It's game on - and off-the-wall - in TRON: Legacy, the follow-up to the 1982 film that explored the inner life of video games and was way ahead of its time.
The same cannot be said of the follow-up. With its Zen jargon, martial-arts moves, and neon glow, the sequel demonstrates that you can teach an old dog new Matrix.
Legacy is a two-hour light show with a lot of flash, a little style, and not one byte of narrative originality. Unless, of course, you count the spectacle of Jeff Bridges, age 61, facing off against his digitally tweaked doppelganger, who resembles Bridges circa 34.
In the first TRON, Bridges is Flynn, a game designer sucked into the circuitry of a Master Control Program where his digital avatar fights that of the corporate baddie who has stolen his idea for the game.
In Legacy, Flynn, last seen on the eve of a major discovery, has gone missing for 20 years. Then his adult son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), learns Dad has sent a pager message to his former partner. So Sam goes back to Dad's mothballed video arcade to find the portal to the Grid - the computer innerscape Dad told him about in bedtime stories years ago.
In a reverse of The Wizard of Oz, Legacy goes from color to principally black-and-white (and from 2-D to 3-D) once Sam falls into the Grid.
There, Sam encounters CLU (say "clue"), Flynn's creation and avatar, who has grown in power and is trying to eliminate his creator. In this luminous landscape, "programs" - that is, humanoid creatures that run the games - zip by on lightcycles, motorbikes with neon details instead of chrome. Gamers fight each other in a tourney of death that resembles Ultimate Frisbee with deadly neon discs.
Admittedly, these graphics would be pretty cool in a video game. But unlike games, movies need something more than vaporizing your enemy and getting from one level to the next with your friend. This is something director Joseph Kosinski does not provide.
Hedlund, not the brightest light on this display panel, doesn't bring much to the film. The movie perks up a bit when Michael Sheen, resembling David Bowie in his Aladdin Sane period, goose-steps through a Grid nightspot, twirling his neon nightstick like a majorette her baton. And it gets a little boost from Olivia Wilde, as Quorra, a cybernetic lifeform called an "iso" (as in isometric algorithm, cousin of the midichlorians of Star Wars), Flynn's ward and Sam's love interest.
To the extent Legacy has an emotional arc, it's the run-up to the reunion between Sam and his father. Bridges' Flynn is very Dude Wan Kenobi, clad in monkish robes, describing a humming sound as "Bio-digital jazz, man!" When Sam presses him to explain what's going on, Flynn snaps, "You're messing with my Zen thing!"
Bridges' hipster ravings turn Legacy into an unintentional comedy. This makes it a degree more bearable than the gaudy Nintendo prototype it would be otherwise. Game over.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/