First Impression: Tron Legacy is this year's Avatar

io9 had the opportunity to see Tron Legacy prior to the film's international release. What can audiences anticipate when they enter the Grid? Here's our first impressions report.

NOTE: We'll be running a full review the week of Tron Legacy's release.

For better or worse, Tron Legacy is this season's Avatar. Both films cost buckets of money to make, largely eschew star power, look dapper in 3-D, and offer their own (take-it-or-leave-it) philosophical digestifs once all the big crazy set pieces are done. Unlike Avatar, which strived to create the most naturalistic fake world it could, Tron Legacy embraces the synthetic. The film seemingly has a five-color palette (even the real world is swaddled in blacks, neons, and greys), and the color green is almost nonexistent. It's uncanny how Tron Legacy looked almost exactly like the multiplex I was sitting in — the theater's electric blue track lighting and black plastic stadium seats seemed like extensions of the film.

Whether this was intentional or not, this comparison is apt. Director Joe Kosinski has said the film is a tech-age Wizard of Oz and that the film's escapism from 2010 is unabashed. In a nutshell, Tron Legacy is an escape to a hyper-evolved 1982. When you step into the theater, you leave the spam and Stuxnets and other unpleasantries of 21st-century computing for a pocket dimension where a gang of totalitarian programs force dissenters to play life-or-death games of Arkanoid and Snake. The film looks new, but its dangers are quaintly 1980s. No one in the Grid will steal your Facebook password or sell your PIN number to deposed Nigerian royalty. Compared to the myriad frustrations of modern computing, the idea of your dad's digital doppelganger trying to kill you in a lightcycle match is a retrofuturistic delight.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What's Tron Legacy about? Truth is, it follows a very similar trajectory to the first one. Spoilers ahead.

The film opens (in 2-D) in 1989 with Tron protagonist and ENCOM CEO Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) infodumping the entire first film as a bedtime story on his young son Sam. Flynn ominously disappears one day, and we cut to 2010, where Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is a twentysomething freedom-of-information prankster who leaks new software just to raise hell in the ENCOM board room. After Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) tells Sam that he got a mysterious message from the dilapidated Flynn's Arcade, Sam goes to investigate and gets lasered into the Grid.

First Impression: Tron Legacy is this year's Avatar

At this point, the 3-D kicks in. Sam is shanghaied off by a Recognizer to the Tron City arena, where the comely servant programs — "the Sirens" — give him his disc and requisite speed suit.

Two high-octane arena games later, Sam discovers that his father's former digital avatar, CLU, is in charge, Kevin Flynn's in exile on the Grid's fringes, and that his dad's digital disciple Quorra (Olivia Wilde) wants to get all Weird Science with him (there's nothing as steamy as the lost Tron and Yori love scene from the first movie). Sure, Sam's got only eight hours to escape back into meatspace, but that's enough time for some quality bonding with his lost pop.

In terms of set pieces, Tron Legacy follows the first film faithfully — there are lightcycles, updated disc battles, and even a ride on the Solar Sailer. I do however wish this film had embraced some of the weirder designs of the first (see: the freaky tower guardians). The special effects give these scenes enough juice to make it not a retread. There's no flat-faced MCP or giant Sark, but there's the mysterious disc-slinger Rinzler, James Frain of True Blood as the servile program Jarvis, and plenty of pixel-scarred programs. The film also dabbles with the idea of spontaneous AI in a way that is purposefully vague — should there be a sequel, this is the plot point that has the most untapped potential.

If you've never seen the first Tron, you can make it through the movie no sweat, as Tron Legacy is primarily a chase sequence to the portal. It's not super-deep, but neither was the first film. It should sate the nostalgia cravings of fans of the first Tron, as the Grid of Tron Legacy is a product of the past. It's a virtual world that's grown up in a vacuum since 1989, so there's no technobabble and the greatest technological change was that the programs figured out how to take off their white bike helmets. It's sleek, unapologetic escapism, which is a rare feat given that even Optimus Prime gargles up pathos nowadays.

PS: Daft Punk's soundtrack is pretty spectacular too. There are a few generic orchestral tracks, but when it cooks, it cooks.