At long last: a movie to make the two Matrix sequels, the two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and The Last Airbender seem positively restrained and comprehensible. TRON: Legacy, a sequel to the 1982 sci-fi cult classic, features characters who are referred to as "programs," racing around an elaborate, neon-lit "grid," chasing after circular discs that contain all of a person's memory and that, in the wrong hands, have the power to destroy the world.
The story changes direction every 10 minutes, introducing increasingly picayune rules for its universe and mystifying motivations for its heroes and villains. By the time Michael Sheen briefly turns up, with a white wig and a mincing British accent, suggesting an unholy alliance between Ziggy Stardust and Jiminy Cricket, the movie has evolved into a kind of orgy of the inexplicable. You get the sense that even the screenwriters -- four of them are credited -- have no idea what's supposed to be going on here.
TRON: Legacy takes place in the present day, two decades after computer and video-game pioneer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has mysteriously disappeared. His now-adult son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) receives a cryptic page, which brings him to his father's office. A few keystrokes at the computer later, and he is magically launched into a strange, violent computer world. That's where Flynn has been held captive all these years by his very own creation, Clu, who struts around in yellow robes and a black mask, overseeing a gladiatorial stadium and seeking a way to break into the human world.
The hook of the movie is that Bridges plays both good guy and bad guy: the 50-something Flynn, and, courtesy of digital effects designed to make the actor look like he did in 1982, the 30-something Clu. Pity that the technology doesn't quite work: The Clu character has a soft-lit, half-animated quality; he's as sterile and artificial as that creepy little boy from The Polar Express. In the scenes that feature Flynn squaring off against Clu, the effect is at first merely distracting, and then simply distancing. Bridges himself barely seems engaged with his surroundings, much less the other actors.
That TRON: Legacy isn't a total disaster -- and, in fact, for the first 30 minutes, is mildly pleasurable -- has everything to do with the visual design. First-time director Joseph Kosinski dreams up a multitiered mobile universe in which "light cycles" are conjured out of thin air and the characters' bodies can be shattered into a million liquid pieces. Using inky blacks, silvery blues and saturated yellows, he has created something so ravishingly weird that it might very well replace The Wizard of Oz set to Pink Floyd's The Wall as this generation's LSD-trip movie-watching experience of choice.
For those in a nonaltered state, though, the pretty images wear thin, and TRON: Legacy soon turns unwatchable.