The Grid lit up yesterday with news that Disney was putting a new TRON film into production. The details were sketchy: Local Vancouver news source Van City Buzz claimed the sequel to 2010’s TRON: Legacy would be filming in the Hollywood-of-the-North later this year; Devin Faraci at BadassDigest confirmed the rumors with trusted sources. Disney didn’t respond to EW’s request for official comment; given the state of Hollywood right now, this could mean that TRON 3 isn’t happening, or it could mean that TRON 3 is actually three different movies sharing the same cinematic universe. (One will star Chris Pratt; one is “female-centric;” one will be written by Roberto Orci and/or Alex Kurtzman.)
Thirty-five years ago, the original TRON arrived in theaters. It was an expensive disappointment, though not quite a flop, and it left a dent on the zeitgeist. Four years ago, TRON: Legacy arrived in theaters. It cost about $170 million and grossed about $400 million—again, not a flop, but clearly a disappointment. (A movie needs to gross twice its budget to break even; given Disney’s long rollout, they were clearly hoping for a megahit.)
TRON: Legacy left a strange mark on popular culture. On one hand, every single concrete aspect of the movie’s story was forgotten almost immediately. Legacy was one of those movies that called upon a handsome young actor to play a complete blank. (Technically, it was Garrett Hedlund, but it could’ve been Jai Courtney, or Ryan Reynolds, or one Hemsworth or another.) Legacy was also one of those movies with a female character who was vastly more interesting than the blank protagonist: Olivia Wilde as a tempestuous algorithm with a punk-rock haircut and a penchant for Jules Verne, basically a combination of Sean Young in Blade Runner and Data on Next Generation and Trinity from The Matrix. Legacy had some unusual aspects—Jeff Bridges playing Young Jeff Bridges, Michael Sheen playing David Bowie—but even those eccentricities faded into the firmament. Legacy has none.
And yet, it endures. The soundtrack helps: Daft Punk’s Zimmerized electronica isn’t as outré as people expected, but it’s shockingly listenable—great workout music, great work music. It’s got no beat and you can dance to it; in an era when most blockbuster soundtracks are samey-samey, TRON: Legacy might actually be better known for its music than for anything else. But TRON endures for a different reason: It simply has one of the most unique visual landscapes in modern movies.
Director Joseph Kosinski is a “visual guy,” which is the euphemism people use when they’re trying to explain how a lot of modern directors seem incapable of working with actors or filming convincing dialogue scenes or telling a story or doing anything that defined movies before computers. His Oblivion has its defenders; I guess some people adore gray jumpsuits. Watch the trailer for TRON: Legacy again, and you can feel how Kosinski goes on autopilot when he’s bored. The first half of the trailer feels co-directed by Christopher Nolan: the Hero On A Skyscraper, the darkened bridge-and-tunnelscapes.
But then you get to the second half of the trailer, and something magical happens. There are a few scenes in TRON: Legacy that are outright uncanny: an approximation of pure cinema via animation, a glimpse of the sublime through a hundred million pixels. The original TRON used to look goofy, but its utterly unique style has aged it into artistry. TRON is monochrome but also color-blasted. The bleached-out skin and darken urbania of the Grid harkens back to pre-Technicolor cinema. The central fascination of TRON: Legacy is that the nominally “futuristic” neon harkens backwards, too.
People like to say that TRON anticipated internet culture. It absolutely did not. The joy of TRON is that it’s a complete fantasy derived from a hyper-specific moment in history—the moment when computers were mysterious, when a kid could imagine that beyond the darkened screen lay a world of impossible cities and anti-corporate crusaders and super cool motorcycles. It’s a tech fantasy the way Star Wars is a fantasy—spaceships and swordfights!—except that unlike Star Wars, the only thing that really sticks about TRON is the visuals.
Lately, whenever a big blockbuster movie is bad, it’s become trendy to blame the screenwriter. Prometheus is bad? It’s Damon Lindelof’s fault! (Never mind that Ridley Scott hasn’t made a good movie in a decade.) So it’s possible to assume that the problem with Legacy was that the screenplay was bad. It was—but I’m not sure the solution is more screenwriting. A couple years ago, Kosinski had this to say about a potential TRON 3: “We’ve been talking about it for a couple years and there’s always been this idea, a big idea, in the back of my head that we’ve been talking about….So we just want to make sure that we have a script that delivers on that promise on an epic scale.”
Disney has been “developing” TRON 3, hiring and firing one screenwriter or another. This strikes me as a bad idea. Why not just let Kosinski run rampant with whatever his “big idea” is—create a movie composed entirely of visuals, a movie that doesn’t need to bother with the current vogue for overexplanatory prologues and relentless exposition and characters like Old Jeff Bridges concocting ludicrous sub-Yoda philosophies? Like BIO-DIGITAL JAZZ, MAN?
It sounds strange to say this, but I’m just not sure TRON 3 needs a screenplay. Or anyhow, it doesn’t need a screenplay the way Disney thinks it needs a screenplay—a clear and coherent story arc with a hero’s-journey rise to glory and a Big Twist in act 3. Alone among movies that have become franchises, TRON doesn’t really depend on characters, or plot, or even specific settings. TRON is imagery. It’s lights moving across the screen.
That’s why the parts of Legacy that stick are just image and music—just Kosinski’s neon-light cityscapes and Daft Punk’s electron-organ symphonies. Disney seems oddly devoted to the idea that TRON could be the next Pirates of the Caribbean. They don’t realize that what they really have is a digital-age Fantasia.