Sunday 30 August 2020

TRON Legacy: Life on the Digital Frontier

We recently learned that Disney wants to reboot TRON for the second time, with director Garth Davies at the helm and actor Jared Leto front and centre. So I decided to look back at the last time this happened, 2010’s TRON: Legacy, to sing the praises of an underrated cult classic.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski and starring Garrett Hedlund, TRON: Legacy is a sequel to 1982’s equally niche TRON. It’s about Sam (Hedlund), a trust fund kid who has lost his way, journeying into a hidden digital realm in search of his long-lost father, Flynn (Jeff Bridges). It’s a dizzying, puzzling journey through the ‘digital frontier’ that is decked out in an arresting neon and glossy glass aesthetic - and it just so happens to be one of Disney's more under-appreciated big-budget films in recent memory.

With piercing blues and vivid oranges cutting through cool greys and blacks, the distinctive colour palette that decks out the digital world without a doubt makes Legacy is one of the best-looking blockbuster films of all time. On my 60-inch TV, the blu-ray version of this film is sumptuous stuff. Roughly 40 minutes of the film was filmed on IMAX cameras, including most of the action set pieces.

The initial switch from 2.35:1 to 1.7:1 when Sam first enters ‘the grid’ is reminiscent of Dorothy first setting foot in Oz - it feels as though this world and all of its infinite possibilities are suddenly opening up right in front of you.

Paratroopers kitted out in dragonfly battle armour who fall from the sky and wield Darth Maul-esque batons, streamlined motorcycles that leave walls of light in their wake and synthetic race suits with razor-edged discs that clip onto your back - the production design on this film is fantastic, and pleasingly practical in places. 

The architectural and automotive designs dropped into the story look like they were moulded from a single sheet of pristine Perspex - and would be ruined by sticky fingerprints in a millisecond here in the real world. 

The soundtrack, courtesy of French electronic duo Daft Punk, is one of my favourite original scores from the 2010s, if not all time. From scuzzy ‘chiptune’ track Derezzed to the soaring opening ‘Overture’ and ‘The Grid’, the album is a potent mix of electronic and orchestral music. Unlike most films, Legacy was edited to fit the music - not the other way around. As a result, Daft Punk’s work feels like so much more than just background music - it’s the beat to which the whole film flows and moves. 

But a film has to engage more than just your eyes and ears. How does the film rate on an emotional level? It’s here that things start to unravel. The plot, or lack thereof, is a real issue that is really noticeable on rewatch.

Things start off strong; the first 45 minutes are simply terrific, right up until Sam and Quorra arrive at Flynn’s mountaintop retreat. From there, momentum drains from proceedings, in a meandering and meditative middle act more interested in philosophical musings than the breakneck motorcycle chases.

The aerial dogfight in the third act - very reminiscent of Star Wars’ Death Star escape sequence - sees the film end on a high note, but the lingering feeling of this film is one of sleek solar sailboats, cybernetic sirens and speeding motorcycles, not anything to do with the story itself.

Hedlund is a serviceable lead - he’s got that clean-shaven, inoffensive leading man look that was very much in vogue 10 years ago and is exceedingly boring (I'm looking at you, Liam HemsoBut his quest to find Bridges is compelling enough at first, even if the characterisation of Sam is barely there.

Meanwhile, Bridges’ ‘surfer dude meets zen monk’ persona is a little jarring in that it seems like an extension of the actor’s own persona, rather than an extension of the character or the world. At the time, a big talking point was the ‘digital de-aging’ technology employed to turn 2010 Jeff Bridges into circa 1990 Jeff Bridges - and boy, does it look a little wonky looking back.

10 years on, and we’ve seen this technique employed A LOT - from reviving Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to smoothing out the cracks and crevices of the main cast in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.

There are fleeting moments in Legacy where the illusion works. But then the mouth or eyes move in an unusual way, and you’re reminded that what we’re looking at is little more than that - an illusion. However, I don’t think it’s as offensive here as it is in something like Rogue One. After all, Legacy is set in a digital simulation - and this digital man does look extremely digital.

Michael Sheen’s flamboyant performance as Zuse was reportedly modelled on David Bowie, and the English actor dutifully struts around the set, swinging and singing into a cane, like he’s on stage in front of thousands. Silly? Yes, very. But a memorable character moment in a film where memorable character moments are few and far between.

Olivia Wilde’s heroine Quorra is an interesting character too. She’s not your typical slinky catsuit-wearing badass, but still feels strangely flat and one-note. The wide-eyed wonder routine (often called the ‘born sexy yesterday' troupe) doesn’t feel offensively rote here, on account of Quorra being a digital organism still learning about the ‘outside’ world, but the rapport she shares with Sam doesn’t feel that deep or meaningful come the end either. I think Wilde makes it work – and by all accounts, the role should have launched her onto the acting A-list.

Legacy finds itself caught in this weird period of Disney history where the Mouse House was blowing the dust off old IP and giving them a new spin in an attempt to find something, anything, that would break through the illusive - at least, in 2010 - billion-dollar ceiling.

There were some successes, like Tim Burton’s kooky Alice in Wonderland (2010), but more than a few misfires – John Carter (2012) tanked to the tune of $200 million, while Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2009) and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010) failed to connect with audiences in the same fashion that previous action-adventure epics, like Pirates of the Caribbean, had.

Legacy, by comparison with the latter two, was a hit. Over $400 million worldwide for a sequel to an obscure 80s cult film is a pretty impressive return, considering the original isn’t just niche, it’s - don’t shoot me - pretty lame.

Legacy is, believe it or not, a legacy sequel before legacy sequels were the fashionable thing in blockbuster filmmaking; in many ways, it laid the groundwork for The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, Creed and more to come.

If Disney is going down the reboot rabbit hole on TRON once again, I remain hopeful that it retains the DNA of Legacy, and picks things up where they were left off. Not because the story feels unfinished, but because the bedrock of this film - the design work, the core characters - are solid, and with a few tweaks here and there - namely, a more compelling story - we could be in for something even more special.

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