This article contains spoilers for LIGHTYEAR.
Lightyear, the new movie from Pixar is (as an opening card now famously tells us) the film that little Andy from the Toy Story movies saw and was so excited about that he received a Buzz Lightyear toy as a gift in 1995.
The movie follows the adventures of space ranger Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) of Star Command, who is piloting a mission alongside commanding officer Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) to explore new, potentially habitable worlds.
When an overconfident Buzz accidentally damages the ship and strands it on a planet that is livable but filled with hostile lifeforms, the crew of scientists aboard have no choice but to build a colony on what they call Tikana Prime. Buzz, meanwhile, tirelessly flies test missions using hyperspace fuel, which is the only possible way to get the crew back to Earth.
But every time Buzz launches a test flight, time dilation causes him to spend just four minutes in space while four years pass on the planet below. So each time Buzz comes back from a mission, Alisha and the other members of the crew have aged. And while he obsesses over the course of 62 years (or about 16 days from his perspective) about getting them all back home, they build a life on the planet, one that includes children, aging, and death.
Buzz does eventually perfect hyperspace travel again—although largely thanks to his robotic cat Sox (voiced by Pete Sohn), who figures out the formula. However, by the time he does, he’s become a renegade who’s gone rogue, working against the orders of Commander Burnside (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). Albeit, that matters even less than the fact that after the last 22-year interval, the colony Buzz failed to live by has come under siege by the enigmatic Emperor Zurg and his army of robots.
So how does it all play out?
Why Zurg Became an Older Buzz
Buzz teams up with a ragtag group of the colony’s defense forces, including Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), the clumsy, incompetent Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi), and paroled convict Darby Steel (Dale Soules) to defeat Zurg and save the colony.
But in the biggest reveal of the movie, Zurg captures Buzz and reveals to him that he is actually…Buzz himself, only an older, alternate Buzz from a branching timeline that was created during the space ranger’s successful hyperspeed flight and landing on Tikana Prime. (More on that in a moment.)
But wait, didn’t we learn in Toy Story 2 that Zurg , or the toy version of him anyway, was actually Buzz’s father (in a nod to the Luke/Vader reveal in The Empire Strikes Back)?
“The thing about Zurg being Buzz’s dad is that back in 1999, that reference was novel and somehow hilarious,” says director Angus MacLane when we bring up this detail to him. “But now that kind of fan service-type thing can seem a little diminishing for the movie, in my opinion, and I think as time went on internally at the studio, we kind of regretted that decision to make him the father.”
MacLane adds, however, that there were early versions of Lightyear in which Zurg was indeed Buzz’s father: “But then we had to lay so much track of who the dad was and why this thing happened, that at the end of the day, you’re spending all this time doing this and there’s no revelation there—anyone who’s ever seen Toy Story 2 is just waiting to get to information they already know.”
The director adds, “Buzz’s hubris, and the thing he wanted more than anything becoming a destructive force became really interesting to us. So that was the root of that, because what we wanted to tell was a story about a hero that thinks he’s a hero, but it’s that heroism that ultimately is dark and dangerous.”
How Did Older Buzz Create a Divergent Timeline?
The bigger issue for some to wrap their heads around about Lightyear‘s surprise villain is how the time traveling mechanics of it all work. After all, we follow “our” Buzz (the younger one), the whole movie only to discover at a certain point that there is an older version of himself walking around. Which of them is the “original,” or prime, Buzz? The answer again lies with Buzz the Elder who we learn via flashback created the divergent timelines by traveling backwards in time from his dark future.
MacLane also expands on this element when we spoke with him about the new film.
“While this is not explained, Old Buzz did find a way, technologically, to break the timeline, to branch out and go back,” the director says. “So now they’re in the same timeline, but if Buzz were to break his arm, it doesn’t immediately break Old Buzz’s arm because Old Buzz basically broke off [from this] timeline. We say very specifically that he broke time to do that, using alien technology that isn’t ever explained.”
To be sure, this is a little… confusing. Nevertheless, Old Buzz (voiced by James Brolin) tells Young Buzz that he did indeed travel much further into the future where he discovered his Zurg suit and tech, the robot army, and other goodies in an abandoned alien vessel, using the rest of his hyperspace fuel to travel backwards in time.
When he traveled back in time, he “broke the timeline” by arriving before Young Buzz could be chased off-world as Old Buzz had been in the original timeline. Hence we follow Buzz after his final hyperspace test to a present where Zurg has been attacking the colony for some time… and thereby preventing them from ever chasing Young Buzz toward the old man’s grim fate.
What Does Zurg Want?
Zurg/Old Buzz has a simple goal: He wants to obtain more of Young Buzz’s hyperspace fuel formula so that he can travel even further into the past and prevent the colony ship from ever launching its mission to Tikana Prime, thus changing the course of history so that the crew is never stranded there.
“Of course, Old Buzz wants to share the glory of fixing the mistake with a younger version of himself,” says MacLane. “You’ll notice that Old Buzz has no connection to anybody. He only has a tenuous connection to Sox and he has these robots to talk to. He is left isolated and alone by his own decision-making to only focus on his past and his mistake.”
Although our Buzz has been focused on getting home all along, he realizes that if Old Buzz changes the past that the crew will never experience the lives they managed to make for themselves on Tikana—including raising families, falling in love—and that the intrepid, courageous Izzy Hawthorne herself might never come to exist.
Although in a way saving the crew from being stranded is what Young Buzz has wanted all along, he now refuses to go along with Old Buzz’s plan.
How does Buzz Defeat Zurg?
While Buzz has been hearing Old Buzz out, Izzy, Sox, Mo and Darby sneak aboard Zurg’s vessel and launch a counterattack to rescue Young Buzz. The latter snatches back the hyperspace fuel crystal from his future self and a fierce chase and fight begins, ending with the destruction of Old Buzz/Zurg’s ship.
The latter, however, escapes, and the only way for Our Buzz to stop Old Buzz from sabotaging the team’s own vessel is to jettison the remaining hyperspace fuel, seemingly killing Old Buzz but allowing Young Buzz’s ship to land safely back on Tikana.
Buzz and his team are welcomed back as heroes by Commander Burnside, who offers Buzz a new job as space ranger and allows him to keep his now-seasoned team as his crew. Buzz, finally free of his guilt and his obsession with getting back to Earth, accepts the colony’s life on Tikana and accepts the mission… heading out to “infinity and beyond” on a new mission of exploration as the credits roll.
Lightyear is all about recognizing the effects of one’s choices, adapting to new circumstances in life, and accepting one’s own limitations and adjusting expectations, a journey into, ironically, inner space that Buzz successfully completes.
Will there be a sequel?
After two jokey, throwaway mid-credits scenes, the very last thing we see at the end of the movie (even after the Pixar logo!) is Old Buzz floating lifelessly in space in his Zurg suit, which suddenly powers back up. It stands to reason, of course, that if Lightyear was a hit in its universe, then sequels must exist too.
“I think there were three sequels, but one was done by another company because of a leveraged buyout,” jokes MacLane. “And they got another actor to do it, like a George Lazenby kind of thing. I imagine it to be pretty much like the way the Star Wars thing works where there was the Star Wars trilogy, then two Ewok adventures, then the Droids cartoon then the Ewoks cartoon. It was those droids and Ewoks cartoons that spawned the Buzz Lightyear we know. That’s the way I thought about it.”
Lightyear is in theaters now.