2010’s TRON: Legacy was not quite the slam-dunk blockbuster Disney had hoped for when it started plans to create a sequel to TRON way back in 2005. The original was considered a failure when it was released in 1982, earning $72 million — nearly four times its $17 million budget — but it quickly gained “cult classic” status. Thirty years later and with a budget almost exactly ten times as big, TRON: Legacy made a “mere” $400 million worldwide. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around that number being unsuccessful, but if the original quadrupled its money, and the sequel only doubled it…then Legacy was an even bigger financial “dud” than the older film.
Critically, Legacy got the same tepid response that it was getting at the box office. The visual effects, style, and especially the soundtrack by Daft Punk were all praised, but the movie was widely panned for its lackluster story, plotting, and overall lack of character development. In short, it was a very shiny tin man with neither heart or brain.
So what happened? Why did this “cult classic” revival fail to really connect with either nostalgic geeks or a mainstream populace who usually flock to empty spectacles? The Transformers live-action trilogy, for example, was bashed by critics, is based on 1980s nostalgia, has little-to-no story or characterization to speak of, yet has made a combined $2.5 billion. What’s the difference?
TRON: Legacy is indeed a spectacle. The style and effects are visually arresting, but the pace is that of an elderly driver with a blinker on compared to most 3D blockbusters. It is a languid film that takes its own sweet time getting from one action sequence to another. When Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) finally arrives on The Grid, his battle with the villainous Clu is followed by a drive in the “country,” an almost meditative reunion with his long-lost dad (the all-too-zen Jeff Bridges, reprising his role as Kevin Flynn), and then a quiet dinner. When the action picks up again, Quorra (Olivia Wilde) charges in to rescue Sam, and the senior Flynn ends up saving both their asses. But, the fight scenes and pulse-pounding music quickly fade as the three jump on a slow-moving techno-train and remain there for what feels like a good half-hour.
It certainly doesn’t help that the world of The Grid is steeped in eternal night, and that even most of the scenes in the “real world” are filmed in a pre-dawn Vancouver. This perpetual darkness pays off at the end when Sam and Quorra ride off into the sunrise, but that much night tends to make most humans drowsy. Not to mention the rather inexplicable scene where ENCOM, Kevin Flynn’s old company, was holding a board meeting and launching their new product during the witching hour.
The slow pace makes the lack of story or good character moments even more unforgivable. It’s easy to justify jettisoning a plot when you’re delivering 3.6 explosions per minute. But if you’re going to go the Christopher Nolan Batman Trilogy route, you need a lot of cerebral-ness to back your play. Legacy delivered neither, so it’s pretty easy to see why audiences didn’t flock to it.
All this being said? I still really enjoy TRON: Legacy. I own it on Blu-Ray and have watched it a few times since its theatrical release. Obviously, I’m fully willing to admit that it is a very flawed piece of film, but I actually find the relaxing tempo to be refreshing. You aren’t assaulted by this movie. It’s not particularly loud, it’s not annoying, it’s not even especially violent. It is very pretty (both because of the effects and because of Wilde) and it is almost calming. I mean, it’s very common to hear “Just shut off your brain and watch shit blow up” but it’s rare to experience a film that lets you escape your mind without taxing it with wall-to-wall violence.
TRON: Legacy is not a smart film, it is not a thrill-a-minute film, and it may not even be a good film, but it is an excellent experience.