thinking I can't possibly be talking about Garrett Hedlund... and the first time I saw Legacy, you'd have been completely right.  But by the fifth (or is it sixth?) viewing, though, I've realized how exceedingly good he actually is.  He is, as they say, flat: but weirdly enough, flat was the right choice.  Hedlund's achievement is that he successfullyflawlesslystraddles the very thin line he's been given to walk.  He communicates Sam's deadened soul, broken by the twin evils of parental abandonment and the isolating privilege accruing to the rudderless heir to billions.  He does this without, in the process, betraying Sam's basic function as an action-adventure hero.  He imbues the role with just enough psychological realism for the high-emotion to work, and never so much that it would be tonally inappropriate for him to make dumb, spur-of-the-moment quips at the pile of digital batshit he has now found himself in.

Likewise, no one wants to watch a movie about someone this good-looking be sad all the time.

In the in-between spaces there's Olivia Wilde as Quorra, delightful as she alternates between killing machine and Kevin Flynn's curious, childlike ward.  There's James Frain as Clu's wonderful sycophant.  There's Michael Sheen, savior of the Twilight films, here a Bowiesque inversion of Rick Blaine named Castor.  He is the absolute jolt of lightning Legacy needed in that moment. 

I don't know who told him to do that, but it's great!

Above all, there's Jeff Bridges.  Nominally reprising Kevin Flynn from TRON, I can't avoid the obvious statement that Bridges is, in fact, reprising The Dude from The Big Lebowksi.  The why remains mysterious.  It's not even clear whose idea it wasthe parallels can't be Bridges gone rogue, because they're written into the script and omnipresent in the direction.  But if Bridges abandons the character we met in TRONhe doesit's nonetheless difficult to care when the results are so interesting.  It's not exactly a replication of Lebowski's Dude.  Instead, it's an extrapolation: there's a sadness and exhaustion present now, behind Bridges' "Zen thing."  (Yet so many of Legacy's great if often baffling lines are the result of Bridges' ineluctable Dudeness.  Presumably he's reading from the script, but if you were to inform me he was improvising lines like "Biodigital jazz, man!" and "Chaosgood news," I would believe you.)

And there's the odd two-man performance of Clu, a CGI creation rendered upon the canvass of John Reardon's body, infamously wearing the face of a de-aged Jeff Bridges.  One of the mistakes I didn't mentionand it's the only effects snafu in the filmis the decision to show Young Kevin Flynn in the real world, too.  I'm desensitized to its horror now, but it isn't Legacy's finest moment.  Yet the wax museum countenance is spot-on for a Program on the Grid.  Reardon does unsung work with Clu's angry body language; Bridges provides the rage in his face and his voicenotably, Clu is the most recognizably human of all the Programs in his speech, and isn't without his Dudisms, either.  The two actors make Clu the black mirror of Sam, the child that Kevin actively disowned.

And it's with these unorthodox family ties that Legacy serves up its emotional feast.  It trafficks in the truly elemental, telling a story of fathers, sons, daughters, and AI creations.  (Not mothersthis is a Disney movie, I'm afraid.)  Sam may be the Luke Skywalker here, but Legacy pulls decisively away from the Star Wars formula once Kevin and Sam reunite.  The film perceptibly moves Kevin forward as its real protagonist, becoming intimately concerned with his relationships with his childrenhis literal offspring, in the case of Sam, and his creations, in the cases of Quorra and Clu.  With this in mind, even some of Bridges' more senseless non sequiturs come into focus.  When he says "perfection" "was right in front of [him,]" it sounds like treacly crap, and it is.  But when Kevin's talking about Sam and Quorra (an Iso), he's talking about new life full of unknown potential, and it's in indirect and all-too-subtle reference to Clu, the recapitulation of every one of Kevin's own flaws, utterly incapable of growth.  Thus there's something kind of strange and special about Legacy's final confrontation, which sees the Flynn family broken up againthis time with finalityand Clu defeated with an act that can be interpreted as unconditional love.  (And, yes, also with an explosion.)

You've surely noticed that I've so far avoided Legacy's universally-acknowledged strengths in this review.  This is by design, because I wanted to talk about it as one of the great action-adventure fables, without special pleading on behalf of its spectacle.

Because the spectacle doesn't need it.

But obviously, I can't not talk about how fucking beautiful everything in this movie is.  It's astonishing to know that this is Joe Kosinski's first feature filmfor one thing, it's almost uniformly perfectly composed, and in two different aspect ratios, no less.  Of course, he did have help.

Darren Gilford's production design is a benevolent tyranny of aesthetic perfection.  A limited palette of neons and whites and blacks render the Grid in all its glory.  There are far too many extraordinary elements of design here to even count them; but I'm partial to the fireworks that become geometric shapes, because they are a wholly unnecessary background visual, put in the film only because someone thought they were pretty.  I'd be remiss not to note, also, the use of real sets.  Legacy is not nearly as computer-generated as you'd expect, only as much as necessary.  Of course, the single most effective dose of the real in Legacy are the LEDs employed in Christine Bieslin Clark and Michael Wilkinson's sublime costume design.

The brilliance of Gilford is that he evokes the platonic ideal of TRON without recreating it; and this is good, because TRON, while a technological triumph and enjoyable on its merits, also eventually becomes an eye-searing obscenity, too.  Legacy is never less than visually faultless: boosted with computers, Claudio Miranda's ever-delicate cinematography gives Gilford's world the precise look in needs.  The stark contrasts could hardly be more gorgeous, without causing actual retinal harm.  Miranda's treatment of the actors, washing them out in tribute to TRON (again, without being TRON), is likewise beyond reproach.

Should I even mention the score by Daft Punk and Joseph Trapanese?  I've said their names, at least; now I need not say a single word more.

And, if it's your thing, may I point out that Legacy isin its fashionperhaps the most violent movie awarded a PG rating since Temple of Doom?

So, yes: I know that TRON: Legacy has flaws.  But in comparison to its nearly-peerless beauty on one hand, and the saga of the Flynns on the other, I have hardly ever noticed that it isn't perfect.  Perhaps give it one more chance, won't you?  End of line.

Score:  10/10

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