Tron 2 is polarized by its strengths and weaknesses. Dialogue is almost entirely exposition, leaving grander ideas about evolution, perfection, contradiction, openness and security hung on mere plot points. Joseph Kosinski had only done commercials up to this point, which shows in his obsession with surfaces: he frequently frames actors inside circles and octagons (either the disc weapons or various openings in The Grid); images reflected in mirrors, windows, or obsidian visors are a motif. There’s also a genuine love of European electronica and 80s aesthetic, with Daft Punk supplying a score which evokes Tangerine Dream’s hauntingly beautiful synths as much as it does Hans Zimmer’s percussion. It all hangs on a script too busy explaining itself and dropping sequel hints–the actors are game to punch it up, but it still comes across dry. The makings of a great director are here, but Kosinski is either too constrained by studio politics or not sharp enough to coalesce his imagery and the script into something more than its parts.
Despite these faults, Tron: Legacy does something interesting: a hundred-plus million dollar tentpole structured like The Terminator. That is, a simple pursuit thriller occurring over a short period of time. Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) has to get himself, his father Kevin (Jeff Bridges), and friendly program Quorra (Olivia Wilde) out of The Grid before a portal closes, trapping them with hyper-fascist CLU (Bridges, badly CG-ed to look like his 80s self). CLU’s attempted invasion of the real world, through the same portal, is treated as a complication (albeit lethal). The course of human evolution (and its digital counterpart) is at stake, but only experienced through the lens of something simple yet urgent. This is taut and occasionally exciting, where similarly franchise-obsessed blockbusters often seem bloated and listless.
Unsurprisingly, Kosinski turns in his strongest work during action sequences. The above scene, where Sam recovers Quorra and a MacGuffin while Kevin secures transportation, plays like a statement about the characters and their ideologies. CLU, being a nostalgia relic, seems pulled from the 80s: charismatic and psychotically indifferent, he’s spent a lifetime wrestling lesser personalities into submission, then stamping any further resistance under his boot. He’s backed by agile, lethal subordinates, including a corrupted Tron (christened “Rinzler”). Under them are waves of stiff-faced mooks marching in formation, cannon fodder their only purpose. Sam, Kevin, and Quorra (eventually Tron himself) represent a different sort of collective, which values spontaneity and individuality. Kosinski tracks them as personalities: Kevin breaks his Zen master hippie routine by thumping a goon on the head, Sam uses Tron/Rinzler’s own two-disc attack against him and Quorra watches, biding her time to strike even while cuffed and “helpless.” The three take turns saving each other (Sam’s “Made it” is a callback to Quorra’s equally daring rescue of him), naturally becoming components of a whole. For a film this steeped in franchising, these hints of what kind of director Kosinski can be show the most promise of things to come.