It only took a first viewing of 'Tron: Legacy' to know that I really liked the film, but I admit that it wasn't until the second that I really knew why. Like so many other science fiction and fantasy opuses, it's filled with a visual splendor, if not a sort of glorious self-indulgence that is likely to delight most viewers, and indeed it shows them things that they have never seen before. But its story has a deceptive denseness that is at once legitimately complex and spectacularly flimsy, which will no doubt engender a significant and perhaps deserved dislike from folks who are insufficiently inspired to probe deeper - much less watch it again.

As a longtime fan of the 1982 original, I must confess to a certain willingness to give this sequel/follow-up the benefit of the doubt, although by no means would I be or am I now blind to its shortcomings. But there is an undeniable singularity to the accomplishments of first-time director Joseph Kosinski and his cast and crew that really does make it a special, vaguely nostalgic but also futuristic fable, a time capsule and fortune teller bottled up together inside the prettiest piece of pop art you've ever seen. Moreover, it's not in spite but precisely because of the wonky, unusual feeling it produces that 'Tron: Legacy' is a thrilling, evocative, and utterly satisfying piece of entertainment.
Garrett Hedlund ('Friday Night Lights') plays Sam Flynn, the headstrong but aimless son of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a computer programmer and corporate CEO who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the late 1980s. Now 27, Sam lives alone in a reconfigured garage and only visits his father's company long enough to stage elaborate pranks that undercut its bottom-line profiteering. But after former ENCOM figurehead Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) tells Sam that he received an unlikely page from Kevin's long-abandoned arcade, the younger Flynn decides to investigate further.

Discovering a secret room behind the rows of dusty 1980s video games, Sam hacks into what appears to be his father's computer. Subsequently, he is sucked into a futuristic, computer-created world where he is forced to compete in various games of physical skill by Clu, a fascistic dictator who curiously also happens to look just like his father. But when a young woman named Quorra (Olivia Wilde) intervenes and rescues him from the game grid, Sam begins to discover the complexity of this world, which was actually created from the ground up by his father before he was trapped inside it decades ago.

As written by Adam Horowitz and Eddie Kitsis, two former staff writers for 'Lost,' 'Tron: Legacy' carries a lot of the same so-smart-it's-dumb mythology, and especially the sort of superficial multitudes that made their previous gig such an indelible (and often equally contentious) viewing experience. Expanding on core concepts introduced in the original film, Kitsis and Horowitz employ a 'Terminator 2' attack strategy with their story, building the 'Tron' universe outward in terms of scope and vision while retaining a recognizable lexicon of structure, imagery and ideas. The end result certainly rewards viewers familiar with Steven Lisberger's 1982 groundbreaker, but the first film isn't required in order to understand or fully appreciate the dynamics of either the characters or their adventures.

This is especially true since 'Tron: Legacy' engineers into its fabric a specific visual thread that connects it to its predecessor, but more than that creates a sense of a timeline that exists further back than just the first minutes of the film. In a fairly stunning if not-quite-successful experiment using the performance-capture technology that made the cat people of 'Avatar' possible, Jeff Bridges not only plays himself in the film at his current age, but also delivers a performance as his '80s-era self, complete with digitally-designed facial features that make him look more like he just shot 'Starman' than 'Crazy Heart.'

Because it seems like the filmmakers were developing their technology concurrently with Cameron's, Clu seems more in line with the computer-generated not-quite-human beings of 'Beowulf' or 'A Christmas Carol' than the standard-bearing Na'vi, who looked realistically and recognizably like the actors performing them. Nevertheless, the creative choice to have Bridges play himself at two different ages – and to pull it off with such a high degree of success - sets an auspicious and significant precedent that should have some interesting repercussions in future films.

Whether it was the rumored participation of Pixar executives or the ongoing design of the screenwriters, however, the emphasis on the relationship between fathers and sons is what makes the film resonate, not its technical trickery. As the lost little boy in a man's body, Hedlund has a lot of heavy lifting to do, but he's enabled considerably by Bridges' effortless command of his character, and by extension, the screen itself. Their reunion is genuinely affecting – a profound, palpable moment of joy and love – but its bittersweetness underscores the real need for Sam to not only come to terms with his father's absence for much of his life, but to move past it and become a man in his own right. Meanwhile, Flynn's relationship with Clu carries its own familial undertones, and it's the recognition of his own culpability in the corruption of Clu's soul that transforms what may have been a technical exercise into a substantive emotional conflict.

Although some of the supporting characters are relatively forgettable, the one most crucial to the story – and unexpectedly, the overall success of the film – is Quorra. Olivia Wilde has possibly the second most-irresistible smile I've ever seen, but there's not a false moment in her performance, and she gives Quorra a dimensionality and substance that the film doesn't require, but certainly benefits from. The simultaneous combination of her strength and naivete places her somewhere between Ellen Ripley and Trinity in the continuum of kick-ass female characters, and the purity of her enthusiasm is infectious, giving even dramatic scenes an extra jolt of energy but turning action set pieces into explosive sequences that are both epic and personal.

Admittedly, some of those sequences resemble ones in other films, most notably an escape in a four-wheeled vehicle that shares a few things in common with Batman's tumbler, and a shootout that conjures TIE Fighter showdown in the original 'Star Wars.' But beyond my general feeling that it's virtually impossible to create a mythic science-fiction story (or really any story) and not in some way reference previous texts, what the film does is not copy them, but evoke the feeling that they created; when Sam is manning a turret and trying to lock down their pursuers in his crosshairs, the moment shares the breathtaking, swashbuckling spirit of a similar scene in Lucas' film, but it isn't derivative, at least not in the sense that the filmmakers were consciously trying to reference their predecessors.

Indeed, those films seem in many ways like stylistic antecedents to 'Tron: Legacy.' But Kosinski's accomplishment is to make the film feel like his and his alone, at least in total; notwithstanding my obvious familiarity with both the disc battles and light cycle chases, for example, these are sequences that truly look like nothing I have ever seen on film before, and he executes them not just with imagination and originality, but clarity. Quite frankly it seems inconceivable to create a world comprised entirely of sexy, translucent shapes and textures, much less shoot it coherently, but I was never at a loss for geography or spatial depth, no matter how complicated the choreography of the action became.

At the same time, Kosinski hasn't yet mastered the art of getting all of the emotional depth out of his performers, nor laying out straight the bag of snakes that comprise much of the film's conceptual logic. (I'm still not entirely sure what "isomorphic algorithms" are or do or mean, and there are a few scenes that fail to fully capitalize on their dramatic potential.) But his sly and meticulous visual cues not only create parroted, powerful experiences between the real and computer worlds, but they create a sort of bridge between the geometric precision of the first film and the glossy contours of this one.

Again, however, I'm not altogether sure that I would have felt as generous to the film had I not seen it twice before committing my thoughts to paper; it is unquestionably an ambitious project that sometimes bites off more than it can chew. But in retrospect, that second viewing really is not just preferred, but truly necessary in order to digest what it's trying to do - which is create a completely new reality, and then make us believe in it. Thankfully, it's also a movie that looks so spectacular that you will actually want to see it again, even if for some the expectation is that it's worth suffering through a stream of exposition just to get to those thrilling visuals. (The 3D is as immersive and effortless as Cameron's was in 'Avatar,' and the IMAX presentation will truly take your breath away.)

'Tron: Legacy' is a surprising film for many reasons, not the least of which being that it contains more substance than is easily explored – if also to some extent, articulated - in just one viewing. And perhaps it might seem like a pre-emptive defense against logical or narrative shortcomings to make one of its central themes the idea that perfection, as we can imagine it, is ultimately unknowable. But it's a point that's well-taken, and if I have to endure the kind of imperfection that produces a film like 'Tron: Legacy,' which is interesting, inspiring and for better or worse, simply incomparable, then it's worth it.

'Tron: Legacy' is due in theaters on December 17th.