Biodigital Jazz

Tron: Legacy (2010)

Tron: Legacy (2010) | Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

In discussions about inherently flawed movies, Tron: Legacy can be an easy target. The characters are painted thinly with broad strokes, reduced to the singular characteristics that identify them—Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is a daredevil, Quorra (Olivia Wilde) a mysterious waif, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) a distant father, Clu (also Jeff Bridges) a single-minded megalomaniac. The dialogue is cerebral, stilted and mismatched: they talk about genetic algorithms and digital frontiers, deresolution and rectifying, all without blinking—or else they quote Zen proverbs as explanations for their actions. The plot, which essentially boils down to “Garrett Hedlund gets sucked into a computer,” is needlessly convoluted. All of which is to be expected from a typical action blockbuster: heavy special effects with only perfunctory attempts to make the characters appear human. 

The year 2010 gave us a wealth of messy, family-friendly, CGI-heavy adventure movies: Alice in Wonderland, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Last Airbender, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, to name but a few. And Tron: Legacy could easily be lumped among them, were it not for its unique aesthetics. Like so many other spectacle films—including its own predecessor, 1982’s Tron—the movie is a showcase for new breakthroughs in CGI technology, including the techniques used to achieve its unique look. The film’s score, composed by Daft Punk, earned nominations and awards from various critics’ circles. But these two features are undermined by Tron: Legacy‘s reputation for being a not-very-good movie overall (discussions of the film often begin with “I love the soundtrack, but…” or It looks beautiful, but…” ).

Tron: Legacy‘s lasting reputation is mostly as a flashy action blockbuster, with plenty to show and not much to say. But the film’s visuals, especially its attempts to demonstrate abstraction, elevate Tron: Legacy to a level beyond similar films that merely re-skin the same heroic journey over and over again. Granted, this film is not a secret masterpiece, nor is it even entirely successful in what it sets out to do. It’s messy and confusing, somehow both convoluted and over-simplified. But it is a film with a lot of ideas, especially about perfection and potential, and about how technology can help humanity achieve those two ideals, for better or for worse.

The problem with Tron: Legacy is that it attempts to make theory visual, betraying it as a smarter film than it appears to be, but also hobbling it by representing the fantastical with the literal1. This issue is inherent to the bones of the script. In voiceover, Kevin talks about trying to visualize the inner workings of the computers he programs; rather than picturing chips and circuits, he imagines motorcycles and freeways, remarkably mundane metaphors for the instantaneous communication and computation of data. “I kept dreaming of a world I thought I’d never see,” he says—and then he manages to make his way into the computer world he’s imagined. Ones and zeroes and calculations and results take on human shapes, avatars of computer programs wandering dark cities.

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Tron: Legacy (2010)

Tron: Legacy is, above all else, visually striking. Its palette is near-monochrome, with the Grid—the environment inside the computer—composed of black landscapes lit by flashes of lightning, rocky terrain molded into buildings of graphite and glossy white plastic, outlined in teal and orange neon. These neon lines also accentuate the bodies of the computer programs that walk the surface of the Grid: yellow and red, white and blue, each color telegraphing the allegiances of the programs wearing them. Repurposed programs take on new colors and patterns of neon lights, while programs that are killed (“derezzed”) collapse into small piles of glassy cubes, reverting to their basic building blocks as they disintegrate.

Just as the programs that populate its frames are built of sharp angles and small blocks, so are the shots that make up the majority of the film. The camera is nearly always locked off at right angles, capturing its characters in profile, or looking directly down its barrel, usually at eye level from a middle distance. The result communicates a kind of rigidity, recalling the classic arcade games that inspired the original Tron. Some shots are composed in rigid, 90-degree profile like side-scrolling video games. Others are composed with the actors in dramatic close-up from a low angle, or even breaking the fourth wall, like a cutscene in an immersive first-person game. Videogame cutscenes allow players to understand what their character avatar is meant to think and feel, just as Tron: Legacy characters betray their own inner lives when they stare down the barrel of the camera. 

Sometimes, when characters enter a place unfamiliar to them, the camera captures the action directly from above—a tactic employed by third-person adventure games to help the player identify with their character as they explore new environments, while also allowing the player to see everything that happens around their character as they move. Characters in action are filmed from a distance, showcasing their bodies in full as they move through their environment. Even action scenes that involve lightcycles—motorcycles which completely encase the bodies of their riders until the line between body and machine is obliterated—remain focused on the entire object in motion, and not its component parts. The lightcycles are choreographed as though in a dance and filmed wide and seamlessly, allowing the viewer to feel confident that they understand where and why the action is happening at all times. Shots in which lightcycles crash maintain their focus on the bodies thrown from the wreckage, and not on the pieces of the cycles as they fall apart. 

Tron: Legacy (2010)

The bodies in Tron: Legacy’s world might look like people, but they are not, strictly speaking, alive. Only Kevin, the programmer who disappeared into the Grid via his computer, and his son Sam, who accidentally followed him there decades later, are actual human beings. The rest are computer programs living out the functions they were programmed to perform. As in the original Tron, programs look like the humans who programmed them. The film shows Kevin’s computer world, not as the flashes of electricity running across microchips in a series of ones and zeroes, but as a microcosm of the humans who made them, with programs as reflections of their programmers. In Tron: Legacy, programs fulfill their creators’ directions, all while wearing their creators’ faces. It embodies the abstract concept of computing, erasing the boundary between creator and created.

Kevin is one such creator. When he first discovers the Grid, he obsesses over it, idealizing its potential to change the outside world, eager enough to shape and explore it that he spends his nights inside his computer. He creates a program named Clu, pulling a mirror from the Grid’s dark ground, then touching his own image, hand to hand, to bring the reflection to life.  

Clu’s appearance (and, by extension, the younger version of Kevin) is unsettling, a result of then-groundbreaking, now-outdated motion capture technology used to turn the clock back on Jeff Bridges’ face to a version of himself from twenty-five years before. Very little of young Kevin/Clu’s face moves. His skin has no pores; his eyebrows are locked in place, as static as the camera that captures his image. His mouth is the only part of his face that moves. Young Kevin does not often appear on the screen, especially not outside the Grid; when he does, his face is covered in shadow, his back to the camera. 

Most of the de-aging special effects shots are reserved for Clu, who—like young Kevin—rarely speaks on screen. His face is hidden by a helmet, or else the camera cuts away to other characters as he talks to them. The trickery is necessary: Clu appears to be made of plastic when he is not moving, an unconvincing simulation of life, his face slightly mismatched to his body, an older man’s voice coming from a lifeless young man’s mouth. The effect is jarring, but not entirely unbelievable. Clu is himself a simulation, a too-crisp copy of the man who created and programmed him. If the animated, de-aged version of Jeff Bridges’ face were more realistic, we might buy his character as a real person, but the reminder that the Grid is not a physical place would be lost.

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Tron: Legacy is a film at war with itself. Its finest visual work—the lightcycle sequence, the production design—all serve to convince the viewer that Kevin’s fantasy world exists inside his computer. Even the de-aging of Jeff Bridges’ face, though jarring, extends the illusion that the unworld of the Grid is a place that exists. Still, these special effects have little physical weight. The lightcycles might bounce when they hit the ground in a way that suggests consistent physics, but when they crumble into their component pieces, their weight melts away, a reminder that they never were at all. The film exists in the tension between showing a world that could never work on our own plane, while also making that impossible world a place where a human being could believably walk and breathe and live. 

This tension is carried out in the conflict between the attempt to tell an original story with special effects experimentation, and the need to justify the film’s budget by selling tickets to as many filmgoers as will pay. Tron: Legacy splits the difference by investing entirely in its impossible spectacles, divorcing eye from brain and expecting the audience to do all the work to make the connection between the visual and the theoretical, a tall order for a film billed as a simple action-adventure experience.

Simplicity of storytelling is not an inherently bad thing, but with it comes the danger of boiling down the basic to the formula. In Tron: Legacy’s case, the formula is one of a son, Sam, avoiding responsibility out of bitterness toward the father who abandoned him. Like father, like son: Kevin avoids his own responsibilities first by diving into the Grid, then by choosing a passive existence in exile when his pursuits within the Grid backfire. Kevin is not a bad father, nor did he intentionally abandon his son. But his pursuit of a perfection he cannot reach traps him in a hell of his own making, stranding him inside the computer world he created, a prisoner of his own program.

Kevin made Clu to help him “create the perfect system.” Being human and idealistic, Kevin intended that his program would help him explore the Grid, ferreting out its secrets before they could share them with the world. Kevin sees the Grid as a portal to utopia, a place where anything could happen, and by extension a utopia that could be used to fix war, medicine, religion, a cure for humanity’s ills. The problem is that human beings, being human, are imperfect, and the things they create carry that flawed nature as well. Clu, being a program, can only do what he was programmed to do; like Kevin’s single-minded pursuit of possibility, he chases perfection by interpreting Kevin’s instructions literally. The program cannot recognize the value of unknown possibilities, because he can only think in the binary of perfect/not perfect. Because he cannot recognize the value of unknown possibilities over poorly defined perfection, he works to impose his own ideas of perfection in the Grid by wiping out all unknowns. 

Kevin’s best intentions mean nothing in the end. Clu carries his instructions out to their most logical conclusions, repurposing old independent programs into soldiers and wiping out sentient algorithms that he cannot control, until the Grid takes on a uniformity, sterile in its sameness. Clu—wearing Kevin’s own face—carries out his own instructions to create the perfect system.” Kevin’s world of possibilities is wiped out in his creation’s pursuit of perfection; he is left to watch, with Quorra, the last sentient algorithm left from Clu’s purge, as his only companion.

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Tron: Legacy is an optimistic adventure story about an optimist and his son. Even as Sam catches his father up to speed—“Ice caps are melting, war in the Middle East, Lakers/Celtics back at it. I don’t know, rich are getting richer, poor are getting poorer”—the film maintains a positive attitude about the fate of the world, and of its protagonists. Kevin’s idealism is not erased by Clu’s actions, it is only tempered.

The film ends with Kevin reabsorbing Clu into himself in an explosive embrace, an acceptance of responsibility for his younger self’s mistakes. Sam and Quorra escape from the grid back into the real world, the sun rising for the first time2. A lesser movie would have shown Sam and Quorra in profile, staring at each other as the sun comes up between their faces; they might have gazed into each other’s eyes, or kissed. Instead, Sam tells Quorra that he has to show her something. The two take off on his motorcycle into the hills surrounding the city, as light breaks through the trees. The camera does not focus on Sam’s face, but on Quorra’s as she turns toward the rising sun, her eyes closed in delight, then opening again in wonder as she contemplates the possibilities before them. 

Up until this point in the film, Quorra has been a fairly typical version of the token Action Girl: a mysterious waif who questions Sam about the world outside the Grid with such eager curiosity that she comes across as childlike, but who also fights so well that the plot dictates she be injured in order to give the villains the upper hand in the third act. Because she is a lone woman in an early 2010s action movie, we expect her to become a love interest for the male protagonist, a victim of Trinity Syndrome. Because she is an algorithm, Kevin talks about her existence as a potential fix for humanity’s ills as though her personhood does not matter. (How an algorithm is supposed to fix everything that is wrong with humanity—climate change, war, sports rivalries, economic disparity—the movie leaves unclear. But Kevin refers to Quorra’s genetic makeup, and to the hope for humanity that comes with it, as “biodigital jazz,” and he clearly thinks the answer to every question humanity has ever asked rests in the depths of her code.) The final frames refocus Tron: Legacy’s previously unfocused depiction of Quorra’s character. Having left the Grid for the physical world, she becomes a person for the first time, free from plot expectations to be a kickass action hero or a love interest or a living MacGuffin. Instead, she takes up the center of the frame, a person in her own right, free to enjoy the feeling of the sun warming her face.

Tron: Legacy is a movie about potential, and about humanity’s asymptotic attempts to grasp perfection without fully understanding what they have in front of them. The film bubbles over with ideas, much like Kevin Flynn raving about the computer world he’s found himself in. There is far too much happening at once, and the ideas the film attempts to communicate are trapped in a liminal space, hobbled by the film’s attempt to communicate abstract possibilities as concrete things. Like Kevin, Tron: Legacy is eager to try everything, even though it doesn’t always get it right.