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‘Tron: Legacy’/'Mikokai Eigasai’

Blockbuster for dummies, followed by a little brain food

by Giovanni Fazio

“Tron: Legacy” is one of those movies that makes you stop and seriously wonder whether there isn’t some kind of Stupid Test you have to pass in order to be allowed to work at a studio these days.

I mean, what sort of producer looks at a film that was an under-performing disappointment and critical failure 30 years ago — as was “Tron” — and then says, “Hey, great idea! Let’s do a sequel! And while we’re at it, let’s throw $150-200 million at it — it’ll be great!”

In gambling, this is known as “doubling down,” and far more often than not, it doesn’t end well; you walk away deeper in the hole and with a couple of scary-looking guys named Vinnie threatening to break your knees. Mickey must be double-locking the doors at the Magic Kingdom this month after a weak opening for “Tron: Legacy” at the box office.

And what sort of screenwriter can spend months on a script and wind up with nothing but utter gobbledygook? While “Tron: Legacy” swipes a lot of moves from the “Matrix” series — everything from set design to cod-philosophical musings — it differs in one crucial way: The “Matrix” universe, however fantastical, had its own rules, and you could more or less follow them.

“Tron: Legacy” doesn’t make a lick of sense — it doesn’t even try! There’s this Grid, see, which is a virtual world made of data, but somehow it’s represented as glowing cities filled with people in neon fetish-wear who play these ultimate-Frisbee death-matches with their hard discs and go dancing at cyber-ravey clubs, and there’s this evil overlord who is building an army of virtual warriors that are going to cross over into our world and do, uh, what exactly? Hate our freedom?

When Cypher eats his steak in “The Matrix,” he tells us, “I know this steak doesn’t exist . . . ” The fact that he prefers a digital illusion is, in fact, the point of the scene. When our human heroes in “Tron: Legacy” — Grid creator Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and his hacker son Sam (Garrett Hedlund), both trapped inside the Grid — similarly sit down to a dinner of roast pig, we have no idea if they’re really eating, or digitally eating, or even why they’re eating. What does it mean to be a corporeal being in a digital world? Oops, sorry, I just flunked the Stupid Test.

And what sort of casting director for a $200-million film says, “I know just the guy for the lead: His last big role was six years ago; he was the kid playing opposite Brad Pitt in “Troy” who no one remembers”? That would be Hedlund, and it took some convincing to get me to believe he was actually a real person, and not just a butch-looking digital avatar of Hayden Christensen. After all, there is an entirely digital version of Bridges in the film, looking 20 years younger but considerably fuzzier.

OK, Daft Punk rock it on the soundtrack with the best electronic score in ages, Jeff Bridges is always watchable (even when he’s just recycling his “Dude” shtick), and the first game scenes in the Grid, with the light-cycles racing on multi-tiered platforms of neon light, are pretty freaking cool. But the film sags badly in the middle and ends in a total muddle.

The final irony has got to be the “information must be free” theme; the film’s hero, chopper-riding, leather-jacketed rebel Sam, even breaks into a mega-corp’s mainframe and uploads its new and unreleased operating system onto a torrent site. Fight the power, dude! Did I mention that this came moments after uniformed security checked our bags and confiscated our cell phones prior to the screening, and that security were also stationed in the room during the screening to prevent surreptitious taping? One can only smile.

Shibuya’s Uplink Factory rounds out the year with the Mikokai Eigasai (Unreleased Film Fest), a full slate of previously unreleased documentaries, 10 in all, screening over the next three weeks. There are some pretty left-field topics covered here — ranging from Ugandan boxer Kassim Ouma to atonal Texan acid-folk musician Jandek — but the three this critic would recommend are as follows.

“Bigger Stronger Faster*” (2008) is a look at the drug that has (literally) shaped American culture more than any other: steroids. Director Chris Bell starts with a personal story — both he and his two brothers grew up idolizing Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and got heavily into bodybuilding and steroids — but soon expands outward in all directions: sports, medicine, society, body image, ethics. This is that rare sort of doc that honestly has no agenda except for asking questions and seeing where they lead.

“Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?” (2008) is director Morgan Spurlock’s followup to the popular “Super Size Me,” following the mustachioed everyman on a trip through the Middle East as he attempts to locate America’s most-wanted terrorist. The concept isn’t as tight as Spurlock’s previous doc — needless to say, the al-Qaida leader remains unfound. Yet all the digressions along the way, meeting with families in the West Bank and Morocco, or zealots in Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem, lead him to a fuller appreciation of how the Arab world has been demonized in the North American media.

While much of the film is very funny — and Spurlock can even make a “death to America!”-type smile — its message is a welcome one: Travel and expanding one’s horizons breaks down stereotypes and blind fear. (It’s no surprise that the majority of Americans who voted for George W. Bush did not have passports.)

Finally, there’s “Jesus Camp” (2006), which looks at an evangelical Christian summer camp in Missouri where it’s all Jesus, all the time. This is no Michael Moore hatchet job, instead choosing to just film what people do and say, often rather sympathetically. There are moments of unintentional humor — like the “Dance, homey, we’re kicking it for Christ!” scene, or the “Holy Spirit hammer” — but the lasting impression is that of the innocence and sincerity of the kids, contrasted with the adults who, however well-intentioned, are committed to programming their charges’ minds in an absolutely regimented way. (They are taught to smash the government and engage in “war” to promote their religious beliefs.)

The film is particularly informative for non-Americans who’ve always wondered what sort of people speak in tongues, think “Harry Potter” is satanic, and prostrate themselves before a cardboard cutout of Bush.

For full Mikokai Eigasai screening info, visit www.uplink.co.jp/schedule. The program will also play in other mini-theaters nationally from January.