Given his background in high-end TV commercials (for Nike, Apple, Halo 3), you'd expect director Joseph Kosinski's first feature, TRON: Legacy, to be a pretty slick package. Which it is. What lifts the movie out of the techno-trash wasteland of pictures like Terminator Salvation and the Transformers films, however, may be Kosinski's beyond-film-school C.V., which includes graduate architectural studies. Where many movies in the sci-fi fantasy genre suffer from a garish digital sprawl—we're not watching stylishly articulated action, only money being spent—Kosinski's neon-bathed CGI environments have solid structure, and moments (in IMAX, anyway) of pop-monumental splendor. The movie was also shot in a species of 3D that doesn't dim the imagery or make your eyeballs ache; and it's powered by a sensational score, by the French electronic duo Daft Punk, that fuses with the visual elements in an unusually exciting way.
Legacy is of course a continuation of the story begun in the 1982 TRON, a landmark in the introduction of computer-game imagery into mainstream filmmaking. In that movie, Jeff Bridges played Kevin Flynn, a disgruntled software engineer shafted by his former employer, a devious corporation called ENCOM. In the process of striking back at ENCOM, Kevin was suddenly digitized and sucked into the company's mainframe computer, where he entered a fantastical world populated by humanoid program avatars, among them one called Tron, which was operated by Kevin's friend, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, back along with Bridges for the new movie, too). Kevin and Tron joined forces to outfox the company's malevolent control program, and in the end Sam managed a return to the real world to wrest ENCOM away from its shady executives and to become the company's CEO.
It helps to know that backstory, but Legacy stands up pretty well on its own. The movie opens with a prologue, set in 1989, in which we see Kevin with a seven-year-old son, Sam, to whom he tells stories about the computer world he calls the Grid, and about his dream of a digital universe that will be "free" and open and not controlled by, say, some devious corporation. Then one night Kevin disappears. Flash forward 20 years and Sam (stalwart Garrett Hedlund) has grown up to become a technological guerilla, carrying on his father's campaign for digital emancipation. The story gets underway with the receipt of a signal—a signal, it seems, from Sam's long-departed father.
Considering the complexity of filming with 3D cameras, it's remarkable that Kosinski elected to add another layer of complication by casting Bridges both as the present-day graybeard he is—now playing a middle-aged Kevin Flynn—and, through vintage images and digital face-mapping, as his younger self, playing the 1989 Kevin and also a character called Clu, an avatar created by Kevin years earlier who's now a megalomaniacal tyrant in the computer world. The seamless attachment of Bridges' well-remembered '80s face onto another actor's anonymous body has an uncanny effect, especially when Kevin and Clu face off in the same scene. It's not creepy in a rotoscoped, Polar Express way, but it is eerie. Any initial distraction fades, however: The director maintains focus on the movie's father-and-son theme, to which Bridges brings his usual huggy-bear warmth.
Entering the Grid himself in search of his father, Sam finds the old man hiding out in a remote villa with one of his digital creations, a beautiful protégé named Quorra (a lively turn by Olivia Wilde). Sam wants them all to make their way to the Grid's exit portal and return to the real world. But there's an army of Clu's soldiers to contend with, and much gladiatorial combat to endure in a vast stadium filled with howling programs. There are also extended "light cycle" chases (which sometimes teeter on the edge of Speed Racer tedium). Best of all, there's an uproarious visit to a penthouse disco run by a fey party monster named Castor ("Libations for everybody!")—a character played by Michael Sheen, in a platinum mullet, at a hysterical pitch that puts his campy vampire in the Twilight films deep in the shade.
It's hard to accomplish much that's really new in the cinematic sci-fi world by now, and some of the visual furnishings here inevitably ring bells. There are echoes of Metropolis (and, in the stadium scenes, unsurprisingly, Nuremberg); and some of the sets have a pronounced Kubrickian flavor, particularly Kevin's villa, with its luminescent floors, and Castor's outré nightclub, which is pure Milk Bar. Still, this is a fantasy world realized at a high level by a director with a little more on his mind than the size of the pyro budget. It's about as brainy as this kind of genre fun gets.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.
Editor's Note: This article has been modified from its original version.