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TRON LEGACY: A Missed Opportunity

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This isn’t most the topical blog post, but I recently rewatched the Blu-ray version of TRON: LEGACY, and felt like commenting about it.

While it’s visually stunning, the film itself, sadly, leaves a lot to be desired. Which is a shame. To me, this movie is a tremendous missed opportunity for Disney to establish a dynamic, unique, massively entertaining franchise. And not just a film franchise. Done correctly, LEGACY could have easily transitioned into animated television, video games, books, comics, and additional sequels. The property, at least from a log line stand point, is truly multi-platform.

The original TRON, though flawed, is one of a number of personal catalysts that directly led me to become a writer, and I know it’s the same for numerous other creators. At the time, it was an amazing anthropomorphic imagining of an inanimate environment, and a fairly brilliant one too.

You have to remember that in the early 80′s the computer was still an almost mystical thing. No one was particularly familiar with it, not in the way we are today. In fact in 1982, the same year that TRON released, Time chose “The Computer” as the “Machine of the Year”. That’s how novel it was, and I think it was that unfamiliarity that in part made the film resonate the way it did.

Well, that and light cycles…

TRON attempted to personify the digital world with a mythological slant, which was a pretty ambitious idea. But if you think about the very structured, limited way that software, hardware, and people all interfaced with each other back then, it does fit the mold.

In the film, programs inside a computer system were personified as characters, who thought of their software engineer creators as gods. It allowed for high adventure stories in the mold of Tolkien or even Homer, all the while being wrapped up in a very unique, science fiction aesthetic. TRON still to this day looks like no other film, and is one of a handful of genre movies that probably won’t ever really age.

Because of how new the use of computers was, we were still trying to predict the effect of its course and impact. In some ways, the film spoke to fears regarding the rise of the computer culture and our growing dependence on technology in general.

These days, with computers so prevalent and part of our everyday lives, the mystique surrounding them is kind of gone. It meant LEGACY would have a much more difficult time engrossing a new audience.
Unfortunately, for all its intentions, the film just didn’t pull it off.

One of the main problems I have with it is that it does very little to try and sell the idea of a personified world inside a computer. The original film took pains to do this, especially in terms of the characters it presented us with in the Grid (the name of the story world). What these programs were actually designed to do in the real world was represented in the computer world in cool and interesting ways.

In LEGACY, the programs really do nothing that is at all representative of…well, being programs. They’re bartenders, DJs, audience members at a gladiatorial arena, even businessmen.

Essentially, LEGACY’s programs aren’t all that different from us…they just dress in neon clothes.

And for all the money that went into the film’s (admittedly) very impressive visuals, the ironic thing is that the original’s special effects work much better for the story and the world. They sell the idea in a way that LEGACY’s millions of dollars can’t.

Computer graphics at the time of TRON were at their infancy…and thus primitive. What it resulted in were graphical assets that were not only pixilated but also made primarily out of polygons (geometrical planes of straight edges). Making 3D objects that were rounded and smooth was an incredibly difficult task at the time, computers just didn’t have the power for it.

But I think it was that very primitiveness that made the production design work so well.

TRON was a world populated with angular, pixilated objects that very much looked like what I would imagine an object inside a digital world would look like. They looked digital. They looked electronic. They were clearly graphical constructs of digital parts, they couldn’t be anything else.

In contrast, the world of LEGACY is a highly polished world of rounded corners and smooth lines; distant vistas with flowing mountains that, other than their colors, look similar to our own; vehicles with spinning wheels; flying machines with visible turbines; and characters who sit on couches and eat food at dinner tables.

In its attempt to be visually masterful…it lost something.

It lost the aesthetic idea that what we’re watching is happening in a digital realm. To me the world of LEGACY looks more like a far future version of the physical world than anything inside a computer. It’s beautiful and impressive, but it doesn’t serve the story.

It feels like no one on the creative team thought through just what it was that made the original resonate so much. If you’re going to create a sequel with the hopes of capitalizing on a built in audience…wouldn’t you want to do this?

And it isn’t just the special effects. Honestly, if LEGACY had gotten its story ducks in a row, I wouldn’t even bother complaining about the visuals.

When I think about the story, the biggest problem for me is the choice of villain, which, in the case of LEGACY, sort of pre-determined the narrative. By choosing a generic, digital bad guy, the villain plot (which is what drives this particular story) was also generic and uninteresting.

I mean…really?

The bad guy is going to port over his army of bright neon spear wielding soldiers into the real world and invade it? How does that work anyway? From what I’ve seen of the transportation process in both movies, it takes about three minutes to “undigitize” and reconstruct something back where it came from. And you’re going to do this for millions of soldiers…one at a time? What are they going to do while this Herculean troop movement process goes on? Grab a coffee? And how are these light spears going to help your soldiers (who I assume are now tangible and solid) against their real world equivalents with projectile based weapons?

It’s kind of beyond silly.

Another problem was the removal of the Grid out of Encom’s computer system. In the original, the story took place inside the network of Encom, presented in the movie as a giant technology firm. The villain was an artificial intelligence called the Master Control Program that ran the company’s computer system. And because Encom was a growing, multi-national company with its hands in everything from government infrastructure to defense contracting, the MCP was in a very believable position to do some damage in the real world.

There were actual stakes involved, implausible as they might be.

But in LEGACY, Flynn (the main character from TRON) has built a new Grid inside a computer in the back office of his arcade. And that’s where the story takes place. Not exactly fodder for intense real world drama, is it? The computer’s not connected to anything, so who cares what happens in it?

It feels like the creators struggled with coming up with a novel approach for the sequel. Which is a shame, because, to me, the answer for the narrative is fairly plain.

I mean, it’s right in the title. The movie’s called TRON, after all.

The creators’ primary struggle seems to come from the problem of trying to brand a franchise with a young lead actor, but having to deal with a set-in-stone title that features the name of another character. It’s a legitimate problem. After all, it’s maybe not the best idea to make a $200-million dollar tent-pole franchise film in 2011…with Bruce Boxleitner in the lead role. I get it. But there are ways to address the problem that don’t result in a heavy handed band-aid solution.

One answer to me is fairly obvious. Instead of making a generic villain simply for the surprise value of seeing young Jeff Bridges again…you make the villain Tron himself.

For my money, that’s already a much more interesting narrative. It does what all good sequels should do: turn the original on its ear in some way.

The story now becomes a Heart of Darkness type tale, where your young lead ventures into the Grid after his vanished father (just as it is now) who’s been taken captive by Tron, his former friend and ally, and sets off on an odyssey to free him.

In the original movie, Tron is essentially a revolutionary, struggling to free his world from oppression and tyranny. If you reverse this in the sequel, then it has the built-in thematic material of analyzing how the revolutionary almost always invariably becomes the despot, the very thing he was fighting to overthrow. There are numerous real world examples of this, Fidel Castro being maybe the most obvious.

In addition, your villain’s character arc is pretty self-evident as well. He believes what he’s doing is the right thing, but he’s been corrupted by power. He just doesn’t see it. The story contains his path of self-revelation and redemption, facilitated by the primary story of the main character and his father.

I would also have put the Grid back into the Encom computer system, so that what happens there is actually relevant.

I think this solution would have yielded a fairly novel and compelling narrative, while also legitimately including the very character the movie is named after. As it is now, Tron feels like an afterthought. He’s not really a character at all.

But, of course…they didn’t ask me.

TRON: LEGACY isn’t the first misfire of a tent pole franchise attempt, and it won’t be the last. We’ve already had two this year, one of which deserved it (BATTLESHIP) and another which, quite frankly, didn’t (JON CARTER OF MARS, also by Disney; but that’s a topic for a different blog post).

For me, the failure of LEGACY is more tragic than those two because of its almost limitless potential (had it been done right) and the fact that it’s based on a very influential cult film that’s not only grown to have a tremendous following, but also inspired a whole host of other creators. I wish it could have had the success it deserved back in the 80′s.

Oh well, so it goes. At least Disney got THE AVENGERS right.

2 Comments

  1. Evil Arch Enemy
    June 1, 2012

    I think this is a worthy topic. Don’t forget that amazing trailer. Agreed that one of the worst decisions was to sideline…Tron. Tron! He was an afterthought. Plus the digital Jeff Bridges was weird and disturbing. Not in a good way. This could have been a Batman level reboot. But like Superman Returns and what looks like the new Spiderman, expanding and exploring what made the original great is abandoned in favor of almost antithetical ideas that work against the very concept you’re trying to do.

    Reply
    • JBM
      June 1, 2012

      How do you think the new Spider-Man is ignoring what made the source material great? I don’t disagree, I’m just curious.

      Reply

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