Tron: Reloaded, come for the action, stay for the aesthetics

Last week, I attended a press-preview for Tron: Legacy at the London IMAX, where the film was screened in 3D. It's an extremely fun bit of entertainment, with some surprises, loads of nostalgic pandering to the sort of person who saw the original Tron as a kid (such as me), and some interesting commercial notes.

As you'd expect from an effects-heavy action-thriller, there's not much by way of plot. Through an incoherent process, the feckless, alienated son of the long-lost founder of the largest video-game and software company in the world is transported into a magical computerland in which his father has been stranded for 20 years. There, he finds an oppressive force oppressing madly and plotting something awful. He discovers that time is running out, and he has to get very quickly from A to B (with stops for brilliantly choreographed fight scenes in a variety of beautifully rendered environments) or all is lost. On the way, he reconciles his fecklessness with the wisdom of his father, much selfless sacrifice takes place, betrayers betray, redemption happens, etc etc (anyone so sensitive as to claim that the foregoing is a spoiler should probably abstain from reading anything written about movies, period).

Of course, the primary artistic effect of T:R comes from its action and its aesthetics (which are closely entwined). It's a beautiful movie, even in 3D (I find 3D hard to converge, overly dark, and hard on my eyes). The visual design, from the rendered panoramas of the inside of computerland (which look like the Matrix, as resdesigned by Dubai's urban planners) to the meticulous set-dressing and costumes (more of a 2001-meets-Rollerball thing) works in improbable and even moving ways. Rubbing the glassy noir brutalism of the landscape up against the utopian, curvilinear, techno-chic clothes and sets produces something that's much more striking and more moving than the mere storyline.

But no one wants to stare at nice clothes for 96 minutes. Luckily, there is a triple-helping of action sequences involving all the best combat stuff from the first movie and the games that followed it: acrobatic discus-tossing, light-cycle racing, bullet-time martial arts sequences, and some tasty aerial combat for good measure. What's most striking about these sequences is how much like a game they are: every time the actors unveil a new complex wrinkle on the rules -- shifts in gravity, new weapons, super-bad-ass bad-guys -- it feels just like watching someone confronting a level-boss or levelling up in a console or arcade game. I wouldn't be surprised in the least if the production team collaborated with the game designers who'll be producing the inevitable console tie-ins to create these scenes; they look like they'd be incredibly fun to play.

More distracting and less effective was the film's obnoxious use of product placement, which is confined to the first act (not much room for product placement in computerland, thankfully -- it would have really shattered the look-and-feel to have these software agents racing Ducati lightcycles, carefully holding their soda-pop cans with the label out and sporting Nokia logos on the napes of their necks). I got the feeling that the film's creators were under pressure to cram a full movie's worth of placements into the first few minutes, since most of the movie didn't lend itself to this treatment. I kept hoping for the computerland people to go shopping for clothes at a techno-goth superstore like London's Cyberdog -- though, of course, Cyberdog's clothes are essentially fetishwear versions of the original Tron costumes, so it's only fitting that they'd be taken to the next level by Tron's successor.

This is clearly a movie whose intended audience is people in their late 30s and early 40s with their children in tow. The script is peppered with sly references to War Games, the original Star Wars, and has a davidbowieite androga-villain that is a charming homage to a dozen comparable characters from my boyhood.

What follows is a very mild spoiler. If this bugs you, look away now.

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For me, the funniest and most surprising (and even delightful) thing about T:L was the copyfighting subtext of the film. Jeff Bridges is an info-hippie who talks and effects a mien exactly like EFF co-founder and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow (seriously -- give that guy an ascot and send him to Burning Man and you'd never know the difference!), and his company is brought low by corporate raiders who are software monopolists whose evil plan is to (I am not making this up) put DRM into all their software. Quoth Bridges, with positively spiritual radiance: "We designed a system in which all information is free and open."

Preach, brother!