Like a lot of geeks who grew up at the leading edge of the computer, video game, telecom and internet revolutions, Tron was a shared bonding experience. It was never a great movie, but it was a seriously cool one, and it captured the kind of wide-eyed promise Walt Disney himself always had about technology and what kind of world of tomorrow it might deliver. So when Tron Legacy came out 28 years later as equal parts sequel and reboot, it was cause for celebration, if only because I was really keen to see what Disney could do with a new Tron story in a world where our culture had been so deeply changed by technological advance, including the technology of movie-making itself.
Tron Legacy takes full advantage of the real passage of time between this movie and the first one, and involves Sam Flynn, the son of our hero Kevin Flynn from the first movie. Eight years after Tron ends, Kevin mysteriously disappears while developing a radically next-generation computer system, leaving behind his company, ENCOM, and more importantly, his young Sam. Fast forward 21 years later, and Sam is perpetually at war with his father’s company, almost as if to connect with the fight his father had with the same organization so long ago. In short order, he is drawn to his father’s old arcade and is zapped back into the same computer world his father had helped to create, was imprisoned in, and escaped from a lifetime ago.
Things are much different now. The data world is under control of Clu, a new autonomous program Flynn helped to create. But what’s more, there had been an entire race of self-directing programs—ISOs—in this world at one point, but Clu wiped them out. This isn’t just a computer program pretending to be a living universe; it really is a living universe. But this computer world has become a tyrannous one, and Flynn the younger is quickly at odds with it, fighting once again in the arenas as his father did. First he faces off against the sinister and invincible champion Rinzler, and then against the overlord Clu himself—who looks like an avatar of Flynn’s father.
We discover that Flynn’s father has been stuck in here all these years and lives as a hermit, able to control the fabric of reality within this world, like some kind of digital Gandalf in exile. He watches over Quorra, a young female program who is also the last ISO. Together they head the resistance against Clu, who is trying to escape to the real world through the same interface that the Flynns used to enter the computer world. From there it’s all kinds of cool battles and chases and lightshows galore that very much lives up to the promise of what kind of visual splendor the makers of Tron could achieve if they had a few more decades to advance their state-of-the-art effects, and a gargantuan budget with which to employ them. The opportunity does not go wasted.
This is not a great movie, but it is a really fun one, especially once you appreciate the outstanding soundtrack and think of it not so much as a Disney version of the Matrix (which it is) but as some kind of Daft Punk rock opera that involves laser chakrams, light cycle battles and some seriously awesome costumes and visual effects. I know that’s applying a kind of headcanon to the movie, but go ahead and think of Tron Legacy as Daft Punk’s video game-driven answer to Tommy or The Wall, and then tell me you can’t un-think it. (You’re welcome.)
This movie is also cool because it was made by people who grew up with the original Tron as part of their creative frame of reference. They took the magic of a world that had gone from Pac-Man to Siri in only 30 years and somehow tried to distill all of that competing culture and experience into a single imaginary universe. It doesn’t always work, but I respect the attempt. And like before, what they created is a world that isn’t so much a reflection of our technology but of our own expectations from it. And on that front, I think it succeeds at least as well as the first Tron did.
So for me, the moment of truth happens early on, when young Flynn is sent to fight in the arena, and he does pretty well until Clu decided, you know what? This human kid is doing too well. Let’s bump up the difficulty level on him. And so he brings in his heaviest hitter, the uber-warrior Rinzler (who we find out is actually Tron himself corrupted to work for the bad guys). I have tell you, watching Flynn’s face fall when Rinzler shows up reminded me of every single time I ever threw up my hands in frustration because it felt like the computer was cheating. You’re doing great and all of the sudden, everything in the game’s world starts going the game’s way. The computer drops its biggest boss on you after only two or three levels? That ain’t right. And everybody knows it, especially the computer, which is why it did to you. You can’t just drop in a quarter and expect to feel like you’re in charge. This is the computer’s world now, kid. You are just living in it. Care to play again?