A lot of films would like to be the next Avatar, and though they've got the 3-D part down, they haven't achieved the spectacle. That's the thing that Disney is certain it's nailed with Tron: Legacy — that sense of being transported to a world that could only be glimpsed in a movie theater, and only truly experienced in 3-D — and the studio is so high on the potential franchise starter that it's taken a page from Avatar's prerelease playbook with Tron Night, a get-out-the-hype event where twenty minutes of the film's scenes will screen tonight in IMAX theaters. Vulture just previewed the footage, and the Avatar similarities are uncanny: Like the twenty minutes of clips that Fox screened last year as part of Avatar Day, the selected Tron: Legacy scenes follow a sullen hero thrust into a stunning, wholly computer-generated world, where a beautiful native helps him to get his bearings. The difference was that Avatar's Jake Sully was positively joyful once he made the switch to his Na'vi body and new Pandoran climate — by comparison, Tron: Legacy is as serious as a heart attack.
In fact, the most interesting thing about the footage screened is how quiet it is. The Tron Night scenes begin with a 2-D sequence where twentysomething Sam Flynn (Garret Hedlund, eyebrows permanently locked to "doleful") returns to his bitchin' dockside bachelor pad, a beautiful setting ripped straight from Wallpaper magazine that doesn't seem to lift his mood any. He's confronted by family friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), and the two have a long, strikingly low-key conversation about Sam's missing father, Kevin (Jeff Bridges). It's almost perverse: The audience has been lured in and hyped up to see 3-D light-cycle action, and instead, they're hit immediately with a somnolent exposition dump that makes the special glasses superfluous.
Investigating his father's disappearance, Sam makes his way to Flynn's Arcade, a forgotten, dusty eighties game palace that nevertheless lights up in a blast of neon, eight-bit sound effects, and New Wave synth when Sam flicks the power switch. (Good thing he kept paying those bills over the last two decades.) Disney very cleverly replicated Flynn's Arcade at the last two Comic Cons, and the giddy nostalgia as journalists played Pac-Man and Galaxian — not to mention the thrill of exploring a setting from both Tron movies — was palpable. It's a shame to see the place leeched of that sense of fun in Tron: Legacy, though: Hedlund shuffles through the arcade like a zombie, and even the sweet burst of the Eurythmics on the soundtrack feels muffled.
Finally, Sam is zapped through the looking glass, and it's here that the 3-D kicks in and the alluring dreamscape of Tron: Legacy takes hold (it helps, too, that the Daft Punk soundtrack adds some welcome sonic noise to the equation). Like Avatar's Pandora, this dark blue setting is vast and holds its secrets tantalizingly out of reach, but unlike Cameron's wild world, everything here seems immaculately fussed over and deliberately composed; in action sequences, Tron Legacy resembles the most beautiful luxury-car commercial ever, while in repose, each shot is competing to be your new desktop background. The look may be new-school cool, but the filmmaking is intriguingly muted and exacting, the opposite of frenzied action directing. When four beautiful Grid girls march toward Sam to remove him of his clothes (relax, parents: It's not nearly as sexual as it sounds), they move in perfect lockstep not just with each other, not just within the frame, but with each footfall perfectly syncopated with the soundtrack. It's Tron: Legacy in a nutshell, a beautiful, careful storyboard come to life.
But do the performances have life in them? Hedlund is curiously recessive in most of the footage; when called upon to deliver action hero asides at no one in particular, he looks pained. He's better when his female foil is introduced, but then, so is the movie; as the warrior girl Quorra, Olivia Wilde rocks a black bob (apparently, the bob haircut is the thing for sci-fi heroines these days), a smile, and a charmingly childlike "heh heh heh" in the heat of battle. She's kind of weird and off-kilter, and a movie this carefully plotted out needs weird and off-kilter. (To be fair, though, there's a two-second glimpse of Michael Sheen as a madman straight out of Amadeus that could indicate some more unpredictable zigzagging within Tron: Legacy's glowing, gridded lines.)
The movie is certainly promising, and as eye candy alone, it could make up for every Last Airbender and Clash of the Titans we've had to endure this year. Our hope, however, is that Tron: Legacy will be just a bit more fun. After watching video games steadily eschew the pop and color of Super Mario Bros. for a new world mostly populated by grim, gun-toting space marines, let's hope that the gaming-inspired Tron: Legacy doesn't neglect the fact that a blast from the past really ought to feel like a blast sometimes.