Last week, unexpected (and still not wholly confirmed) news sprang up that production on a Tron: Legacy sequel was happening. Considering the nearly five-year interval in franchise limbo that this Joseph Kosinski film has marinated in, such a sudden turnaround is surprising but not unwelcome. To be sure, it is still much more expedient than the 28-year gap between the original 1982 Tron and its sequel/soft-reboot. Yet, more importantly, it also marks the continuation of a franchise and film universe that is appealingly bizarre.
Indeed, the odd duck quality of Tron: Legacy is why it seemed definite that The Walt Disney Company was prepared to let the digital universe first imagined by Steven Lisberger hibernate for another 30 years. While Tron: Legacy made a respectable $400 million from its late 2010 release, it is hardly in the ballpark of what Disney was only just beginning to savor from more traditional boy-targeted action movie content from Marvel Studios. Less than two years after Tron: Legacy, Marvel’s superb The Avengers rewrote blockbuster rules for 21st century franchise packaging, and the mixed reception experienced by the increasingly stark black and blue color palate of Tron seemed evermore the system glitch.
That’s exactly why another trip to the Grid should be embraced.
The peculiarity of the Tron universe, which treats the preadolescent fantasy of getting warped into a video game with the reverence of scripture, makes it stand apart from its contemporaries, even in the face of entirely justifiable criticism.
When I first saw Tron: Legacy over four years ago, I went in with the lowered expectations usually accompanied for electronic theme park light shows. Not even in wide release yet, and the film already had developed the reputation for being a beautifully crafted tech demo full of overstimulation—shallow but pretty. And there is genuinely much to criticize the film for.
At just over two hours, Tron: Legacy is probably 20 minutes too long. With a color scheme that relies on the subtlest variances of grays, blacks, blues, and reds, it is a visual landscape that is often only two-toned, and its digital vista is intentionally experienced via an airless vacuum. Further, the simple story about a father being sucked into his video game world for over 20 years, and then his son following his example, is still probably too simple for that 125-minute length. Plenty of lip-service is paid to the concept of this being a battle over sentient computer beings called “isomorphic algorithms” (or ISOs), but after seeing the film several times, it beats the hell out of me what they actually are—and the same could probably be said for the characters whose most profound explanation for these godlike digital aliens is “bio-digital jazz, man.”
And perhaps most inconvenient of all in Tron: Legacy is how much of an NPC (a non-playable character), its protagonist is: Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) has an obvious touch of Bruce Wayne about him. Released just two years after The Dark Knight, Sam Flynn spends his nights jumping from the rooftop of a corrupt billion dollar company that his missing father built to pounding, synthesized drums—Cillian Murphy is even standing in his way with shady business dealings that have turned Vancouver(?) into a seedy, decrepit world.
However, once inside the grid, the protagonist is little more than an exposition-seeking machine for the many more interesting characters to explain their universe to. If he’s our hero, it’s a shame that more detail was not given to the avatar’s narrative pixels.
And yet, even in 2010, there was something unfair about this capricious picking at Tron: Legacy. While the movie clearly had a bevy of issues, many of which go back to its screenplay, there was something that haunted the mind, or at least my mood, when leaving the theater – a sensation that has lingered as incessantly as the reverberations from its nostalgic ‘80s synthesizer score. Years later, when I think back to the film, I’m less inclined to recall the rubber de-aging effects on Jeff Bridges’ villainous CLU, as I am to acknowledge the truly alien ambiance of this synthetic air castle that director Joseph Kosinski built: a patently artificial moving canvas that pulsates to Daft Punk’s musical whispers.
On a fresh viewing of Tron: Legacy, I will safely argue that this movie is indeed greater than its actual legacy suggests at the moment.
My Zen Thing, Man
When taken on its own terms, Tron: Legacy is that rare studio tentpole that could hardly care about world building. This is an unavoidable irony since it is all about taking the concept of Lisberger’s original Tron premise and letting it evolve into a decadent society of computer programs that have turned the Grid—a closed digital world where programs look like people—into an urban cityscape of totalitarian excess. But the film’s world rarely exists outside of the current frame you are watching at any given moment. This is not a condemnation of Tron’s approach, but a compliment of its complete otherness. This isn’t about a place; it’s about an affect.
Despite being exposition-heavy, Tron: Legacy feels less driven by plot than it is by mood and atmosphere. There is a cryptic impenetrability on display throughout the film, which feels like being trapped in those earliest moments of waking life, when you’re unaware if you are exiting subconscious or reality. Whether that subconscious state is either a dream or a nightmare depends mostly on how appealing the monochromatic wonderland of the Grid is for each viewer, but it has an undeniably pensive and hypnotic presence.
What some mistake as slowness, I sense as the intent of the film. Many of Tron: Legacy’s best scenes happen away from the set-pieces of light cycles and light discs—they actually occur in the quiet moments of regret and acceptance, a visceral embrace of technological meditation that lines up more with the film’s two most interesting characters than its implicit purpose to move Disney merchandise. In fact, the entire blockbuster feels like it was commandeered by Jeff Bridges’ “Zen thing.”
When Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz came aboard to write the long-awaited Tron sequel, they brought in many respects the lessons of their time as Lost writers to the project, where characters and their internal philosophies can easily sway the story over premeditated plotting. While this is more acceptable on television (at least until fans get to the series finale), narrative filmmaking is supposed to have a forward momentum of plot, particularly in broadly marketed action movies.
But when they let Jeff Bridges have a hand in crafting the character of Kevin Flynn 28 years later, the paradigm shifted.
The basic concept of this movie’s plot is that Kevin Flynn is like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs rolled up into one before his own computer program holds him hostage for decades on the Grid. But while CLU—Kevin Flynn’s villainous doppelganger who has not aged in 30 years (hence some dubious digital effects)—is still that corporate side of ambition, Kevin himself has morphed into a sanguine Zen master, much due to Bridges’ own ideas. Essentially, he’s Bridges from The Big Lebowski if the Dude were also a pioneering computer genius that then had 20 years to think about his mistakes.
As a result, Tron: Legacy only comes to life after the obligatory action sequences involving CGI motorcycle chases are surrendered to a character that honestly feels more on Bridges’ wavelength than his more recent acclaimed work as Rooster Cogburn. Kevin Flynn now lives in a world of light, and on a genuine steel-and-glass concrete set. Kosinski did not go to film school. rather he attended Columbia University for architecture. So when his directorial lens gets away from the CGI effects of Tron’s early scenes, one senses his new interest for showing off this world—clearly preferring to build a video game reality with actual concrete and glass, and form-fitting LED-costumes as opposed to the expected ones and zeroes of modern blockbusters. The irony that this all takes place inside of a computer only increases the dreamlike quality.
The aforementioned ISOs that Flynn speaks of “manifesting like a flame” inside of his computer world still are a bit of a mystery in how they’ll “change the world” (other than as a metaphor for the Internet), but Bridges’ ability to wax poetic about them feels earnest because this “bio-digital jazz” is as believable an altar for Bridges’ onscreen persona as his morning calls to electronic prayer: “I’m going to go knock on the sky for a little bit.”
Flowers in a Wasteland
And it is in those ISOs that Tron: Legacy finds its other welcome, off-center presence: Quorra. As played by Olivia Wilde in skintight leather, Quorra looks right at home on the poster as another superheroine of modern blockbusters, who often are written to “kick-ass” just like the boys, and are thus considered passably marketable by studio logic: at least they’re not damsels in distress!
But again, the moodiness of the film drifts closer toward the weird and opaque due to Wilde’s wonderfully eccentric performance that seems counterintuitive to her big budget contemporaries. Quorra, in addition to being a living and breathing macguffin for both the Flynn boys to bring to the real world, is more pivotal to the plot than a traditional “me-too” female sidekick. There is an unavoidable childlike wonderment about Quorra since she was born out of digital space like the first microorganisms that came into being 3.5 billion years ago. As the heady concept of evolution in cyberspace made flesh, Quorra is enamored by the Flynns and human beings like an alien infant that’s accidentally made first contact.
If Bridges imbues the film with a pseudo-spiritual calmness, Wilde likewise gives it a soul. It is a playful one that should appeal to children in the audience, but it is also one to join Flynn’s congregation. In many ways, she is protagonist Sam Flynn’s sister as she was also raised by Kevin Flynn, but she is also his conversion of digital life into everyday life—such as if Siri became sentient and could walk around. More than Sam’s longing to reconnect with his father, it is her desire to connect with humanity that drives the sense of splendor and grandiosity about the adventure.
I mentioned earlier that the Grid is an airless vacuum, but the benefit of this cold beauty, which is mirrored in Wilde’s countenance and very wide eyes, is its finally expunged like a trippy dream (or acid trip). Just as much as the blockbuster mandated “save the world” histrionics, the motivational drive and throughline of the film is the figurative and literal longing Quorra has for seeing a sunrise. And indeed for most of the film’s running time, there is no sunlight. The Grid is set in perpetual night and darkness, and Sam’s journey into it during the film’s Wizard of Oz styled preamble also is set at night.
But once Sam and Quorra are freed from the long dark night into our world, the sun finally rises, taking on a transformative quality as we see it as Quorra does: for the first time. Like the rest of us, the film forgets about Sam Flynn—the catharsis is borne from the innocent glee she feels from the sun on her back and wind (finally) on her face.
In addition to the parallel temperaments of Bridges and Wilde readjusting the tenor of the picture from the father-and-son adventure Disney likely expected, there is some other intriguing depth that is often skipped over: the tone of gods walking amongst us.
Tron: Legacy gets to the base desire that comes with creating worlds, whether on film or in digital space, and why the likes of Gates or Jobs were so hellbent on changing our world in their own image: it literalizes the God complex in a very blunt genre manner. To create this video game (or cinematic) world of “the Grid,” Kevin Flynn is willfully playing God like any who seeks to change the way people live.
In this vein, Tron: Legacy mostly ignores the actual plot of the original 1982 Tron by creating flashbacks in the intervening years that take on the feeling of a genesis myth. We witness Kevin Flynn create CLU, his ego and ambition materialized from thin air. And CLU, who is literally the visage of Kevin Flynn, wants nothing more than to fulfill that drive, which is to rule over the Grid like a deity. Of course, this ends up taking on literal Gestapo iconography when it’s implied that he murders the genuinely godlike ISOs (save for Quorra) by rounding them up and gunning them down in the streets, but it still feeds into man’s need to be his own creator.
It is implied that CLU took Kevin Flynn’s garden and made an urban nightmare out of it, but he like all men (or in this case programs) did so with the desire of impressing his creator. CLU remembers his creation while holding a glassy, silver apple, and the knowledge that he took from Kevin Flynn about creating “the perfect system.” In a very unsubtle manner, CLU is Lucifer, who has doubly lost his paradise, because Flynn has a preference to maintain all power and knowledge (such as that of the real world) and keeps it for his preferred children, Adam and Eve (Sam and Quorra).
If this sounds all a bit ponderous, it is. Because like so much else it is there sitting beneath the surface, left underdeveloped. Still, there are wonderful moments that allude to this pomposity, such as when Flynn intervenes on Sam and Quorra’s behalf at the End of Line club action sequence. By simply touching the floor, all of the programs turn on his undesired children, slaughtering them for their literal Creator, and then they fall to their knees in worship of him. Such idolatry might be the most amusing aspect of Steve Jobs instilled into Kevin Flynn.
A Different Kind of Studio Tentpole
Tron: Legacy is certainly a flawed film, but it is in its emphasis on the film side of things that makes it a worthwhile one. The story favors ambiance and an impressively unique visual singularity (perhaps too much so) over plot and world building. At the same time, that very incongruous nature is why we can still talk about its peculiar individuality.
Increasingly, blockbusters and studio filmmaking all seems to be headed in the same direction of hegemonic sameness. It’s all becoming “Blockbuster Television,” as studio films chase similar aesthetics and the all-important “shared universes.” Stories are never complete, narratives are rarely finished, and in the quest for a formula that audiences like, all edges and corners are exorcised with extreme prejudice.
Well Tron: Legacy is nothing but corners and edges, literally and figuratively. As a narrative, it runs thin, but there is so much left on the Grid just waiting to be explored. It’s less driven by the television formula of setting up the next installment, as it takes from older films that also utilised atmosphere and sensation to supplant narrative. Just as much as Tron influenced this belated sequel, so too did Blade Runner.
While hardly in the same league, the second coming of Tron borrows liberally from the Ridley Scott 1982 science fiction film that is also more about an experience than a particular story. Much of that earlier science fiction neo-noir is implicitly written in Legacy’s coding with the Grid appearing virtually rainy and filled with femme fatale programs that will lure young Sam Flynn into clubs with double dealing underworld figures ripe for a Howard Hawks film—if by way of Joel Grey in Michael Sheen’s eccentric performance.
But most of all, this much more cinematic accentuation is felt in a score by Daft Punk that evokes Vangelis’ 1980s synthesizer works (Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner, Vampire in Venice). A mixture of electronic sounds and sampled orchestrations, the otherworldly effects of Daft Punk’s soundscapes echo longer than the actual film, and very well may be one of the best musical compositions written for a film in the last few years. If Jeff Bridges insisted on “knocking on the sky” for this film, Daft Punk opened the door.
For this quizzically cultish ‘80s aesthetic to reemerge in a 2010 blockbuster is once more the real reason Tron: Legacy deserves a reconsideration…as well, as its sequel. After all, if Disney is going to continue flooding the marketplace with the same superhero story again and again, why not another trip back to the Grid? The ending of Legacy actually makes one curious to see if its namesake is finally imprinted on Earth like Flynn dreamed—if for no other reason than to find out what exactly these damned ISOs are supposed to do.
You can find me on the Grid @DCrowsNest.