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Tron: Legacy poster

Twenty-eight years ago, a little film called Tron came and went, wowing some with its revolutionary computerized environments and special effects and grabbing the attention of a small but dedicated fan base. Now Tron: Legacy has arrived on our science fictional shores, hoping to reinvigorate the community and reboot the franchise. Legacy is loosely connected to Tron, picking up events some time distant from where the first film left off. Rumor has it that a cartoon series is in the works to bridge the gap between the two films, but that likely will depend on whether Legacy can pull in a domestic profit for Disney, who have poured over $170 million into its production. And the cost shows. While Legacy certainly hasn’t received praise for its story or characters—largely because both are rather basic—it has, like its predecessor, been praised for its visual effects. Legacy's attention to worldbuilding and detail is its greatest strength, and through it the film presents an interesting and totalized visual space that is unusual in the current landscape of SF cinema, making for an enjoyable and immersive experience for fans of the genre.

Twenty-eight years is an extraordinary length of time to leave between films, particularly because of the technological changes to film production and special effects since the 1980s. Legacy, however, shines in its handling of the clear visual differences. Instead of ignoring the vast changes made to the visual spaces of the Grid and its outlying areas—a massive cityscape surrounded by a barren “digital wasteland,” officially known as Cyberspace in Tron canon—the writers have written an evolutionary premise into the story, one that is connected to every other major element in the two primary narratives of the film: the son reconnecting with his father and the creator betrayed by his creation. As a result, the world of Tron has not simply been "updated," but has updated itself. The potential for this evolutionary narrative was hinted at in Tron and has been a staple of cyberspace-based science fiction for decades. The fact that Legacy is using this narrative as a means of justifying the use of advanced computer graphics (cue young Jeff Bridges) is rather intelligent filmmaking. It connects the two films while giving Legacy the space it needs to stand on its own.

Legacy is still heavily tied to Tron, which it echoes in both visual and narrative terms. Astute viewers will immediately notice the numerous throwbacks to Tron. Events seem to repeat themselves, hinting at the continuity between the old world of Tron, which was intensely computer-oriented, and the new world, with its distinct "human" spaces (Kevin Flynn's house in the wastelands outside of the Grid and the lively techno-bar, for example). The echoes might at first seem lazy, since the main character, Sam Flynn (Garret Hedlund), experiences the same troubles that his father, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), did in Tron—being thrust into an alien space and forced to contend with its rules. But the echoes make sense within the world built by Kevin, and serve to highlight the heroic journeys of both father and son, and their undertones of personal discovery, by drawing them together into one continuous storyline, in which Sam reconnects with his father and helps him battle his creation-turned-nemesis, Clu. But these echoes are also part of what makes Legacy's world both beautiful and fascinating from a structural standpoint. Fans of Tron will remember the lightcycles—now sleeker and sexier than ever—but will also be pleased to see that the same concept has been adapted across multiple modes of transportation. The Grid has literally adapted, much as our culture has since the 1980s; as a result, the world is totalizing—a separate space that is so engulfed by the utopian practices that spawned it that the only elements that appear to be explicit components from our own world, rather than bleed-overs, are those items brought into the system from the outside by the "users" (i.e. flesh and blood people). It's a world with its own infrastructure, system of government, and entertainment industries, all of which have been built from the ground up by programs created for the express purpose of design. They are also programs which have broken away from their creator to fashion the world as they see fit. To put it another way: the Grid is no longer just a computer program, but a fully realized universe built inside a computer space—it’s the Matrix, but distinctive in its advancements.

Visually, Legacy is as immersive as Tron. Perhaps more so, since current animation technologies make it possible to render realistic imaginary environments. The lights, the gridlike patterns, and the city-like space ruled by Clu are all conceptually and seamlessly tied together. With fewer limitations on technology, Legacy can immerse film and character into a visual space—right down to the basics. The costumes look real, if not a little retro, and the cityscapes and vehicles all appear as if they belong together. Even more striking is how the filmmakers have updated the relatively simplistic, strategy-oriented lightcycle game, which appears in its original arcade form in the real world (as Tron) and as a real-life component to the world of the Grid. Now the lightcycles can move across multiple levels and down spiral pathways and curved arches. The cycles also have greater functionality, since they can now jump, curve, stop, and skid within the actual game (they originally only made 90 degree angle turns, though the cycles apparently could do curves well enough outside of the arena). Even the Disk Wars have advanced, made even more gladiator/battle-royal-like with fully rendered crowds and a tiered "playoff" structure (leading, in the film, to a confrontation with a familiar character that has been manipulated to work for the "bad guys").

Outside of the game, however, the killing feature (jetwall) of the lightcycles (and other vehicles) takes on a more practical form, acting as a kind of protective rear shield for large aircraft, which makes it difficult for smaller fighter craft to get clean shots without being slammed to the ground themselves. In a way, what was in Tron a concept heavily influenced by the video games of the '70s and '80s now has contemporary influences, pulling from an obviously more complicated realm of games across multiple distribution platforms. The old Grid looks simple and almost ridiculous compared to today’s gaming worlds; the new Grid, however, tries to imagine what a digital community like Second Life would look like if merged with a first person shooter and the high-octane destructive racing games of the last ten years, all constructed under totalitarian conditions with a human component (Clu, after all, was made from Kevin Flynn's mold). On the one hand, these kinds of elements are eye candy—colorful and beautifully designed. On the other hand, there is a clear logic to their expansion: Legacy's world has made uses for the various elements that comprise its gaming structure in the "real" world outside of the arena; the result is a world that feels like it ties together, even if it is obvious how such elements are convenient for the plot (jetwalls on an aircraft, after all, make for a much more exciting aerial combat scene). The lightcycle (and similar vehicles) are both a source of entertainment and a form of transportation, and its function as an entertainment device has been adopted into the infrastructure of the Grid for defense. This is eerily similar to how the various aspects of today’s society bleed into one another (for example, MRIs are crossovers from NASA technology for scanning spacecraft).

Technology, however, can only manage so much. The computer-rendered young Flynn, for example, sometimes looks like a well-animated video game cutscene character, rather than a realistic representation of the actor. His appearances are jarring and have the effect of pulling one out of the story. Thankfully, they are few and far between, perhaps because the filmmakers knew that too much face time with the young version of Flynn/Bridges would be difficult to take seriously. Most instances where computer animation is at work, however, are consistent in style with the world of Legacy and visually remarkable. The world itself also remains consistent, building upon itself to imagine greater potential for the interior landscapes of the digital world. Very little goes unexplained in Legacy, whether by explication in the dialogue (such as why the Grid has different laws of physics) or by action (such as Sam Flynn's discovery of the game mechanics for the various gladiator-style battles in which he participates when he first arrives in the Grid). Even the evolutionary premise is drawn to its logical conclusion, imagining how digital spaces might one day produce "life" of their own—something that computer scientists are working hard to produce, with a number of significant leaps forward in the last few years. Legacy certainly does not offer well-reasoned explanations for everything and sometimes leaves out important facts, such as why "users" bleed in the Grid, while everyone else is disassembled (derezzed). Some of these explanations are perhaps lazy attempts to deal with why the rules of the real world (outside of the movie) don’t apply, but Legacy at least acknowledges that many of these rules are not being followed—a great deal of SF films don’t even go that far.

Regardless of how one feels about Legacy's plot and its characters (personally, I wasn't bothered by either, because I thought the plot was at least logical, though a tad thin and cliché), the film deserves recognition for its attempts to imagine a seamless digital landscape equipped with its own internal logic. There's something about the style of the Tron universe that wants to suck you in. Whether it’s the designs of the costumes or the landscapes—darkness and all—Tron is for fans, new and old, a constant aesthetic tug. Totalized worlds may be the future of science fiction film, and I sincerely hope that writers of new or re-imagined SF universes will put as much attention into their details as Legacy (or even Avatar) did. Perhaps we’ll see better films, too, because Legacy, for all its faults, is still a beautiful film that shows us the visual potential of more serious SF stories, limited only by its unwillingness to go where films like Cold Souls, Moon, or, most recently, Inception—all beautiful films that nevertheless do not require the totalized environment that makes Legacy fascinating—have gone. Maybe then we'll have a true masterpiece—a film with gorgeous visuals, internal and external consistency, and a compelling narrative.

Shaun Duke is a science fiction and fantasy writer and a graduate student at the University of Florida, where he is trying to avoid losing his mind while working on his thesis (and failing miserably). His fiction has appeared in Residential Aliens and he is the co-owner of Young Writers Online. He can be found telling someone else's life story on his blog, The World in the Satin Bag.

Shaun Duke is a reviewer, podcaster, and PhD student studying science fiction, Caribbean literature, and postcolonialism at the University of Florida. His work can be found on his website, or on his three podcasts: Totally Pretentous: A Podcast About Great Movies, the Hugo-nominated Skiffy and Fanty Show, and Shaun's Rambles. He also happens to be a sentient toaster.
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25 Sep 2023

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