There are wordless stretches in Tron: Legacy, the sequel to Disney’s 1982 debacle-turned-nostalgia-piece Tron, where electronic circuits light up like streets on a city grid, and Daft Punk’s score pulses on the soundtrack, all to suggest a cool world where technology and human life have become pleasingly integrated. This was the forward-thinking philosophy that drove Jeff Bridges’ hippie visionary to invent a laser that turned real objects and people into computer code. Tron: Legacy makes the mistake of taking this idea far too gravely. It tries to create a mythology around “The Grid” that’s similar to that of The Matrix, but goes about it like the worst parts of Reloaded and Revolutions—explaining everything, clarifying nothing. Disney has once again constructed a digital environment out of cutting-edge special effects, only this time, it isn’t merely silly; it’s as dry and talky as a PBS panel show.
Via flashback to 1989, with Bridges appearing in a younger CG form that’s conspicuously odd and creepy, Tron: Legacy establishes that Bridges has been gone for 20 years, leaving his son with a large share of ENCOM International, now a Microsoft-like software giant. Much like his father, the son (played as an adult by Garrett Hedlund) grows up with a healthy disdain for authority and rebels against ENCOM by releasing their latest operating system for free. When Bridges pages his old partner (Bruce Boxleitner) from his now-abandoned arcade, Hedlund goes to investigate and winds up getting sucked into “The Grid,” where father and son reunite to battle the totalitarian forces led by Bridges’ nefarious hacker duplicate, CLU 2.
The purpose of CLU 2’s existence, the various competing factions in conflict, the rules that govern “The Grid” on the whole: All these things (and more) require some exposition, but Tron: Legacy makes a movie out of it. The original Tron was by no means perfect—it was barely adequate, for that matter—but it nonetheless had a sense of fun and adventure, turning on the adolescent fantasy of arcade junkies being inside the games they play. Director Joseph Kosinski teases the audience with updated light-cycle and discus-game showdowns, but it’s only an homage; his Tron pretends to greatness in ways that snuff out any flickers of joy. Because really, a movie set within the circuitry of an arcade game must be taken with the utmost seriousness.