The curious legacy of Tron: Legacy
Close your eyes during Tron: Legacy and you can still see the movie it should have been. Daft Punk's soundtrack is, like, an okay Daft Punk album. But most original scores for blockbuster movies are boring and samey, the industrial sound of affordable composers forced to imitate whoever the producers really wanted. There were bad John Williams impressions, then bad Hans Zimmer impressions, and now bad Michael Giacchino impressions. For Tron: Legacy, a couple French robots pretended they were writing symphonies for a lovelorn cyberpunk war disco. Were they closing their eyes, too? Hard to tell, they wear helmets.
On the all-time-great track "Recognizer," strings tapdance across a roaring synth bass line. It sounds like, I don't know, desperate sparrows flying across a canyon-sized computer screen, and the computer is actually a spider-titan android breathing fire made of human rage. The vibe is The Immortal Duel Between Analog and Virtual: actual instruments clashing then soaring with musical machines. And while that fantastic tune plays, the thing happening onscreen is Garrett Hedlund staring blankly at a just-fine PlayStation 3 cutscene.
The opening minutes get it right, at least. The Walt Disney Pictures logo appears, rendered Tron-ish. The original film arrived in 1982, when the typical computer experience was sparkly dots at the arcade and/or words the color of Christmas lighting up a microwave-sized PC. Writer-director Steven Lisberger extrapolated those rudiments into an aesthetic where everything became its own glow-in-the-dark skeleton: Outlines of skyscrapers, armlines and leglines glowing on skull-to-toe onesies, vehicles shaped like kindergarten geometry.
Tron: Legacy begins in that prehistoric techno-world, with glowing lines moving across an X-Y axis. Jeff Bridges narrates something ludicrous about a digital frontier where info-clusters are motorcycles and the circuits are freeways. The opening track, "The Grid," crunches a synth line that could be menu music for a Sega Genesis space adventure. Strings flutter as the screen dissolves into a nighttime city street. Audio and video tell a unified story: digital and analog, virtual reality becoming (conquering?) actual reality. "I kept dreaming of a world I thought I'd never see," Bridges explains. "And then one day, I got in." And then the main theme just cranks, keyboard notes easy enough to play on a Casio yet sharp enough to cut your heart wide open. The movie's title appears, sort of. Tron is the only word we see.
Maybe that's appropriate. Ten years later, Tron: Legacy has less of a legacy than the original film it worshipped. The sequel is a shimmery footnote for Daft Punk, who were a few years away from really nailing the whole orchestral-electronica thing with Random Access Memories. It was the first big film Bridges starred in after his Crazy Heart Oscar anointed his fuzzy-uncle sixtysomething stardom — but it was released almost simultaneously with True Grit, a much better film with the good historical luck of inventing Hailee Steinfeld. Legacy was a hallmark entry in the post-Avatar 3D boom, a misbegotten technological revolution everyone would like to forget. I recall Legacy looking pretty nifty on a big IMAX screen, but a recent pandemic rewatch was absolute death, one flat scene after another shot on a digital backlot that looks like pre-vis for a car commercial. There are eternal rumors about a follow-up. It will happen, eventually, but the sun will also burn out eventually. Disney just announced a thousand things, and Tron 3 wasn't one of them.
CGI never really ages well. The obsolescence is starting to feel planned; you seek out a new sequel hoping it will feel as real as its predecessor once did. Yet Legacy doesn't even look as good as the original Tron, where the sweet silliness and beep-boop Wendy Carlos score gives all the floating-block action an endearingly fingerpainted quality. 1982 was the same summer as E.T. and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the comparison is not kind. Those are perfect entertainments full of sharp characters, and Tron is a paper-doll fairy tale rescued from pure melodrama by Bridges' I-dunno-man smirk.
The cheese has flavor, though. Bridges plays Kevin Flynn, a sexily brash rockstar computer engineer who runs a video arcade the way Steve Rubell ran a night club. We find him playing a laser-shooty stand-up cabinet, his amazing ability to hit the "fire" button enough to thrill an adoring squad of young lovelies. He lives right above the arcade — so when he immediately takes off his shirt, his sweaty chest shines an '80s shade of magenta.
It's a movie star introduction, for an actor giving maybe the 27th best performance of his career. In Tron: Legacy, Bridges reappears in the prologue, set in 1989. Something is wrong, and the movie doesn't realize it. Kevin Flynn's face looks like a Metal Gear Solid animatic: Smoothed cheeks, eyes without twinkle, hair a bit clawlike. Digital de-aging is a terrible invention for humanity, one that Legacy infamously doubles down on. This new film dwindling in its first scene, and Olivia Wilde won't appear for 45 minutes.
Kevin tells his young son, Sam (Owen Best), a bedtime story. It is, essentially, the plot summary of Tron. The camera lingers lovingly on a Tron advertisement, with art imported across realities from the actual movie poster. Here, it's promoting a videogame created by Kevin, inspired by his experiences inside the Grid. In the Tron-verse, Tron is hugely popular, one of the two bestselling videogames in history. We're already weathering some in-universe brand propaganda. In our actual universe, Tron was a middling box office performer with a long tail through the video era.
Almost 30 years of cult fandom is some kind of accomplishment. The echo chamber of sequelization always requires extra chest beating. When Kevin Flynn goes missing, a montage of news establishes that he was a populist techlord, the swaggering CEO of uber-powerful ENCOM, prone to giving speeches about the world of digitality. "In there is our future!" he declares at an '80s version of a TED talk. "In there is our destiny!"
Turning Flynn into, like, the Che Guevara version of Steve Jobs has some historical weight. In the original Tron, Flynn was a brilliant creative nudged out of a company he built by monolithic suits. Incredibly, this became the Steve Jobs origin myth after the movie's release, when the Apple board demanded his resignation in 1985. Jobs was still alive in 2010, and his Silicon Santa routine reflected a mainstream burst of rampant optimism about computer technology. The world will never feel that optimism again. And you should be alarmed, maybe, by the fact that the young Kevin Flynn preaching about humanity's bright techno-future looks like an unfinished deepfake.
A newscaster sets the emotional stakes of the film: "What will become of Flynn's legacy and the future of ENCOM will mostly likely depend on what becomes of this now orphaned little boy." Sam Flynn becomes a man, and Hedlund never looks comfortable for a second. The movie straitjackets him with daddy issues and the Disney version of rebellious daredevil-ism. For most of his screen time, he's reacting to greenscreen nothing and asking questions so nobody in the audience gets confused. It's a void performance, begging you to grab a controller that isn't there. Sam also radiates a then-familiar strain of bargain-bin Christopher Nolanism, another sorrowfully brash billionaire orphan performing extreme-sports activism and moaning that various adoring fathers didn't hug him enough. There is a subplot about how ENCOM is now run by vain business cads, and that subplot ends when Sam's dad's best friend takes over the company: An exact quote of the Wayne Enterprises boardroom thread from Batman Begins, complete with a Cillian Murphy cameo.
I'm being cruel to be kind, I swear. Tron: Legacy imagines Sam Flynn as a jaded millennial who is also, incongruously, an obsessive nostalgist. He drives his dad's motorcycle and might be wearing his dad's leather jacket. He sure doesn't mind daddy's money. He lives in waterfront property overlooking two bridges, the kind of lusciously appointed garage you would see filed on Instagram under #WarehouseChic. His childhood home was right on the bay, come to think of it; white people do like living by the water. Sam's a college dropout and an anti-corporate anarchist, two rebel iconographies that fade in the face of his dutiful dedication to his father's dreams (not to mention the constant product-placed DUCATI logo.) Here is how we meet this market-tested protagonist. He speeds down a freeway, too fast for cops to catch him. He hijacks ENCOM's new product launch, a 10-figure heist at least. And then he base-jumps off a skyscraper. Police arrest him, and in the next scene he's merrily strolling out of the police station. What joy to live without consequences!
I'm lingering on the opening half hour Tron: Legacy because all the problems are there, and because these problems would become massive Hollywood problems in the bleak decade ahead. An archaic beeper call sends Sam back to his dad's old arcade. The actual location of Flynn's, in 1982, was in Culver City, right where Culver and Washington and Watseka collide into a six-way jumble. Only in SoCal, man, and in the establishing shot you can see the hazy streetlamps disappearing into the horizon, and catch sight of local exhibitionists who don't care about the perpetual traffic out their window.
By 2010, Culver City was on its way to a high-price real estate renaissance. Today, Amazon and Apple are carving it up. Yet Legacy relocates the arcade to a broken-down corner of its nowhere city. Forget the boarded up storefronts and the graffiti. Somehow, the main street has half as many lanes — a genuine feat of infrastructure! TRON's PG night was lit up with lurid neon, so you understood that Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan were squares not cool enough for this bad part of town. In Legacy, the complete lack of color is secretly judgmental, a Fincher-ish evocation that mainly expresses aristocratic fears about the inner city. There aren't even any people around; that would require too much imagination.
Did Joseph Kosinski even care about this part of the movie? The plot and the fun aims toward the Grid, I know. But if you can't get the reality right, how good can your fantasy be?
The messages we're being sent are incoherent, yet telling. On one hand, Legacy needs to build up its own legacy. In Tron, Kevin Flynn was, like, a cool computer programmer, cheerfully capitalist enough to fume about getting screwed out of his videogame royalties. Three decades later, he's a martyred techno-messiah, his very name synonymous with utopian ideals about the free flow of information. (His son's opening heist posts ENCOM's expensive new operating system online for free.) His disappearance has bleached the world of color. A resurrection is required, maybe even an urban renewal.
This is a hot load of bull, more self-important than a sequel about polychromatic battlebot motocross has any right to be. It's also a company line almost every franchise would peddle in the 2010s. Pop culture in the last decade served up nostalgia with a victim complex, constantly reimagining the greatest and most popular heroes of entertainment history as emotionally damaged sadsacks unloved by the world they kept saving. Flynn's dusty arcade anticipates the ruined old park in Jurassic World and all the familiar spaceships crashed planetside in the new Star Wars trilogy. When Legacy came out, a rebooted Star Trek franchise had already orphaned Kirk and Spock, and a new Superman movie was about to spend two and a half hours staring upwards at an emo space Christ with two dead dads. In Skyfall, James Bond got his own version of Flynn's ruined arcade: A desolate old mansion out in Scotland, full of sad memories of lost parents.
What the hell happened to our movie heroes? You can't ignore The Dark Knight, of course, a phenomenon whose very title roadmapped the self-consciously serious way forward. Some bargain sociology could identify an underlying tone of whiteboy grievance, so many born-rich heroes with infinite budgets and/or literal superpowers who brandish their inner hurt as a resumé-building Thing To Overcome. Would it be narcissistic for a critic to wonder if the sting of harsh reviews lead filmmakers down a path of privileged paranoia? By 2016, Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice were both about cruel governments cracking down on swell superheroes' license to do literally anything. This trend ran alongside the vampiric vogue for pop culture icons with literal magic blood. Scientists kept turning the corpses of General Zod or Megatron into new movies' worth of villainy: Maggots on a corpse, maybe, or new notion of blockbuster storytelling itself as an act of cannibalism. How many people in Logan are Wolverine's illegitimate test-tube children?
All movies were sequels or adaptations, standing on the shoulders of giants they had to worship. (They are also, in fairness, almost all better than Tron: Legacy, though all their music is worse.) A silly film like Tron could pretend that computer engineers were handsome hedonists just because it was breaking genuine new ground in its setting and production. The world was new and nobody talked about their parents; who cared if all the details were hyperbolically wrong? In Tron: Legacy, Sam hears a bedtime story about an '80s movie and spends his whole lonely life wishing the world was as fun as that bedtime story. The grievance is complicated, yet by now eerily conventional: Why isn't now as fun as it was then? Elsewhere in 2010, even an amiable goof like Iron Man 2 would be weighted down with a strong anxiety of influence, forcing Robert Downey Jr's middle-aged Tony Stark through a reckoning with his dead, brilliant, imposing, secretly loving dad.
There must have been something in the water; something very similar happens in Legacy. After a couple big action setpieces that look like hot nothing on Disney+, Sam finds his father hidden in the Grid's wasteland. It's Old Jeff Bridges, finally, and he is a hoot, playing the elder Flynn as a madwizard of techno-magik. Kevin comes gilded with cultural signifiers. his house has the white-panel-floor Victorian austerity of 2001's climax. He declares "The only way to win is not to play," a near-quote of WarGames. Kevin preaches about transmogrifying the human form into the digital space, and recounts his discovery of an entirely new species of life buried deep in the code. "Heavy stuff," he explains, before uttering the truly immortal line intended to sum up his world-altering discovery: "Bio-digital jazz, man!!!"
Nominally, he is talking about the "isomorphic algorithms," a strange race of beings generated spontaneously in the computerized universe. It's not a huge metaphorical leap to figure out what he's really talking about: Digital natives, people with no memory of a world before constant technology, unencumbered by frail old definitions of reality. The only ISO left in Legacy's time is Wilde's Quorra, a character obviously built for a sequel that never came. Quorra is a hallmark manifestation of Trinity Syndrome, Tasha Robinson's brilliant summation of the blockbuster trend for nominally strong female characters shoved aside by their own movies. Legacy helplessly lives in the shadow of The Matrix, even though Tron came first — so Quorra even looks little like Trinity, another short-haired badass who rescues the film's hero so he can rescue her later.
Legacy should obviously star Wilde. A few years later, it would have. This would not have fixed the movie, of course. Daisy Ridley had to spend three movies getting oldsplained by the original Star Wars actors. And there is something Jedi-ish about Kevin Flynn's presentation: trenchcoat robe, hazy psycho-kinetic superpowers, the fact that he calls Quorra "my dear apprentice." The screenplay, credited to Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz off a story also credited to Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, offers Quorra a few laughlines. We find out she loves reading, which matters less storywise than her martial arts background.
And there is, of course, the scene that everyone remembers. Michael Sheen pops up as a character with two names and three plot twists. His nominal inspiration was Ziggy Stardust, and I don't want to harp on a formalist point here, but glam rock was colorful. Hell, the original Tron was colorful, while Legacy's desaturation never doesn't feel like an advertising filter. However flat you think the first movie's Commodore 64 effects are, the visuals have a scratchy allure, hieroglyphic if not Pop Art. Like, here's a random scene with two bad guys looking at a monitor:
And here is a nominally fun scene from Legacy:
Do you see the difference? Thank god for Guardians of the Galaxy, but don't think that blockbuster blandness is a lost problem just because filmmakers remembered what purple was and all the new actors have visible tattoos.
In the nightclub scene, Quorra gets knocked comatose. So she's unconscious for the big scene where the two heroic guys talk about how important she is. Yes, this really was gender in blockbuster cinema 10 years ago, but enough quibbling, because there is one thing about the story of Tron: Legacy that is really good — so good, in fact, that it seems to justify everything the soundtrack is doing. Actually, this plot point is brilliant, albeit entirely dependent on the possibility that bad special effects carry a moral purpose.
See, Legacy really is about legacy; dueling legacies. Kevin's son, Sam, wants to bring his father back to the world. But Kevin has another "son": Clu, a Codified Likeness Utility, played via performance capture by the bad-videogame version of Jeff Bridges. He's a program built decades ago to design a perfect digital world. He's another digital native, really, without any of Quorra's curiosity. He doesn't read old library books, or wonder what a sunshine looks like. His version of perfection requires maximum efficiency. His whole existence seems to be an act of brutal grievance. And it takes forever, but when the film finally reveals his plan, it's a doozy. He has transformed all the peaceful, distinctive program-people of the Grid into a race of unthinking soldiers — and he is going to send those soldiers into the real world, where he will rid humanity of all imperfection.
The prescience is uncanny. You have to remember this was before anyone thought internet trolls would topple democracies, before fanboys nostalgic for freaking Ghostbusters decided to stage a gynopocalypse against the concept of female comedy. Here is a recreation of the original Tron's hero — an '80s cult icon — fully villainized by the passage of time and sequelization into an ageless inhuman fascist who demands an aesthetic of monochromatic sameness: Everyone in the same clothes, everyone in bright red. Heavy stuff for a nostalgic movie desaturated into grayish oblivion — and with that horrific de-aging, Bridges literally looks like a beautiful memory turned sour, an elder botoxed into self-regarding oblivion.
The same moment Tron: Legacy hit theaters, Time magazine was putting Mark Zuckerberg on their "Person of the Year" cover, offering up the Facebook CEO as an avowed semi-Buddhist disinterested in money who "loves being around people" and dreams of turning "the lonely, antisocial world of random chance into a friendly world, a serendipitous world." Whoopsie-daisy, though you can't blame the dealer for selling you drugs, and Clu's big speech has stray phraseologies familiar to anyone getting high on all 2010's pro-Silicon Valley boosterism. "I will make their world open and available to all of us!" he promises. "Out there is a new world! Out there is our destiny!"
It's a weird echo of that early news montage, connecting the utopian dreams of Kevin Flynn's late '80s with the dystopian nightmare of a fully mobilized 2010s bot army. The meanings are all a bit jumbled here, inevitable from a franchise product killed by a thousand cuts. Technology is good and bad; Kevin Flynn is a bighearted creator and the prisoner warden of his glorious creation; nobody in front or behind the scenes of Legacy seems to conceive how the Grid actually works in a world with, like, the internet.
Yet it all sets up a climax rife with unexpected meaning. As the track "Flynn Lives" plays, Kevin Flynn stares down a catwalk at his two sons — and the adopted daughter who matters more than either of them. He sacrifices himself by re-absorbing Clu, removing the source of the toxicity by, well, removing himself. The hero musical theme recurs — with a horn section!
The old man and his nostalgic recreation both die inside the computer. Tron: Legacy ends with Quorra in the outside world, a being born into a digital prison staring at the bright yellow sun and the deep green forest. Her jazz is pure bio, no digital. It's a frail bit of hope, beamed forward from 10 bad years ago. The real world is still here, even if only the algorithms are left to see it.