Visually light-years ahead of the 1982 original and yet strangely old-fashioned in the story department, "Tron: Legacy" plays like the world's most impressive screensaver -- a flashy, fetishistic showcase of what bikes and bodysuits might look like in a future designed by renegade Apple employees. While 21st-century effects and a cutting-edge dance score make this a stunning virtual ride, the underlying concept feels as far-fetched as ever. Still, the Disney tentpole's 3D-enhanced spectacle offers enough to draw legions to first-time director Joseph Kosinski's reverential reboot, which should set high scores worldwide (compared to an OK $33 million for the earlier version).
That old-vs.-new paradox traces back to the original, which framed a wooden gladiator-style conflict against the backdrop of borderline-psychedelic, never-before-seen CGI. And though the world is a friendlier place to gamers today than it was when Disney first beta-tested this franchise, the new film's four writers play it safe by conceiving their protag as the ultimate anti-nerd, a young Bruce Wayne type embodied by the generically handsome Garrett Hedlund ("Troy").
The son of ultra-successful software engineer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who disappeared into his own creation nearly 20 years earlier, Sam shares none of his father's high-tech interests. Instead, under the sometime supervision of Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, downgraded from the title character in Version 1.0 to cameo status here), the trust-fund orphan gets his kicks racing cops on his Ducati and pulling stunts that undermine the profit-hungry motives of dad's old company, where suits (Jeffrey Nordling and an uncredited Cillian Murphy) now run the show.
Drawn back to Flynn's arcade, Sam discovers a secret lab, where a laser zaps him onto "the grid" -- a fully CG arena where programs take human form and genuine humans hold hallowed status. Using 3D the way "The Wizard of Oz" did color, the film hits its pulse-racing heights early as Sam tries to intuit the rules of this virtual world while being stripped down, suited up and thrust into a series of dazzling life-and-death games involving neon-lit discs and DayGlo Light Cycles, while leaving the story nowhere to go but home, Dorothy.
Scribes Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz (from a story written with Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal) try to supply a much-needed dramatic dimension by reuniting Sam with his long-lost father, which should have given the programmatic plot more of an emotional resonance. After all, what 21st-century partner or parent can't relate to the idea of the men in their life preferring to live in the parallel world offered by their videogames? That's effectively the explanation "Tron: Legacy" offers for Kevin Flynn's long-ago disappearance: He became so obsessed with his cyber Second Life that he would visit it every night, until his most perfect program, Clu, got the upper hand and trapped him there. But things stall after father and son come face-to-face, reverting to yet another tired world-domination plot, spearheaded by power-hungry Clu.
A laid-back Bridges does double-duty here, playing both Kevin (who looks like a space-age Rasputin in his long white robes) and Clu, who returns the actor to his younger form via unconvincingly rendered facial performance-capture. Though Kevin's waxy-cheeked clone makes a certain sense in the all-digital Tron-iverse -- despite livelier characters played by James Frain, Olivia Wilde and Michael Sheen (who seems to be channeling David Bowie) -- the same technology registers as embarrassing when used to reverse-age Bridges in a real-world opening flashback.
Commercials helmer Kosinski hails from a background in architecture and visual effects, and what the design-oriented director lacks in narrative instinct, he makes up for in large-scale vision. If "Tron: Legacy's" primary raison d'etre was to relaunch Lisberger's world in such a way that it could support not only movies but also games, merch and themepark attractions, then Kosinski more than satisfies the job requirement. Building on blueprints from that first film (including such classic vehicles as the Recognizers and the Solar Sailer), Kosinski creates a world we'd love to explore for ourselves, using the 3D to enhance the immersive experience: Light Cycles literally materialize out of thin air, while the action spills not only "off the grid" but off the screen as well.
Every bit as important as the pic's impressive visuals is its Daft Punk score, which hails from an entirely different dimension from conventional film compositions, establishing the tone for the whole enterprise. You don't just hear the music, but feel it reverberating in your bones -- an energy on the same sonic wavelength as the film's vehicles and costumes, combining the flickering hum of fluorescent tubes and the insistent beat of a futuristic engine.
Those bodysuits, by the way, are now sexy, jet-black foam-latex numbers with built-in lights of various colors, rather than the unflattering white spandex of the original (which vfx guys hand-illuminated via backlit animation) -- not that folks will be comparing things too closely. Although the 1982 film has its own cult-like following, mostly among geeks and stoners, Disney has strategically allowed the DVD to go out of print. That means younger auds will discover this slick film first, buying into the sequel's radically upgraded look before having a chance to revisit its clunky prototype.