TRON: Legacy can hardly be called a great film, but it made quite the impression on me when I first saw it on opening night back in December of 2010, and I have been making excuses for it ever since. Emerging from the theater, I might even, in my adolescent fervor, have described it as one of the best movies I had ever seen. Although I like to imagine that my tastes have been refined somewhat in the following years, my affection for the film then was so strong that today, a glimpse of its aesthetic or a few bars of its score can conjure up nostalgic responses that are almost Pavlovian in their intensity, and I still cannot quite bring myself to evict it from the special place it holds in my heart.
The original TRON, directed by Steven Lisberger and released in 1982, is no masterpiece. Its earnest but deeply silly story, laden with portentous religious overtones, is a flimsy and plodding affair, serving mainly as an excuse for displays of special effects. Nevertheless, those special effects, though laughably dated today, were groundbreaking for their time, and turn out to have a certain staying power. Roger Ebert described the film, in an admiring four-star review, as “a technological sound-and-light show,” and over the years, it amassed an ardent enough following of young fans to be granted a belated sequel, crafted with a love and care that seems disproportionate to its modest success, full of reverent callbacks to a cult classic virtually no one in its audience has seen. Like its predecessor, TRON: Legacy has been remembered for its technical and aesthetic achievements, while anything resembling story or character has long since faded from the public mind. Ebert, a bit less charitable this time around, wrote that it “plays to the eyes and ears more than the mind.” This assessment is neither entirely surprising nor unjustified: it is one of the most gorgeously designed blockbuster entertainments we have seen in the last decade, and as a general rule, even those who scoff at the film grudgingly assent that Daft Punk’s musical score is very good. In fairness, it had a much lower bar to clear than Wendy Carlos’ work on the original: few blockbusters today can be said to have distinctive musical identities, never mind ones so perfectly calibrated to the mood and action of their films as this one is. As with many science fiction fantasies of its kind, the Campbellian shadow of Star Wars looms large over TRON: Legacy, with its focus on fathers and sons, light sides and dark sides, and a sequence of aerial combat that almost begs Bridges to shout, “Great, kid! Don’t get cocky!” Someone even loses a hand.
To be sure, TRON: Legacy’s greatest achievements are aesthetic in nature, but allow me to submit that I’m not just fooling myself when I say that it also demonstrates a real interest in ideas and characters. This is not a human interest movie per se, and the archetypal, nearly abstract nature of its execution may render it less impactful to some, but looking past the flashy surface, one finds allusions laid on lightly enough to be unobtrusive, and thematic concerns shaded in with enough nuance to be rewarding.
TRON: Legacy is the debut feature of director Joseph Kosinski. It strikes me as a telling biographical detail that Kosinski studied and now teaches architecture. His sophomore effort, Oblivion, seemed to confirm his status as a distinctly left-brain filmmaker, once again dazzling audiences’ minds with impeccably constructed visuals while failing to engage their feelings. (His most recent film, last weekend’s Only the Brave, is a much more emotionally emphatic effort, and may prompt some reassessment.) Watching TRON: Legacy, a viewer may sense that he or she is in the hands of someone more comfortable with the sights, sounds, and structures of a virtual world than with the nuances of human feelings and relationships. However, one might also sense that if these seeming weaknesses speak to a lack of vision on Kosinski’s part, he has chosen material rather well suited to his strengths. There’s a meticulously, almost mathematically stylized chilliness to TRON: Legacy, but that feeling of suffocating artificiality makes a certain amount of sense for a film that takes place in a computer, and if it sometimes feels as if the film was directed by a machine behind the camera, well, that makes a certain amount of sense for a film about human disconnect in an era of technology. Even the scenes that take place in the “real world” are rendered in drab, David Fincher-esque tones, and the compositions are as symmetrical and obviously constructed as those in the digital world. While this tone is sometimes at odds with the rip-roaring adventure the film seems to be aspiring to, the mixture is more reliably interesting than the majority of big budget entertainments.
Legacy starts off treading rather familiar and obvious ground in its exploration of the conflict between order and freedom. This is the stuff that most modern blockbusters are made of, from Star Wars to all of Marvel’s best films, and Kosinski sketches it here in the weirdest, broadest of terms. Less than five minutes into the picture, Jeff Bridges, reprising his role as computer magnate Kevin Flynn, the first film’s hero, is effusing about how he created a system where all information is “free and open.” Later, his son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) – orphaned, to all appearances – follows in his father’s footsteps by sticking it to the man, pirating software and distributing it on the internet. “Didn’t anyone tell you?” a particularly overzealous security guard chides him. “Stealing is wrong!” Sam’s witty retort: “Can’t steal something that was designed to be free.” Naturally, when Sam gets to the Grid, he finds it in the grip of a totalitarian government, just like every other science fiction dystopia. There’s even a good-natured but half-baked gesture at satirically conflating entertainment and control, riffing off the “bread and circuses” metaphors of the original film. This comes out in the sequences of gladiatorial games, and also helps to make sense of Michael Sheen’s rather baffling scenes, which place the film’s tongue squarely in its proverbial cheek.
Still, if the key ingredients are a little blunt in their familiarity, TRON: Legacy finds a unique enough angle from which to frame this conflict. As stunning and gorgeously rendered as the Grid here may be, there’s something inherently foreboding and ominous about it. The word “Grid” does not suggest freedom, but conformity. A “Grid” is composed of straight, orderly lines. This is a world that has no sun (the film makes a big deal about this). It is a world of darkness and clouds and clean, inhuman surfaces, because it is the product of a man’s retreat into himself. The film only suggests the emotional context surrounding Flynn’s creation of the Grid in broad strokes, but one is hardly making a great leap to surmise that he was consumed by his creation, neglecting his son and the real world even before he was literally trapped inside his computer (a blatant metaphor, perhaps, but potent enough). Flynn claims to stand for freedom, but his compulsion to create is tainted by the need to control. When Sam meets the ruler of this nightmare landscape, it is none other than his father’s younger self – Clu, the program Flynn made “in [his] own image.” One could read TRON: Legacy as an anti-religious allegory about the Death of God (Nietzsche does in fact get a name drop in this Disney film), but one can read it equally plausibly as a reflection on man’s profound unsuitability to play God. Clu, made in Flynn’s image, bloviates about how he has freed the digital denizens of the Grid from their “false deity.” The Grid is Flynn’s god complex writ large, and its people, with their animosity towards “Users,” reflect his own rejection of a higher power. This isolationist, compulsively controlling facet of Flynn’s personality is embodied in Clu, who, for my money, remains one of the most tragic and compelling villains we’ve seen in a blockbuster for a long time. The effect of the digitally de-aged Bridges has been widely criticized for the uncanny valley it creates, but the strange, uneasy sensation of watching something that looks like an actor but is not quite an actor works perfectly to distance us from the character. It amplifies every psychotic nuance of his performance, resulting in a villain who is most definitely not human, and yet so recognizably close to being one. Sam laments that Clu “screwed it up,” but the film leaves little doubt that Kevin Flynn himself is ultimately to blame: “He’s me,” he admits. “I screwed it up.”
Explaining how he came to be trapped in the Grid, Flynn – contradicting his own words about freedom and openness – tells Sam that he was searching for “control, order, perfection.” Yet he is excited by the appearance of an “intelligence beyond our own,” the ISOs, who he did not create. (It doesn’t make sense to me either, but hey, it works well enough as a symbol.) This incursion of the Other into his digital world breaks Flynn out of his solipsism, liberating him from his bondage to the self: “I was living in a hall of mirrors. The ISOs shattered it.” But Clu, representing the portion of Flynn that is still obsessed with his own image, turns on his creator, destroying the ISOs because they are different and “imperfect.” Clu is a veritable Frankenstein’s monster, a product of artificial procreation, born from the self-centered, authoritarian instinct that shuns the radically different. He remembers his origins upon seeing his reflection in an apple; the scene combines the creation and the fall in a perverse, tragic play on Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Little wonder, then, that Clu comes into bitter rivalry with Sam, the progeny of natural union between man and woman. Yet Sam, growing up without a mother, displays the same resistance to collaboration and openness as his father, living a rootless, aimless existence because proper integration into the world was never modeled for him. The conflict between these two sons, one unnatural and one natural, vying for the affection of their father, forms the emotional and thematic backbone of the film. The triangular dynamic between father, interloper, and son suggests a loose and not quite orthodox take on God, Satan, and Christ. (In a nicely Augustinian touch, it is explained that Clu cannot create, but can only destroy or repurpose.)
It also recalls the parable of the prodigal son, though Flynn is ill-suited to act the part of God the Father. When the wayward Sam is reunited with his long-lost dad, he meets with a kind of muted disapproval. Grilled about his life choices, Sam reveals that he dropped out of his father’s alma mater, is not employed by his father’s company, and enjoys no form of companionship apart from that of his dog, Marvin. A lame “Dogs are cool” is the best Flynn can muster. Rather than fighting his worst impulses, as personified in Clu, the elder Flynn retreats from them, choosing a life of passive detachment over active virtue. When pressed by Sam as to whether or not he wants to go home, he mumbles, “Sometimes life has a way of moving you past wants and hopes.” In the end, of course, Flynn’s paternal love triumphs: “I would have given it all up for one day with you,” he tells Sam, and when asked to give an account for his final act of sacrifice on Sam’s behalf, his response is simple: “He’s my son.” Clu, in a scene that somehow wrings raw pathos from the goofy scenario of two Jeff Bridgeses facing each other down, confronts his “father” with all the wrenching emotion of the prodigal son’s elder brother: “I did everything! Everything you ever asked!” “I know you did,” Flynn replies, arms outstretched for a paternal embrace. “I’m sorry.” Clu is unable to accept this apology, and the conflict between the two halves of Flynn proves irreconcilable, solved only by their reintegration and mutual destruction.
Then there’s Quorra (Olivia Wilde). Legacy is so entrenched in Flynn’s digital solipsistic prison that its gestures at transcendence are fleeting and strained. The ISOs are so loosely defined as to invite any number of ambiguous readings. We’re told they’re a “miracle,” suggesting a sort of spiritual significance, but later Flynn uses more evolutionary language, explaining that they spontaneously came into being when the conditions were right. In any case, as personified in Quorra’s childlike, saintly figure, they’re rather perfectly positioned as a contrast to the confines of Flynn’s selfishly constructed universe. When examining Quorra’s code or biodigital DNA or whatever (lest we forget, for all it has to say, this is a pretty silly movie), Flynn reverently declares, “This is beyond me.” Those two words, “beyond me,” aptly encapsulate any transcendence to be found in the world of TRON: Legacy. Quorra is an avatar of the feminine Other, an antidote to the masculine self-loathing that pervades Flynn’s Grid. She practices the “art of the selfless,” and is willing to “remove herself from the equation” in her devotion to the Creator. The Dostoevsky name drop here initially plays like a cheap gesture to appeal to the wine and cheese crowd, but reader, I confess that when I read certain of The Brothers Karamazov’s reflections on self-sacrifice, TRON: Legacy sprang to my mind.
Kosinski regards Quorra from an admiring distance, as more of an impossible ideal than a person. She is not sexualized – certainly neither Sam nor his father show any inclination to sexual desire, though of course Clu does in his coded PG way, lecherously objectifying her by covering up her ISO sign, the very symbol of her otherness. Instead, Kosinski idealizes her as the means of redemption for both father and son, recalling Dante’s Beatrice or Petrarch’s Laura, eschatological visions of impossibly perfect women who, immortalized in poetry, ennobled the men who loved them. Because of Quorra, the father finds redemption, self-sacrificially shielding her from his own worst impulses and the world he created, ultimately letting her live on beyond himself and literally linking his identity to her. Because of her, too, the son finds redemption by partnering with her to escape from his father’s digital prison, framed in the film’s final passages as a kind of Plato’s cave (into which Flynn tells us he has transplanted “forms”), out of which our heroes ascend into the light of day. The film’s final emotional beat does not belong to Sam, Clu, or their father. It belongs to Quorra, who smiles as she takes in her first sunrise, the symbol of something bigger and better than the world she has always known.