I had a great time, as always, at BNAT12, but rather than reviewing all of the films, I thought I’d just focus on TRON LEGACY and the first 40 minutes we were shown of COWBOYS AND ALIENS, because one is a cautionary tale in failure despite good intentions, and the other is shaping up to be a dramatic counterpoint.
TRON LEGACY is not terrible. It is just a massive disappointment. It is in the same league as THE PHANTOM MENACE and INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL – an overblown, over-marketed, decades-in-the-anticipation, soulless zombie of a film. It is an exquisite corpse, but a corpse nonetheless.
BNAT is quite possibly the perfect, most receptive audience for such a film. This is a festival that played the original TRON, unironically, at the very first gathering. At this year’s BNAT, when it was announced that we were getting on a bus to go to another location to see the last film, everyone was buzzing that this could only be a trip to an IMAX theater, and this could only be TRON LEGACY. The crowd was punch-drunk and giddy with anticipation. Yet during the film there were no squeals of glee, no cheers. And afterwards, while some enjoyed it, mostly I sensed feelings of sleepiness and disappointment – the disappointment of a missed opportunity and a dream deflated.
There’s plenty to love about TRON LEGACY. It has absolutely stunning design, costumes, and CG work. And getting Daft Punk to do the soundtrack is one to the greatest decisions in the history of film scoring, right up there with Williams + Star Wars. And this is a film perfectly suited to IMAX and 3D. In fact, if there were a no-dialogue, score-only IMAX performance, something akin to the old laser light shows at planetariums, where you could do your drugs and just trip out for two hours, I’d be there. But alas, in the version of TRON LEGACY that I just saw, the actors open their mouths. And when they do, they seemingly reel off five pages of exposition with every camera move. That may be an exaggeration, but it feels like an understatement. In fact, here’s a non-exhaustive list of some of the things the characters explain – not show by action, mind you, just crank out in words:
- The relationship between Bruce Boxleitner’s character, Alan, and Sam Flynn.
- What ENCOM is and does.
- What Kevin Flynn was doing years ago when he disappeared.
- The world that Kevin Flynn built.
- What happened to Clu?
- Who is this Zuse character?
- Who is Quorra?
- Why do we have to get from here to there in X amount of time?
- What do all these vehicles do and how do they work?
- What is the grid?
- Who is this Tron guy anyway?
And that mostly doesn’t count the endless parade of supposed character moments where characters (always in pairs) confide in each other either their dark secrets or their role in this ecosystem in monologues. For example, we have Sam + Kevin, Sam + Alan, Quorra + Sam, Sam + Kevin again, Zuse + Sam, Clu + Sam, Kevin + Sam again, Clu + Kevin, etc. This was exactly the problem with THE PHANTOM MENACE – it was all wooden characters explaining something to one another to get from point A to B to a CG set piece that never felt engaging because someone had to tell you the stakes.
Sadly, Garrett Hedlund joins, Hayden Christensen and Shia LaBeouf in the grand tradition of charisma-challenged leads crushed under the weight of a stultifying dialog-challenged effects extravaganza. He’s not terrible, just vanilla and worse, forgettable. That doesn’t cut it will hundreds of millions of dollars and a future franchise on the line. Thankfully, Olivia Wilde is anything but forgettable, and even with a disposable role, somehow (possibly having something to do with glowing latex and owl-sized eyes) manages to be simultaneously sexier, cuter, and more charismatic than her opposite numbers in the thinly drawn female lead department: Megan Fox and Natalie Portman. And finally, while I have my issues with Jeff Bridges’ old Kevin Flynn performance, like an inappropriate injection of Dudespeak, and the unconscionable selling out mid-scene (see below), seeing a young Jeff Bridges believably realized on-screen is breathtaking. Others have complained about a bit of an uncanny valley effect when he opens his mouth, and I see what they mean, but it didn’t derail the sense of awe and potential I saw in such a technological feat. And yet, while he looks amazing, the Clu character himself is hollow and useless. He seems to be by-the-numbers sinister with no motivation at all.
While most of the film is a mixed bag or awe inspiring glory and wince-inducing inanity, there is one utterly unforgivable, atrocious, BATMAN AND ROBIN – level failure in TRON LEGACY. Remember how Batman pulls out the Bat-credit-card, and it seemed staggeringly out of place and just so wrong it made you ashamed to not just be watching the film, but to even know about a country where something like that is possible? The same thing happens here. After Sam Flynn gets off his motorcycle, the camera lingers a beat on the perfectly centered DUCATI logo. It just seems strange, unnecessary, and ridiculous, but that’s only a tiny warm up of the soul-melting travesty to come. Sam then parks his bike basically right in the middle of what amounts to his living room so that you can see the DUCATI logo, perfectly in focus, over his shoulder as he’s having one of his epic wooden expository conversations. With every cut, we see DUCATI, DUCATI, DUCATI, DUCATI, like a machine gun. To say it takes you out of the film is an understatement. For a little while you are no longer in an epic fantasy film – the blinders are off – you are now in the middle of an unseemly motorcycle commercial in drag. But that’s just a warm-up for the coup-de-grace: during the final confessional at the climax of the film, right in the middle of the goddamn in-computer TRON world, Jeff Bridges mentions the DUCATI motorcycle by fucking name brand, apropos of nothing. It is as if a record screeched and the film stopped.
All the sudden, I got it – so that’s how a total unknown like Joseph Kosinski could get handed the keys to this potentially billion-dollar franchise. He’s pliable. The studio can bully him into doing insane shit like this because he has no choice. But Jeff Bridges? I would have though he’d have had more sense. He’s one of my favorite actors working, and it just breaks my heart to see him whore himself out like this. I hope his dignity didn’t come cheap. I think in any possible Oscar consideration for his excellent work in TRUE GRIT, voters should also consider the negative work he is doing here to his own reputation, to the craft in general, and to film as an artistic medium by agreeing to shill for products in the middle of a supposedly dramatic scene.
In fact, the product placement was so galling in TRON LEGACY that it became a running joke among some of the assembled film geeks at BNAT. People just started randomly inserting “DUCATI” into the middle of sentences, as if afflicted with product placement Tourette’s. How much did Disney get for this product placement? A million? A few million? I’m pretty sure it wasn’t worth it, given that the outcome is relentless ridicule and the undermining of any potential credibility the film could have had. Filmmakers should remember that when you sell your soul you do get cash, but you have to trade something in return, and sometimes that cost is too high to bear.
Man I wanted TRON LEGACY to succeed. But with emphasis on all the wrong things – effects instead of plot and characters, clunky exposition instead of revealing by showing, and subverting storytelling to product placement, it is a major missed opportunity, and that just makes me sad.
COWBOYS VS ALIENS
Consider for a second the vast gulf between TRON LEGACY and COWBOYS AND ALIENS. TRON LEGACY started as effects in search of a story, was shaped by a corporate machine, and sold unceasingly by a marketing empire. COWBOYS AND ALIENS, on the other hand, had the first 40 minutes brought into BNAT by Jon Favreau and Ron Howard. Here are a director and producer, as opposed to corporate overlords, who are firmly in control of the property, but who also go the extra mile – coming straight to the fans themselves early in the process to get their feedback. The bits we saw were almost all character work, featuring leads with charisma and acting skills to spare. There is no exposition at all, to the point where the mystery surrounding the lead character becomes part of the narrative drive. And to top it off, the effects were almost completely done practically. That isn’t easy when you are talking flying alien ships in the old west. The wire removal and most of the CG had not yet been completed, but it didn’t matter one bit. You could see the difference in the performances. The characters, story, and acting were front and center, and everything else clicked into place because of it.
I had been most worried about the tone of COWBOYS AND ALIENS. The Western / Sci-Fi mashup has exactly two entries I’m aware of in the post-H.G. Wells era: the playful BACK TO THE FUTURE 3, and the genre-ending WILD WILD WEST. While those had comedic overtones, COWBOYS AND ALIENS seems to be playing it straight. It is hard enough to sell space aliens as legit, and doubly so while trying to preserve the illusion that we’re in the old west. Favreau pulls it off though. It is essential to the story that this works, because Favreau understands implicitly that we have to care about the characters first, and be convinced of their plight before we’ll buy into the action. Just as he spent the first half hour of IRON MAN building credibility and selling us on this fanciful universe and characters, he starts off here bootstrapping up the world one character beat at a time.
The filmmakers asked that we not reveal plot points, so I’ll stay away from that, but I will say this – the cast is perfect. Daniel Craig has all the charisma borne of mystery and badassery that he brings to Bond, which is perfect for the western hero stranger archetype. I didn’t see enough of Olivia Wilde to be able to judge her performance, but she’s dirtied up enough to be believable in this setting, while still remaining stunning. Paul Dano is also hitting in his wheelhouse as a spoiled wild west ne’er-do-well. But the real excitement comes from seeing Harrison Ford return to form. He’s not phoning it in here, and his character is such a fire-breathing, sawdust-chewing asshole, that it’s a thrill to watch. He would be right at home in an episode of DEADWOOD, which is the highest compliment I can pay to anything in the western genre.
There is still plenty that could go wrong in COWBOYS AND ALIENS. We never got a look at the aliens, for example, so some bad CG or a muppety practical look could spell disaster there. Nor we do know their motivation, something as an astronomer I hope we get at least a glimpse of. Still, I have faith in Jon Favreau, both based on his past work, and his dedication to getting it right. He brought a seriously unfinished piece of film straight off the Avid into the geek lion’s den just to get our feedback. That counts for a lot, but the truth is he didn’t need our help at all – he’s knocking it out of the park all on his own. I was lukewarm on COWBOYS AND ALIENS going in, but now I can’t wait to see it.