In the past decade, we’ve seen follow-ups to a number of films and TV shows decades after the originals. From Star Wars and Jurassic World to The Karate Kid, Bill & Ted, and Indiana Jones. These films faced the difficult task of living up to the legacies of their predecessors, reminding audiences why they were special in the first place, and offering stories fresh enough to entice audiences old and new.
So when Disney decided to greenlight a sequel to the modest 1982 cult hit TRON nearly 30 years later and with a budget 10 times that of the original, it was a risky endeavor. Thankfully, the result was as much a visual marvel as the original, but with a deeper story about playing god that also commented on the nature of movie sequels, all while delivering one of the best movie soundtracks in decades. Grab your identity disk and hop on your light cycle, because TRON: Legacy turns 10 today, and we’re heading back to the Grid to explore why it’s a worthy successor to its cult classic predecessor.
The original Tron arrived at the dawn of widespread home computing, at a time when one could wonder what it would be like to live inside the machine and marvel at the possibilities the future could bring. For the sequel, director Joseph Kosinski and writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz take a far more pessimistic approach to the “legacy” of the film’s title. Jeff Bridges reprises his role as programming wizard Kevin Flynn, who went on to become a successful CEO of a huge tech conglomerate and build a digital world he calls the Grid, only for his most sophisticated creation to run amok and turn the Grid into a dystopian nightmare. The Grid is not a technicolor wonder, but a perpetually dark and rainy hell where programs are forced to compete in brutal gladiatorial fights to the death for the amusement of the ruling class.
And yet, there is still a lot of optimism in Tron: Legacy, and it comes in the form of Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a digital lifeform born inside the Grid who marvels at her world — and especially the world outside the Grid — with child-like wonder. If the original Tron looked at technology with awe at a time when the prospect of a digital world connecting everyone was a nice thought, the sequel recognizes that we now look at the Internet differently. It is a dark, pessimistic place easily abused by those in power, yes, but there is still spectacle and beauty to be found. The film’s narrative may be driven by a young man hoping to reconnect with his father, but it works just as hard to make the audience sympathize with a digital creation who longs to witness a real sunrise.
We’re just going to say it: The TRON: Legacy soundtrack is one of the best pieces of movie music to grace theaters in decades. Scored entirely by legendary French electronic duo Daft Punk, it seamlessly combines more typical orchestral fanfare with the their signature synthwavey staccatos, and the result is both modern and sophisticated. There are moody synths and percussion moments like the theme of the movie’s villain, and much of the score sounds like it was recorded using sounds from an actual computer.
But Daft Punk don’t let their reputation and background define their work on the film. Sure, they pull from their signature repertoire for the banger of a dance track that plays during their big cameo scene, but they also demonstrate a knack for big, emotional pieces that feel fully operatic, like an even moodier version of John Carpenter if he worked with an 85-piece orchestra. The whole album is a fantastic listen from beginning to end, and it likely saw heavy rotation in the collections of more than just film score nerds.
Though the plot of both Tron and Tron: Legacy are simple at their cores, they both keep their big allegories just barely hidden beneath the surface. The original film was about a world of anthropomorphic computer programs waiting for the day a human user would arrive and save them from the evil program ruling over them; when Flynn enters the Grid and does exactly that, he’s regarded as a god. Legacy centers on Flynn’s reunion with his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund), but the film utilizes that reunion to tell a story about Flynn the god and his creation, and likewise about a movie sequel and its predecessor.
When Legacy reintroduces the audience to Flynn, he’s living in exile in the Grid, cast out from its society by Clu — a program created in young Flynn’s own image. Clu’s entire purpose was to realize Flynn’s vision of a perfect system; he’s a reflection of a young Flynn’s hubris and pride. So it makes sense that Clu would then try to purge everything he saw as imperfect — including his creator. In turn, Clu tries to be the creator of his own world by tearing everything down and building it back up to his liking, by eradicating the programs known as “isomorphic algorithms” — or just ISOs — and brainwashing everyone else into following him. Clu may be severely misguided, but his entire reason for existence was to carry out his creator’s very specific bidding.
In many ways, this creator/creation relationship is a mirror of the father/son one between Flynn and Sam. In the first act, we see Sam refuse to take his rightful place at his father’s company’s board, pranking them instead by stealing new products and releasing them for free before pulling a Batman-like escape from the building complex. Like Sam, Tron: Legacy also had to make its own name in the shadow of its predecessor’s legend. Trying to please fans of the original while offering something to new audiences is a near impossible standard to meet, and the film itself seems to anticipate any blowback in the form of Clu — a creation that did everything its creator wanted and yet failed to please him.
One of the biggest changes made in Tron: Legacy was Jeff Bridges’ portrayal of Flynn. In the original, he wasn’t a hero. He went into the Grid to find evidence of a colleague stealing his code, but he didn’t care for the programs. The fact that, mathematically, Sam should have already been born by the time of the first film but never appeared in it is a clever bit of retconning to make Flynn even more of an absentee jerk. But when we see him again in Tron: Legacy, he’s part Steve Jobs, part The Dude from The Big Lebowski. And who doesn’t love The Dude?
Kevin Flynn turned from an ambitious programmer to a wise sage who won’t abide people “messing with my Zen thing,” who reminisces about “jamming” and appreciates the miracle of “bio-digital jazz.” Bridges is clearly having fun with the character and the legacy the audience has in their head.
Meanwhile, Michael Sheen shows up for a short but very memorable role as the shadowy nightclub owner Zuse, a digital love child of Ziggy Stardust and Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. who swings his cane traipses through the End of the Line club fight scene like a cackling vaudevillian. It’s as if he dropped in from the set of another film entirely, but somehow, it just works.
The original Tron was praised for its groundbreaking use of computer-generated visuals, paving the way for everything from Pixar movies to Avengers: Endgame. Though Tron: Legacy suffers a bit from the uncanny valley effect when it comes to Clu, the film still manages to present a massive, vibrant world of its own.
Remember the disc fights from the original Tron? The sequel reimagines them by amping everything up to 11 with high-flying acrobatics and pristine “derezzing” effects. Remember the then-revolutionary light cycle races? Legacy takes the concept three-dimensional with a huge set piece that twists and turns on a multi-level racetrack and even finds time to work in a dogfighting sequence that feels straight out of Star Wars.
But the film also ventures beyond the Grid and depicts a sprawling, apocalyptic world with busy, shadowy streets and alleyways, vast deserts, and otherworldly mountains. Watching the light cycles for the first time may not be as groundbreaking as it was in 1982, but Tron: Legacy takes full advantage of the technological advancements of the past few decades to present a cutting-edge world you would want to live in. The film is glossy and designed to the teeth, and a decade after its release, it’s still one of the slickest, most visually spectacular films to look at.
Tron: Legacy was released in theaters on December 17, 2010.
Thumbnail image by ©Walt Disney Pictures