Did you WATCH the film? After reading your review I have to believe that you didn't.
"In 1982, Jeff Bridges' Kevin Flynn was a computer game designer who got zapped into a virtual world of his own making. Thirty years later, he's still there (never mind that he actually escaped in the original film)..." Yes, he escaped in the original film. He was out for at least 8 years since Sam was eight when he disappeared back into The Grid. During this time he built ENCOM, had a baby, lost his wife, and spent many an evening re-creating Clu and then, The Grid. You would know this if you watched the first 30 minutes of the film.
"and while he has been stuck, he has shepherded this virtual world into something that bears no resemblance to much of anything we would recognize as a representation of cyberspace." First of all, HE, as in Flynn, didn't shepherd this virtual world into anything. Flynn has spent a vast majority of the last 19 years in exile OFF the Grid protecting the last Iso (more on her later) and his disk from Clu. CLU, whom Flynn created but who is NOT Flynn, is responsible for the current state and appearance of the Grid. Secondly, how do YOU know what cyberspace looks like from the inside? Do you think that instead of electrical currents, radio waves, and digital 1s and 0s, there's a Google homepage magically sitting inside your computer?
"it still has no meaning for us." I wasn't aware that you represented the opinion
of the entire human race.
"It's just so freakin' cool to look at! Except it isn't. The spandex-and-neon aesthetic of the 1982 film has been upgraded to ooze even more smoothly into your visual cortex, but it still looks cheap and cheesy..." I thought it was really cool to look at. Beautiful even. Especially in 3-D. So did my husband. So did many a critic, blogger, and sci-fi buff. I didn't think that all the lights, costumes, and digital effects looked cheap and cheesy either. That's just my opinion, but I bet lots of people even dress up in Tron costumes this coming Halloween BECAUSE they look so cool.
"It's tough to love — or even to grudgingly like — Garrett Hedlund's Sam Flynn, Kevin's now grown-up son who follows Dad into VR-land. He's a smug, deeply unappealing, empty shell of a contrived would-be hero." He's a 27 year old kid who was tragically orphaned by both parents. So what if he's not sure who he is or who he wants to be yet? So what if he's not ready to take over his absent father's company? Did you have all the answers at 27? He's hardly an empty shell. You can see that he's conflicted about his father because he believes he might have been abandoned. You can tell by his "prank" that he has convictions about the current state of his father's company. You can definitely tell that he loves his father and is overjoyed to be reunited with him. He desperately wants Flynn to come home with him and is willing to risk his life to save his dad. Why do you think he's so terrible?
"Bonus negative points to the film for trying to make him heroic by having him release onto the Internet, free for download, the latest operating system from his father's still-extant company, ENCOM." I don't think Disney only did this to try and make him heroic. I think the writer was trying to show how, though conflicted about his father, Sam wishes for ENCOM to have values that coincide more closely with Flynn and Alan's implied value system. During the board meeting Alan asks, given the exorbitant price of OS 12 for STUDENTS and SCHOOLS, what the difference between it and OS 11 are. The chairman replies "the 12." In other words, ENCOM is simply seeking to rip people off for massive stock profits (as evidenced by the discussion of ENCOM stocks going global to coincide with the release of OS 12). Sam obviously doesn't think this is the right way to do business - even if he admits to not being ready to run an international company yet.
"We're supposed to care what happens in this cyber world, but it's hard to understand the threat." Clu was programmed to create a perfect world. In his endeavor to do this, he massacres the Isos. These beings were Flynn's miracle in that they are comprised only partly of his code and appeared spontaneously. "Conditions were right" and they manifested. Much like the miracle of life on earth might have (protobionts, prokaryotes, etc.). Clu annihilates them because they are imperfect. It doesn't take a genius to see the link between these Isos and human beings - or all life on Earth really. Clu wishes to march his army through the gate and make Earth a perfect system as well. Thus, we must assume annihilating all of us humans and probably all life on Earth. Is that a large enough threat to care about?
"Legacy wants to be content to exist in an uninteresting alternate to that (Matrix), one that, Kevin Flynn promised, would transform everything ("science, medicine, religion") yet cannot even begin to make us appreciate how this might come about." See above paragraph about Isos, the origin of life, etc. That would be a pretty massive discovery. It would change human ideas about evolution, God, and molecular genetics. Since he can repair Quorra's code, which looks and behaves much like DNA, and by doing so repair her, the practice of medicine would be transformed if these principles could be tailored to human beings.
"'biodigital jazz, man,' so where the hell is it?" The Isos "DNA" is biodigital. Biodigital jazz is a metaphor, an image, for the beautiful, miraculous, and spontaneous way the DNA came into being and for the form in which it now exists.
"But computerized babes in spandex? You can rest assured that is most definitely a feature here. Though some might call it a bug." There were only five "babes in spandex" in the whole film. Only two of any consequence. The men were wearing spandex as well. But really, what's so wrong with the women in spandex being hot?
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