Famously, the original TRON was deemed ineligible for a Best Visual Effects Oscar. Using computers was cheating, you see. Very little of the special effects were actually computer generated, and the technology at the time meant there is none in scenes involving human actors—the technology did not exist to combine CG and human actors. Considerably more of the effects in its belated sequel TRON: Legacy were CGI, but there is still more in practical work than people know. What’s more, some of the best of the effects in the movie are practical effects, and the thing that is most notably the worst is CGI. Though to be strictly fair, I don’t believe they had any choice but to make that specific effect, and to make it in CG. And some of the best stuff is also computer generated.
It is now about twenty years since the events of the first film. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has been vanished for years. His son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is at loose ends—he believes in his father’s ideals of keeping software free and accessible, but he doesn’t really have anything to do with his father’s company. His dad’s old friend Alan Brady (Bruce Boxleitner) tells him that a message has been received from the old, shuttered Flynn’s Arcade. Sam discovers a device in the basement that will be familiar to the viewers of the original film.
Now inside the program, Sam is put into the games. He fights Rinzler (spoilers), who discovers he is a User. He is rescued by Quorra (Olivia Wilde). She takes him to his father. It turns out that he had found a group of programs that had not been created by humans—an artificial lifeform. He was awed by them. Alas, it destroyed his relationship with CLU (also Bridges, of course), who felt supplanted by them. CLU killed them all and basically overthrows Flynn. It is now up to Sam to undo his father’s mistakes, though of course he promptly starts by making his own.
Without realizing it, Flynn turns out to have created an enormous case of sibling rivalry in CLU, who doesn’t even realize he has siblings. He hates Sam as soon as he discovers that Sam exists, because Flynn cares more about Sam than CLU. He is also hugely jealous of the ISOs, arguably his siblings as well. Flynn convinced CLU that he was an ideal program, destined to create the perfect system, and any parent can tell you that you need to be sure your kid doesn’t think they’re better than anyone else. For one thing, why would you spent time on the imperfect instead?
I will never get over my resentment that it wasn’t even nominated for Best Visual Effects or Best Costume Design. Funnily enough, Jeff Bridges was nominated for Best Actor that year—for True Grit. But Alice in Wonderland won for both Costume Design and Production Design, both of which Tron: Legacy did better (and I about eighty percent like Alice in Wonderland). Inception won, and I suppose I can’t argue with that; honestly it’s a pretty solid slate that year. Mostly I just think the Academy owed the original an apology, since all the year’s nominees—including the forgettable Hereafter, which I always have to look up (it’s the tsunami movie)—built on the original’s legacy.
As for Costume Design, it’s not just that, for example, True Grit was just kind of average, as costuming for Westerns goes. (And I completely like True Grit.) It’s that the costumes here are practical effects. In the original, the lights were hand-drawn on each individual frame by animators. In this version, the costumes actually light up. In fact, I went to a con not long after this that offered a panel on how to make light-up costumes like this at home. Which I did not attend, on the grounds of I’m not that good at sewing. But still, the fact remains that these are costumes that you could make at home.
And when you think of the best parts of this movie, if you’ve seen this movie, one of the things you think of is the costumes, right? They’re well thought out for each character. They fit with what we know of the universe. They create the world we’re delving into. The sets do likewise. Now, I’m certainly not an expert, but it remains true that a lot of work was put into the practical effects of this movie, both because practical effects remain easier for some things and because they remain more convincing. It’s easier to fool the human eye that way, with what is really there or can be made to look like it’s really there.
Don’t get me wrong—the technology on the light cycles also came a long way in twenty years. Most of the visual effects have improved. The worst is the Uncanny Valley de-ageing of Jeff Bridges. Which, in my opinion, mostly works when it’s on CLU and is only a problem when it’s Flynn. After all, CLU is artificial, and if there’s something not quite right about his face, well, of course there is. But when it’s Flynn, it’s supposed to be a human. Our eyes know it’s wrong, and it unsettles us. The technology isn’t better now.
Honestly, I’m also disappointed that the movie wasn’t successful enough for its sequel to happen. From the moment I saw Cillian Murphy and heard him called Edward Dillinger, I knew he was there to carry on from the Dillinger of the first movie and was looking forward to what they did with him. (I’d also note that I referred to him, when discussing the movie with my partner, as “the one with the eyes,” and my partner knew who I meant.) Disney has consistently put too much expectation on its assorted sci-fi to do well and has consistently failed in those expectations, and it’s a shame.
Murphy’s isn’t the only quality performance. We’ve already gone too far without talking about Michael Sheen, who apparently based his own on a combination of Ziggy Stardust and Mae West. He’s having enormous amounts of fun, which no one else in the movie really seems to be. Though his is the most fun character, really, the one who isn’t deeply involved in the movie’s whatever-is-going-on. Apparently, his agent had to talk him into playing coy, because he’s an enormous fan of the original, and his agent thought his enthusiasm for being in the sequel would cause them to pay him as little as they could.
Our final disappointment is the score. Namely, that it isn’t Oscar-nominated. At the time I freely admitted that the nice thing about the win for The Social Network was that it meant I had now officially been in a room with an Oscar nominee, if you count the Tacoma Dome as a room. On the other hand, while I haven’t seen all the nominees, I’m sure at least one of them is inferior to this score here, one of the only movie scores I’ve actually paid money to own. Daft Punk worked with a full 90-piece orchestra, combining the traditional instruments with their own synthesizers to create a sound that is both new and nostalgic, one of the best movie scores of the twenty-first century.
I suppose another disappointment is that it has, for some reason, been removed from Disney+. They’re adding enough content that what they’ve removed has been slipping through the cracks. But this is gone, and a few other things are gone—Ramona and Beezus, for example. And there’s no reason for it. None that I know, anyway. This is a beautiful film that was underrated when it came out and remains underrated now; I can only hope it gets the same reevaluation that the original eventually did.