Tron: Legacy (PG)

What seemed futuristic in 1982 now looks strangely dated, writes Ryan Gilbey

Disney's 1982 science-fiction adventure Tron is one of those movies that isn't as good as you remember - if you can remember it at all. It's not
a film so much as a product specially designed to sit at number 39 on a Channel 4 schedule-filler entitled 100 Most Obvious 1980s Touchstones, just ahead of the miners' strike, but way behind fingerless gloves and Max from Hart to Hart. Jeff Bridges played Kevin Flynn, who gets zapped while trying to hack into his employer's system, and then cast into a world of computer games where figures in neon throw luminous frisbees at him. That's what we did to hackers in the 1980s. Seems almost quaint compared to extradition, doesn't it?

When I say Flynn got zapped, remember this was CGI in its infancy. Watch the scene now and it looks more like he's being faxed. Back then, the film was part of our fetish for the futuristic, along with Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, Metal Mickey, Tomorrow's World and those endless newspaper reports about how we would soon be wearing tinfoil pyjamas and receiving back-rubs from C-3PO. On Mars.

Tron was a flop, but it seems never to have left us, much like the 1980s as a whole. And so it has come to pass that a sequel, Tron: Legacy, should be Disney's big hope for a Christmas blockbuster. The selling point is the technology. Can you imagine what the Tron world looks like
in digital 3D? Well, I'll tell you. It looks like a Tron computer game in digital 3D. Light cycles zoom towards us across a shimmering electronic grid. When one of them crashes, you get pixels in your lap. But I'd settle for knowing who exactly had come a cropper and whether or not
I should be upset. While the effects are slick and pretty, there's no denying we are merely watching someone else playing an arcade game.
At least Bridges is back. Flynn has been trapped for years in the computer world, which is like PC World, only not quite as bereft of
intelligent life. He was visiting, you see, and a portal closed behind him. Look, we've all done it. Now he has become a Zen guru living in an antiseptic white apartment that could be the lobby of a media consultancy. In one scene, he serves a whole glazed pig for dinner. This raises several questions. Do digitised beings need food? If so, where are the farms and supermarkets? Does Ocado deliver in virtual reality?

Bridges enjoys himself as much as it's possible to in such an antiseptic movie, and it helps that he is indulged by a script that recasts Flynn as a digital Lebowski - using phrases such as "bio-digital jazz" and saying "man" a lot. The actor doubles up in another role, playing Flynn's power-crazed cyberspace avatar, CLU. Avatars don't age, so the film-makers have fed this second performance through a process known to us mortals as "the thing they did to Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button". Trouble is, Bridges doesn't resemble his youthful incarnation so much as a creepy photofit of himself with a stocking over his face.

Luckily for Flynn, his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) has come to find him. Sam isn't the sharpest megapixel on the screen. When he gives his father a précis of what's been going on in the real world ("Ice caps melting. War in the Middle East"), or describes the sun to someone who has never seen it ("warm, radiant, beautiful"), it sounds like a cruel joke on the part of the screenwriters. But at least Sam can pout while reciting exposition-soaked dialogue that is the verbal equivalent of heavy lifting.

The plot hinges on the struggle between the Flynns and CLU, who wants to take his fascistic ideal of perfection through the portal and into the human world. This concept would have opened out the movie, only it isn't pursued; we're stuck instead in an airless domain that looked innovative in 1982, but now feels like a retro disco. The future already came and went, you see, and it was nothing like Tron. The film's neon-trim bodysuits look as dated as Elizabethan ruffs, death-by-frisbee as rusty as the guillotine.

The film could really do with more Michael Sheen. He plays Castor, a cane-twirling nightclub owner styled as a walking Bowie compendium - a kind of Thin White Ziggy Sane. Castor looks set to be the villain of the piece, and Sheen hams it up accordingly, calling Sam "Pretty Miss" and strutting around to Daft Punk (whose muscular synthesiser score is the best thing in the film).

But Tron: Legacy is too strait-laced for frivolous fun, and Castor is dispensed with after one scene. It's ironic that a movie about the battle between technological austerity and human idiosyncrasy should come down on the side of the sombre, the spick and span. You don't need special glasses to see that Sheen's performance is the only thing here in 3D.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special