Tron Legacy Revisited

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

In 2010, we saw the release of several would-be franchise starters based on ’80s properties, including The Karate Kid, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Most of these ended up being forgettable films that added nothing to the conversation, but there was one sequel that managed to do something different and unique — Tron: Legacy.

Tron: Legacy builds upon the, uh, legacy of the 1982 cult hit Tron, with visuals just as spectacular as those in the original film, a neat story about fatherhood, and one of the best movie soundtracks of the century — all while incidentally paving the way to our current slate of blockbuster filmmaking. Get on your light cycle and hit play on that Daft Punk score, because we’re heading back to the Grid for Tron: Legacy.

The Pitch

The original Tron was a revolutionary sci-fi film that combined live-action with cutting edge computer animation, featuring some of the first extensive use of CGI in cinema — something that earned the film an Academy Award for Technical Achievement. The problem was that the film did not make money, coming out during a bit of a rough patch for Disney. So, when Disney decided to make a sequel to Tron three decades later, it was a very big gamble.

For one, Tron: Legacy was the feature directorial debut of Joseph Kosinski, who had previously worked on TV commercials, including some for video games like Halo 3 and Gears of War. The film would take an approach that has since become incredibly common: a “legacyquel.” In this film, original lead character Kevin Flynn gets trapped inside the Grid for 30 years after his creation — a CGI de-aged replica of Jeff Bridges dubbed CLU — takes over the Grid and becomes a dictator. Like the original film, Tron: Legacy would employ the best special effects of its time to create an expansive world. Adding to the gamble was the hiring of French electronic music duo, Daft Punk, to compose the music. 

The film tries to replicate the sense of awe seen in the original film by creating a massive CGI world that could only exist at the movies, but also tell a story that comments on god complexes and even the very nature of movie sequels. But rather than do so with the optimistic tone of the original, which arrived during the dawn of widespread personal computers in the ’80s, Legacy takes a much more pessimistic approach — fitting for the age of social media and internet surveillance.

The Movie

For the most part, Legacy succeeds at what it tries to accomplish. Though not as revolutionary as the original, the film’s virtual world is absolutely stunning — and visually distinct from other similar worlds thanks to a rare case of desaturated colors in a film actually working. The gladiator battle scenes where two programs fight to the death using their identity disks are stunning, as are the iconic light cycle races, which get an added dimension in this film as they are done across several vertical levels that the cycles can jump up and down from before obliterating their opponents.

Of course, the aspect of the film most people remember is Daft Punk’s perfect score, which combines orchestral sounds with their trademark electronic music and set the stage for their next couple of albums. Seriously, whether you’ve somehow avoided this score for a decade or just forgot about it, listen to “Derezzed” again. This and The Social Network came out in the same year and gave us two of the best soundtracks of the decade. As Jeff Bridges’ Flynn would say: “Bio-digital jazz, man”!

As for the actual movie and what it tries to say, Tron: Legacy is a surprisingly effective exploration of father-son relationships and movie sequel commentary. The entire plot is about Flynn’s son, Sam, learning to live his own life outside his father’s shadow and reckoning with Flynn’s legacy. The film juxtaposes Sam’s story with that of CLU, Flynn’s digital creation meant to create “the perfect system.” Naturally, that creation goes mad, commits genocide, and hunts his creator because he deems him imperfect. Like Sam, CLU spends his entire life doing what he thought his creator wanted him to do, even as Flynn recognizes he’s not the same man he was back then, and he shouldn’t have tried to create a perfect system in the first place.

Of course, this is not unlike the movie itself, or any sequel for that matter. Tron: Legacy not only had to deliver a satisfying story for newcomers – it had to reconcile what fans of its predecessor thought they wanted 30 years ago versus what they wanted in 2010.

The Legacy

It’s hard not to see this movie as the first step in our current blockbuster landscape. As Kambole Campbell recently wrote in an excellent article for Polygon, the way Tron: Legacy makes its villain a CG replica of a human actor who tries to create a utopia without room for unpredictability, potential or creativity feels like an eerie omen for the way studios now act. Digital de-aging is quickly taking over major Hollywood productions, from prestige projects like The Irishman, to blockbusters like Marvel and Star WarsAnd then there are projects like Gemini Man, another film with a protagonist hunted by a CG replica of his younger self.

What makes Tron: Legacy hold up today is that CLU doesn’t need to be realistic or even look “good” in the typical sense of the word. CLU is not supposed to be a life-like creation, but a mistake who believes itself to be pure perfection. A decade after Tron: Legacy, it feels like CLU actually won. Studios are so obsessed with monolithic perfection that they eliminate everything that breaks the norm, no matter their potential. Yes, in this weird allegory, the firing of Lord and Miller from the set of Solo or Edgar Wright from Ant-Man is like when CLU killed every single one of the ISO (a weird, miraculous race of digital people). Somehow, Tron: Legacy managed to be a blockbuster ahead of its time – a major studio movie about the future of major studio movies. 

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