Tron: Reloaded, come for the action, stay for the aesthetics

Last week, I attended a press-preview for Tron: Legacy at the London IMAX, where the film was screened in 3D. It's an extremely fun bit of entertainment, with some surprises, loads of nostalgic pandering to the sort of person who saw the original Tron as a kid (such as me), and some interesting commercial notes.

As you'd expect from an effects-heavy action-thriller, there's not much by way of plot. Through an incoherent process, the feckless, alienated son of the long-lost founder of the largest video-game and software company in the world is transported into a magical computerland in which his father has been stranded for 20 years. There, he finds an oppressive force oppressing madly and plotting something awful. He discovers that time is running out, and he has to get very quickly from A to B (with stops for brilliantly choreographed fight scenes in a variety of beautifully rendered environments) or all is lost. On the way, he reconciles his fecklessness with the wisdom of his father, much selfless sacrifice takes place, betrayers betray, redemption happens, etc etc (anyone so sensitive as to claim that the foregoing is a spoiler should probably abstain from reading anything written about movies, period).

Of course, the primary artistic effect of T:R comes from its action and its aesthetics (which are closely entwined). It's a beautiful movie, even in 3D (I find 3D hard to converge, overly dark, and hard on my eyes). The visual design, from the rendered panoramas of the inside of computerland (which look like the Matrix, as resdesigned by Dubai's urban planners) to the meticulous set-dressing and costumes (more of a 2001-meets-Rollerball thing) works in improbable and even moving ways. Rubbing the glassy noir brutalism of the landscape up against the utopian, curvilinear, techno-chic clothes and sets produces something that's much more striking and more moving than the mere storyline.

But no one wants to stare at nice clothes for 96 minutes. Luckily, there is a triple-helping of action sequences involving all the best combat stuff from the first movie and the games that followed it: acrobatic discus-tossing, light-cycle racing, bullet-time martial arts sequences, and some tasty aerial combat for good measure. What's most striking about these sequences is how much like a game they are: every time the actors unveil a new complex wrinkle on the rules -- shifts in gravity, new weapons, super-bad-ass bad-guys -- it feels just like watching someone confronting a level-boss or levelling up in a console or arcade game. I wouldn't be surprised in the least if the production team collaborated with the game designers who'll be producing the inevitable console tie-ins to create these scenes; they look like they'd be incredibly fun to play.

More distracting and less effective was the film's obnoxious use of product placement, which is confined to the first act (not much room for product placement in computerland, thankfully -- it would have really shattered the look-and-feel to have these software agents racing Ducati lightcycles, carefully holding their soda-pop cans with the label out and sporting Nokia logos on the napes of their necks). I got the feeling that the film's creators were under pressure to cram a full movie's worth of placements into the first few minutes, since most of the movie didn't lend itself to this treatment. I kept hoping for the computerland people to go shopping for clothes at a techno-goth superstore like London's Cyberdog -- though, of course, Cyberdog's clothes are essentially fetishwear versions of the original Tron costumes, so it's only fitting that they'd be taken to the next level by Tron's successor.

This is clearly a movie whose intended audience is people in their late 30s and early 40s with their children in tow. The script is peppered with sly references to War Games, the original Star Wars, and has a davidbowieite androga-villain that is a charming homage to a dozen comparable characters from my boyhood.

What follows is a very mild spoiler. If this bugs you, look away now.

For me, the funniest and most surprising (and even delightful) thing about T:L was the copyfighting subtext of the film. Jeff Bridges is an info-hippie who talks and effects a mien exactly like EFF co-founder and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow (seriously -- give that guy an ascot and send him to Burning Man and you'd never know the difference!), and his company is brought low by corporate raiders who are software monopolists whose evil plan is to (I am not making this up) put DRM into all their software. Quoth Bridges, with positively spiritual radiance: "We designed a system in which all information is free and open."

Preach, brother!


  1. I only got through the first 30 minutes of the first film. The acting was horrible (Bridges was sleep walking through what he’d written off as a dumb kids movie). I’ll wait for cable for the sequel.

      1. And plot wise too. Nothing really happens in the first 30 minutes other than establishing that ENCOM is an awful place to work because the CEO is a jerk who doesn’t respect the founder. And that running an arcade requires the services of an ex-game programmer for some reason.

  2. So the message of the film is anti-DRM. So does that mean Disney will let kids make their own copies of the film?

    Such a basic criticism, but seriously, doesn’t that premise sound weird considering Disney and their magical “Vault?”

    1. With an anti-DRM message coming from a ham handed DRM promoter. I call “Hypocrite” on Disney for this.

      Granted I still want to see the movie, think Disney makes some very good movies as well as provides an extremely entertaining environment at Disney World in Florida. However, until they change from their ways of hobbling their DVDs with DRM and the downright crass treatment of their employees as well as the consumers of their products, services I refuse to support them with my hard won dollars.

      Its really sad for me having gone to Disney World in the early 70’s as a child, returning in the early 90’s as a young adult and then retuning again(against my desires) two years ago. The progression from “Happiest place in the world” to “Consume, Consume, Consume…” has left me with a lot of contempt for a corporation that models itself in many ways after the tobacco industry. “Hook em while their young, exploit their innocence.”

      1. With an anti-DRM message coming from a ham handed DRM promoter. I call “Hypocrite” on Disney for this.

        The big problem with corporate “personhood” is that it creates an entire class of “people” who all suffer from multiple personality disorder.

    2. Jack, I was coming to ask about the irony of it all… you beat me to it.

      I think it would be great for someone to subvert the DRM on the impending release of the blu-ray to make a legitimate copy, subsequently get harassed by Disney lawyers, and use the quote as the basis for their defense.

    3. Why could they have released the old video game in joystick form instead of china dolls, I mean action figures…

  3. Cory, when you say that it looks like the Matrix reimagined, I take it that you are talking about William Gibson’s universe and not about that 1999 movie (or geology or linear algebra homework…)

  4. @Jack: No weirder than the largest media corporation on Earth giving James Cameron the GDP of a small country to ‘Avatar’ — where the human race is a colossal military-industrial complex raping an entire planet in a genocidal frenzy. NO BLUE BLOOD FOR UNOBTANIUM! Or something…

  5. Just an observation on how words come into and out of use… I, as many others undoubtedly as well, have been paying very careful attention to the Wikileaks developments in the news. But when I started reading Cory’s review it struck me immediately when I observed his use of the word “feckless”. I wonder if that word would have entered into his review if he hadn’t been bombarded by it this week? I decided to verify this resurgence of a word by checking out Google trends w/r/t “feckless”:As far as news references go it’s essentially a flat line until the Wikileaks document release ( I suppose words are like snowballs rolling down a hill, once they start moving they grow in size and usage.

  6. intended audience is people in their late 30s and early 40s

    I’m in my 50s, but I did go see Tron, War Games, and Star Wars in the theater when they came out; can I still go see this sequel?

    Incidentally, the original movie inspired a TV series, Automan, which is still a hoot to watch 25 years later. Hopefully someone will think to release that old series again (the pilot is available on a popular video website).

    1. I remember that show! I haven’t ever been able to put a name to it. It shares the same spot in my brain as The Greatest American Hero.

  7. Didn’t plan on watching it, what seems like 2 years ago, when I saw the very clearly branded Ducati jumping off a ridiculous something onto something else. Hoped the flick could deliver beyond what its flaccid marketing seemed to promise.
    Nope..not really, as it seems. Really don’t plan on watching it now, as it seems to be a nostalgia vehicle.

    Could you try & not be so lame? Product placement such as this was cool back when it was the Matrix. Now? TEN YEARS later? Not at all.

    At this point in time, it’s cooler to stick a 1970’s Honda logo over my Ducati’s sticker & try to make a go if it. Figure that one out, Marketeers. Not even going to get into the Discs of Tron & 7-11 nacho-cheese subtleties, it’d be lost on you, but if y’all figured that out, you’d have a better potential revenue stream.

    OH if only you’d come up with an Xbox/PS tie-in game. If you did, I apologize for not noticing, my midlife crisis screams so much louder..

  8. I remember when Disney was doing new exciting, experimental things like the OG TRON and dark stuff like The Black Hole…the end hell scene scarred me for life in a good way ^ ^

    Seems they are gonna go through shiny soulless remakes with both of them… I remember when new director= new idea or new film… Now its new director= remake/reimagining 0_o

    The “new” Tron looks all shiny and they got “hip” French d00ds to do the music but it’s not breaking any new ground like the OG TRON… or it sounds like its breaking new ground in PRODUCT PLACEMENT… WIN?!?! 0_o

    1. Aw, don’t hate on Daft Punk. They’re genuine innovators and pretty much single-handedly built an audience for French electronica. You talk about Disney doing strange, experimental things in a positive sense: that leads me to reason that you might like musicians who dabble in wordless art movies and anime and change their sound almost entirely for each album.

      PS: Their score for Tron leaked and it’s a doozy. Made me actually consider watching this feature-length commercial.

  9. “But no one wants to stare at nice clothes for 96 minutes”

    Right about now there are a whole bunch of people in the fashion industry with the same expression on their faces as shocked cat.

  10. @anon, the worker bees who make the film are not the studio. the studio distributes and markets; probably doesn’t have a clue about the message it’s putting out there. but the creatives, at least some of them, do. you should probably be congratulating them for sneaking the subtext by the big, bad uber-conservative multi-national, not calling out hypocrisy, as the suits are probably not smart enough to see past the light cycles and Olivia Wilde’s latexed ass to know what the Hell is going on other than no curse words for the PG, and will it play in Ohio? for proof of this lack of creative intelligence, see any recent Depp interview about Captain Jack and how much concerned studio loved his work right from the start…or not so much.

  11. No, you don’t understand, this is clearly a brilliant Zardoz-esq convoluted self destruct mechanism by which Disney rids itself of the DRM which it is forced by programming to express, but knows by experience to be wrong. Think about it… if you are not free, within the community, to express dissent or go against the will of the Tabernacle, er, I mean, management, you simply cultivate in the out-lands the forces necessary to storm your walled garden and bring about the sexy infopocalypse. I mean … DRM legislative reform.

  12. I loved the original because frames from it really do look like paintings you’d see from MoMA. From the trailer, it looks like Tron: Legacy suffers from a lack of actual design. Great visuals, no style. I’m going to see it and try to keep an open mind, but I really just don’t see it having the same appeal.

  13. Does the sequel misuse computer terminology in an amusing fashion? I always loved how in the original the Master Control Program would end its spoken messages with the words “End of Line” as if that meant “Over and out” or something.

  14. My love of Tron is greater than my sincere hatred of product placement. I know, shame on me… but have pity: I’ve been waiting 28 years for this. 1977 – 1983 were magical movie years for us young proto-nerds.

    I’ve always felt Lisberger and Kushner deserved more accolades for successfully choreographing the complex technical dance required to bring Tron to fruition.

  15. I’m afraid I’ve had no interest in this sequel since I heard that Disney passed on titling it Tron 2: Electric Boogaloo

  16. Living in the age of branded entertainment:

    Turns out the iPhone app Cola-Cola Zero LiveCycle: A Tron Game requires a login via facebook and an agreement to give the application access to your wall, personal info, and friend list.


    “ATTENTION: We would like to thank everyone who has provided feedback on Coke Zero LiveCycle. As a result of that feedback, we will soon be pushing out an update that makes the Facebook login optional in single player mode.”

  17. @Jack: No weirder than the largest media corporation on Earth giving James Cameron the GDP of a small country to ‘Avatar’ — where the human race is a colossal military-industrial complex raping an entire planet in a genocidal frenzy. NO BLUE BLOOD FOR UNOBTANIUM! Or something…

    Actually it is weirder. Avatar is on the same level as a band like Rage Against the Machine being signed to Sony: mixed messages but almost understandable.

    In this case an anti-DRM message on a film that comes from a company that is very much pro-DRM is in direct conflict on bizarre levels. The film itself will be copied by at least one person (if not more) who breaks DRM to get at it.

    nexusheli has it right. It will be fascinating to see Disney’s defense in a case against anyone who copies any Tron related items.

  18. Haven’t y’all heard the old saying about how a capitalist will sell you the rope you’ll use to hang him? (Often attributed to Marx, or Lenin, or Stalin, but I don’t think any of them actually said it.)

    Corporations are happy to make money off of anti-corporate messages. They know that hardly anybody’s going to actually act on those messages.

    1. I would not bet on it. Consider how much of media today where the outcast/radical/criminal is made the “antihero”, and still they wonder why younger people have so little respect for rules.

    2. Why should the actions of heroes in a work of fiction be taken seriously as calls to action anyway? Do you think the point of the Batman movies is to encourage people to dress up in costumes and fight crime?

  19. @Cory — I’m looking forward to seeing this myself. I am *squarely* in the target audience, minus the kids. But I never saw the original film until I was in college, so I never thought it was all that good. But brother, I am a HUGE Daft Punk fan.

    All I need this thing to be is a feature-length 3-D IMAX Daft Punk video with killer visuals. Does this succeed on that level?

  20. So does DRM get cast into some anthropomorphized (or CGI) form inside the digital world? That was something I liked about the original Tron, characters and objects like “program RAM”, “Bit”, “the Input/Output tower”, etc…

    1. this is the main thing that I was dissapointed about re concept direction.

      I have actually never seen the originial Tron (i’m a youngen) but I really enjoyed the PC game Tron 2.0 especially for the anthropomorphised aspects of a PC.

      The new movie didn’t seem to touch on this much apart from that fact that the internal characters were programs and thats about it.

      It was also cool in the game how the environment and landscape was an interesting physical representation of the workings of a computer, like how when the hardrive was being formatted there was a giant white wall coming towards you.

      I thought it was weird how in the new movie this digital world had this “off grid” place that was open seas and rocky landscapes, I didn’t really think this was appropriate inside a “digital world made physical”. dunno maybe I’m just missing something having not watched the original

      Overall the film was reasonbly entertaining but was let down by what I thought was lack of interesting plot and some general concept direction.

  21. I’m very excited to see this. I was thrilled to learn they had a sequel in the works a few years ago. The Tron 2.0 PC game and comic books from a few years back whetted our appetites and helped get a younger audience excited about the franchise. I liked how on that project they went with original actors for voice talent- and continued the Syd Mead design aesthetic.

    My reaction to Legacy is mixed. I am in the camp of fans who are slightly let down with the look of the new costumes. Granted some are like a few of the original concept sketches from the first movie. The finished product is mostly black and white latexy and not that different from the usual super hero costumes we expect. They are basically Batman suits with running lights. I know the lights are real this time around- thanks to snazzy 21st century el-tape and LEDs- but these lack the color and detail of the old suits.

    The old suits were black and white- but later painstakingly colored and animated in post. They sunk millions into this one- so I dont see why they didnt go an extra mile and cg some extra glowing circuitry trim or something into those suits. They can’t and don’t have to be just like the old suits, but these lack polish in their design, and seem all the more uncomfortable and clunky. They look like they dont move or bend very well. You can see wires trailing away from the actors and obvious battery packs in the behind the scenes clips. The discs on their backs are bulky- looming nearly as large as Ghostbuster proton packs. The outfits are great in action scenes- but not so hot in the dialog scenes where you have time for a closer look. Also did we not see animated retracting helmets like CLU’s in the Stargate movie? That effect is over used and still a cheesy one- but that’s an opinion. I agree with Sam when he says, “This cant be good-” in the trailer.

    Also why does Flynn’s hideaway have to resemble Dave Bowman’s alien retirement home in 2001- down to the classy old furniture and disco floor? We waited over 20 years for this- TRON was one of the most original movies ever- so give us some originality!

    Will we be treated to another awesome digitizing scene with the Shiva laser? That’s a reason I wonder why Laura/Yori was written out- after all wasn’t she as important to ENCOM as Alan? Wasn’t the digitizing laser her ‘life’s work’? I guess Cindy Morgan wanted too much money! Unless we see more in the movie- it looks as if Sam hears a noise behind him, we get a flash of white- and he steps through a door?? I hope not! I loved the shock and queasiness I felt when I saw Kevin Flynn being violently suspended, mapped out, and diced into tiny bits- by each finger and part- to be sent down a digital rabbit hole from his vantage point. It was a stunning cinematic sequence and I hope we can see something like it.

    Everything else looks great- the new light cycles and so on. The aerial dogfights, solar sailor/freighter and cheering crowds in the arena are nice touches. I love the new recognizers! Daft Punk is cool. It’s interesting to see the story continue, and I am sure it will deliver. Of course Kevin wouldn’t forget his experiences ‘on the other side of the screen’ and would want to return to that world. Hey, I have been waiting over 20 years to ‘go back’- so I want to see what the hype is about. Displeasure in wardrobe aside, my friends and I am brimming over with excitement and plan to go see it before Christmas.

  22. How old is the original Tron? It came out (Summer 1982) before ARPANET switched over to using TCP/IP (Jan 1, 1983). That’s old-skool.

  23. Cory, I barely even noticed the product placement. Odd that you had a problem with it. Other than that I largely agree with your review. What a light show! Everyone, definitely see this in IMAX 3D.
    Re: the fashion, Cory how badass were the jackets Flynn and co were wearing as they built The Grid? Plain black motorcycle jackets with glowing interiors. Awesome.
    As a Daft Punk fan I loved the score before seeing the movie and it ended up fitting beautifully.
    Whoever said this movie had a lack of design- huh? It’s a sequel, so of course it’s an iteration of what came before. Everything is awesomely built upon. The Disc Game is awesome. So much more visceral. And the trails the light cycles leave? I could watch those for hours. If the first movie is for computer nerds, then this movie is for design nerds.
    Go see it, I want a sequel.

  24. Circa ’82 a friend and I told his mom we were going to see Tron and instead snuck into Fast Times At Ridgemont High. We were the toast of our elementary school.

Comments are closed.