TRON, the original 1982 light-show video-game thriller starring Jeff Bridges as a software programmer trapped inside a brave new computer world of his own devising, is a movie that I, like many others, found to be such a tinny, dehumanized piece of techno-kitsch that I was shocked to learn it has since become a cult film. Seeing it again, though, I think I know why. Twenty-eight years later, TRON exerts a campy-surreal, here's what the future looked like before it arrived fascination that it never enjoyed during its initial run. In 1982, when it was the closest thing Disney had to a picture for adults, it was basically a demo reel of special effects in search of a movie. Yet if you see it today, it can stand as the first prehistoric Hollywood version of cyberspace, and it's fun to behold the eager, at times shockingly primitive ways that it imagines the ''wondrous'' computer future: as a frictionless Colorforms grid that looks like the most analog of head trips. Few science-fiction films have been simultaneously so ahead of their time and so instantly, touchingly dated so behind the eight ball of their own technology. TRON made the virtual almost leadenly literal. It was the soul of a new machine locked inside the hardware of an old one.
The cult of TRON is hardly so big that you could accuse TRON: Legacy of being a cynical attempt to cash in on a franchise. (More than just a bomb, the first TRON was a major embarrassment for Disney; out-of-print DVD copies are now about as hard to hunt down as VHS head cleaners.) That said, the studio has had a long time to ponder its mistake, and TRON: Legacy, unlike its predecessor, really does make novelty look cool. It's a sleeker, sharper, far more visually intoxicating machine dream of a movie, with a darkly liquid electronic texture all its own.
When Sam (Garrett Hedlund), the son of the now mysteriously vanished Kevin Flynn (Bridges), visits his dad's dusty, abandoned Flynn Arcade and ends up getting sucked through a TRON videogame! into the virtual world of the Grid, he gets outfitted for action (black uniform with neon piping), and then is thrust onto the combat stage of a gladiatorial thunderdome. There, he faces off against assorted digital soldiers, all wielding lethal Frisbees of light. The kitsch element is still there basically, this is the story of what it's like to be turned into a kill-or-be-killed videogame icon but the director, Joseph Kosinski, stages the extreme fighting with a fleet and threatening charge. The FX in TRON: Legacy have an almost Einsteinian elegance: They infuse light with gravity. If one of the discs hits a combatant, he'll shatter into glassy fragments, and Sam, absorbing the physics of the game, must learn to treat his body almost as part of the surrounding architecture. He becomes a ruthless digital specter.
As long as it's engaged in light-hurling bouts of force, or motorcycle chases through a landscape so ominously enveloping it looks like Blade Runner after gentrification, TRON: Legacy is a catchy popcorn pleasure. The movie has a seductive, percolating, what's-old-is-new-again musical score by the French electronica duo Daft Punk, and for lengthy swatches of it I grooved on the look and the atmosphere. Joseph Kosinski's direction is just intriguing enough to leave you hoping that when Sam finally locates his father amid all those irradiated bytes and bits, the story will really take off.
But TRON: Legacy turns out to be a little too much like one of those logy trapped-on-Planet X sci-fi movies from the 1950s: There's a lot of dramatic stasis undergirding the visual wow. It transpires that Bridges' Flynn hasn't been doing much for 20 years but sitting around the portal that would allow him to leave has been sealed off and his fascist nemesis, returning from the first film, is once again Clu, now played by a digitized version of the young Bridges. In his rubbery Botox-android way, he's creepy to look at (and he makes you wonder if this will be the future for aging movie stars), but there isn't much to Clu besides his telegenic blank stare. Here, as in TRON, there are limits to how much technology can really express. As Flynn, Bridges acts very beatnik Zen, like a weary cyber version of the Dude, and Michael Sheen is on hand as a sinister nightclub impresario who primps and soft-shoes like an albino Davy Jones wearing David Bowie's Aladdin Sane shag. Olivia Wilde, as Sam's cybernetic love interest, does some pretty standard punk-arm-candy posing.
One reason the original TRON was greeted with so much hostility is that it seemed, in its cheesy synthesized way, to represent a brave new world not just of digital outer space, but of movies consumed by their own effects. At the time, this was a future a lot of people didn't want to see Hollywood embrace. But, of course, it's the future that won out. And that may be the true legacy of TRON. The sequel, more successfully (if less innocently), injects you into a luminous action matrix and asks you to be happy with the ride. But it's easier now not to object. At the movies, the fantastical-synthetic has become a state of mind that we're never allowed to escape. B