With Daft Punk soundtrack, 'Tron: Legacy' is a film to be heard

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2010; 5:12 PM

Just when the 3-D razzle-dazzle of "Tron: Legacy" really starts ramping up, Kevin Flynn - a computer wiz marooned in a digital Hades of his own creation, played by Jeff Bridges - calls a timeout.

"I'm going to knock on the sky and listen to the sound," he says, pausing for a meditation break.

It's a clunky line from a confused script, but here, the Dude is actually trying to tell us something: Don't go see the top-grossing movie in America this holiday weekend. Go listen to it.

For anyone who has done serious time on a dance floor in the past decade, the arrival of "Tron: Legacy" has been anticipated with the butterflies of a dozen Christmas mornings. That's because Daft Punk, the French duo responsible for the most pleasurable electronic dance music of its generation, composed the soundtrack.

The original "Tron" was a culty sci-fi bauble from 1982 that used early computer animation and a soundtrack from pioneering synthesizer guru Wendy Carlos. It clearly left its mark on Daft Punk's sleek, futuristic, robot-mask-wearing ways. So you can imagine the blogosphere's geekspasms when Disney nabbed Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter to score the 21st-century sequel.

Then, a universal sigh. The moody, largely orchestral soundtrack album arrived 11 days before "Tron: Legacy" hit theaters Dec. 17, leaving Daft Punk fans scratching their heads. Where are the jams? As for the film, critics declared it rudderless retina candy.

Don't listen to them. And don't listen to the CD, either. Instead, listen to this movie in a theater where torrents of 3-D goodness can wash over your eyeballs while you pay very close attention to your eardrums.

Listen carefully, and you'll find yourself plunged into a rare film in which the imagery and soundtrack are so well meshed, they're completely worthless without each other - one in which Daft Punk's electronic heartbeat gives the entire movie a secret ulterior life.

You'll know you're doing it right when the characters are actually speaking. Years after Flynn's mysterious disappearance, his son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), goes searching for him in an electronic netherworld called the grid - a place where the sun never shines and the actors have no chemistry.

Can you hear them? Not when you've tuned your ears to the cool synthesizer arpeggios bubbling beneath the insipid chit-chat. Focus on the digital pulse coursing through this movie, and the dialogue becomes background music. Plot gives way to vibe.

And don't close your eyes. Set in a world of clean lines and iPod-ish luminescence, the grid becomes the kind of fantasy space where you'd dream of seeing a Daft Punk gig. Sure enough, the duo makes a cameo in a nightclub scene that seems to have been written into the script just so they could play "Derezzed," a high-gloss speaker-thumper in the Daft Punk tradition.

Almost everywhere else, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo don't sound nearly as Daft Punky. Instead, they conduct an 85-piece orchestra through the drifts and swells practically necessary to give the film's various fight scenes, chase scenes and fight-slash-chase scenes the requisite va-voom. But even when the timpanis reach peak rumble, Daft Punk's electric cool never wanes.

Disappointed fans say this music ventures too far into Hans Zimmerville, but the real influence here is John Carpenter, a director who scored some of his own films with the same vintage keyboards that give Daft Punk's music its sumptuous artificial warmth. Carpenter's "Escape From New York," a campy dystopian action flick from 1981 starring Kurt Russell, is survived by its strange, percolating score.

"Tron: Legacy" will probably be remembered the same way: an empty movie filled with wonderful sounds.


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