Imagine being trapped inside a computer programming of your own creation for the better part of 30 years. With absolutely no knowledge of any of the politics, crimes, misery, or troubles of the real world. I kind of envy that.
This techno-influenced science-fiction action drama initially had its world premiere in Tokyo on November 30th, 2010. It was later released in theaters worldwide by Disney over two weeks later on December 17th to high anticipation. Made for the budget of $170 million, it went on to gross just over $400 million at the global box office. Although it managed to break even, it didn’t meet the studio’s big expectations for the long-awaited sequel. The financial disappointment and mixed critical reception put plans for a new franchise on hold, with talks of a new installment coming and going with each passing year.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski in his feature debut, rumors of a sequel to the 1982 original had been in circulation for a long time. Although Pixar was supposedly interested in continuing the story in 1999, it was only around 2005 that Disney began serious development of the project. Kosinski rejected the studio’s idea of drawing visual and narrative inspiration from The Matrix, and instead used money that producer Sean Bailey lent him for concept footage of the style and tone. An architecture student, he also used chroma keying and various other unconventional techniques to give as much creative room for the effects as possible.
Picking up 27 years after the original, Garret Hedlund stars as Sam Flynn, the primary shareholder of the tech company ENCOM International. For the past two decades, he has been investigating the disappearance of his father Kevin, played by original star Jeff Bridges. One night, Sam’s investigation leads him to an arcade that unintentionally transports him to The Grid, an independent virtual reality system. While he reunites with his father, he must contend with a corrupted version of him named Clu and figure out a way to get back to the real world.
It has been many years since I last watched this film, and I only had vague memories of liking it. On the off chance that I would miss something, I made sure to watch the original Tron first to try and understand the lore a little better. And it was a highly impressive and stylistic technical achievement, but was extremely confusing from a story standpoint.
I was hopeful to see what, if any, lessons this long-belated sequel could take from the first go-around. It’s supposed to be so different from almost all of Disney’s other live-action films recently and I wondered if this was as much of a cult hit as a lot of people have made it out to be. And Tron: Legacy is undeniably entertaining and aesthetically unique, but the story at the center is rather simplistic.
This is exactly the kind of film I think Disney should try investing more stock in making. No “live-action” remakes of animated classics, but something that looks and feels totally different than what’s usually on the market. The film is always at its best when its pushing the boundaries of family-friendly entertainment and ponders if it’s worth sacrificing fatherhood for something truly revolutionary.
But beyond the gorgeous visuals (Which still hold up quite nicely) and these brief moments of contemplation, Tron: Legacy falters to create a very meaningful or engaging story. While there is some pretty cool worldbuilding throughout and the majority of the film’s 2-hour and 5-minute runtime are spent inside The Grid, there’s not much of an emotional pull beyond the father-son thread. Still, it’s cool to watch and this is one IP I hope Disney considers revisiting in the future.
Garret Hedlund has always been a “good-not-great” actor and his performance here epitomizes that pretty well. As Sam Flynn, he constantly does immature and rash things in the real world, likely to cope with the lack of a real father figure for the past 20 years. It’s apparent that The Grid gives him an opportunity not only to make up for lost time with his father but to thrive in a world that doesn’t even exist.
In a dual role as both Kevin Flynn and his evil counterpart Clu, Jeff Bridges returns to the franchise with lots of gusto. With Flynn, he feels much more mature and wise than the previous film, optimistic for the future of humanity but still feeling guilty about his lackluster job as a father. On the opposite end, he’s intimidating and relentless as the villain Clu, even though the then-burgeoning effort of de-aging technology doesn’t quite work for him.
Olivia Wilde is also worth mentioning as Quorra, a uniquely programmed warrior who serve’s as Kevin’s only ally in The Grid. She’s extremely adept at fighting and even steals the show in a handful of action scenes because of her wicked skills. However, she’s also deeply curious about what the real world is like, as reading endless amounts of literature and asking questions isn’t enough to quench her thirst to witness a real sunrise.
And while there are some familiar faces that pop up in the supporting cast, it’s Michael Sheen’s turn as Castor, a flamboyant nightclub owner. Although he doesn’t appear until the second act, he absolutely steals the show from under the protagonists and clearly relishes the role. Sheen’s bright personality and fantastic wardrobe are also heavily reminiscent of David Bowie’s early years, which makes him by far the most interesting character in the whole movie.
And from a purely technical point of view, Tron: Legacy is a major step forward for the studio and shows Kosinski knows what he’s doing. Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is extremely noteworthy for its smooth movements and slick framing. The Grid heavily relies on the opposing colors of orange and blue while scenes in the real world are relatively muted. This is one of the best examples of 3D filmmaking as the cameras capture everything, from light cycle battles to one-on-one duels, with great precision.
James Haygood’s editing job goes hand-in-hand with the visuals, knowing when to leave a shot lingering or keep the action flowing. There are enough cuts during action sequences to keep the momentum up and never makes it confusing or hard to follow. It’s a testament to the editing crew that the flow between CGI shots and practical actors or sets is mostly seamless. Plus, the sound design is stellar, ensuring that every scene can be heard just as well as seen. It’s actually one of the most satisfying sound designs of the last decade.
Speaking of sound, French music duo Daft Punk provide their first and thus far only score for a film. I hope they decide to do more soundtracks because it’s an absolute thing of beauty and innovation. Like the rest of their work, the score is heavy on electronics across the board, which is appropriate for the unique world here. However, much of the soundtrack avoids being just dubstep and uses synthesizers, low strings, and percussion beats to create an emotional connection to the storyline. At times, it’s warm, harsh, and always attention-grabbing, making for one of the most underrated film scores in recent years.
Pushing the boundaries of filmmaking technology in exciting ways but lacking a real human pull for it, Tron: Legacy is a visually and audibly stunning adventure with a rather unaffecting story. At the end of the day Joseph Kosinski and Disney have made a really impressive tech demo that’s more like candy for the eyes and ears than anything else. It’s fun to see Jeff Bridges return to the saga and his new cast members are welcome as well, but their characters aren’t the most compelling to watch.
I think there’s a lot of potential in this franchise for Disney to explore, and this film seems to indicate they have an idea of where it would go. I just wish Kosinski was just as good with his actors as he was with her camera and effects.