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Tron: Legacy has morphed into a mesmerizing self-own

Bio-digital jazz, man

Jeff Bridges de-aged into CLU in Tron: Legacy, smiling at camera in his glowing yellow suit Image: Walt Disney Pictures

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What’s the legacy of Tron: Legacy? When it opened on Dec. 17, 2010, the big-budget Disney sequel was hypnotically watchable and maligned as a throwaway vehicle for a new Daft Punk record. But like the original 1982 Tron, a landmark of digital effects, it feels equally experimental in retrospect. Tron: Legacy is the peculiar and perhaps unwitting precursor to several practices that have come to define mainstream filmmaking up until now. And based on Disney’s current plans for the future, the blockbuster industry has no sign of slowing down.

Set 28 years after the events of the first film, Tron: Legacy follows Sam (Garrett Hedlund), who discovers his father, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, returning from Tron), in a parallel computer world known as the Grid. Complicating matters is CLU, a tyrannical program created by Flynn in his own image circa 1989, now determined to capture his creator and use him to gain access to the outside world (and, of course, take it over). In a fairly straightforward gotta-get-home adventure, Joseph Kosinski, a commercial director who made his feature debut with the film, updates and streamlines the original’s basic visual ideas with stunning monochromatic structures and vehicles illuminated by neon accents. It’s all paired with a soundtrack by Daft Punk that mixes in sumptuous, ethereal soundscapes with the pulse-pounding beats for which they’re known. The film prioritizes aesthetic pleasure — knowing full well there’s no Star Wars or Marvel or Fast and the Furious setup that could result in its excessive, digital grandeur — but there’s still insight to be found in the cinematic artifact, as so much of the last decade in studio moviemaking can be seen in and traced back to this point.

While the rest of the film’s sleek digital effects have aged well, less enduring is the film’s usage of digital de-aging. Even at the time, critics described the effect as resembling “one of the Westworld robots, but less real” and a “simulacrum that here looks like an animated death mask” Handled by Digital Domain, which had made strides with similar tech in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Tron: Legacy was an experimental moment for digital de-aging; after throwing out a mould of a younger Bridges designed by legendary makeup artist Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London, for starters), the production team decided to undertake the task entirely using Mova Contour, a program created by former Apple Computer engineer Steve Perlman. It’s since been used in 15 films (many of which are from Disney, who were even sued for stealing it). A similar “digital skin-grafting” effect created by Lola VFX would be used on Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in X-Men: The Last Stand.

CLU aka digital Jeff Bridges smiles wide in Tron: Legacy Image: Walt Disney Pictures

The point being: de-aging was ready to take off. But in Legacy, its use turns nightmarish. The tender atmosphere of an early scene, in which Kevin nostalgically recounts the events of the first film as a bedtime story, is immediately undercut when he finally turns around to see a dead-eyed Jeff Bridges clone. While normal-faced Bridges eventually pops up, CLU remains front and center in Tron: Legacy, continually confronting the audience with his uncanny appearance, often framed looking directly to the camera, a creepy reminder of his nature as a program wearing a human suit. It’s glaring enough that you wonder why anyone tried again. Even with the guiding hand of a veteran like Martin Scorsese, who utilized the tech to depict Robert De Niro’s lifetime in The Irishman, the technique remains firmly rooted in the uncanny valley.

While Tron: Legacy on the surface is about taking a mystical approach to digital life, the film as viewed in 2020 reads as a warning against using “digital actors.” One of the main elements of the story is the emergence of “ISOs,” beings made from an impossible combination of technology and biology (Flynn calls them “bio-digital jazz”). The ISOs are manifestations of the Grid’s true potential, more flexible than the regular programs and apparently beyond Flynn’s understanding. They’re also a far cry from the single-minded and somewhat predictable CLU, whose actions Flynn can read at every turn. In the setting of Tron: Legacy, the ISOs are now closer to humans than programs, which is why CLU wiped them out. Only Quora (Olivia Wilde) remains.

As a program attempting to destroy his creator and likeness, CLU is a rather curious character to be realized with VFX that could, in theory, replace actors. (Especially considering that Kosinski doesn’t even think the visuals work.) CLU’s contempt for his flesh-and-blood forebear combined with his uncanniness works to suggest that the very technology he’s made with is a threat. To add to it, several scenes emphasize the character’s lack of humanity: In one moment, the villain searches through Flynn’s home in the Grid, curiously prodding at simple trinkets and decorations as if they were completely alien objects (whereas Quora showed an understanding of human arts and culture). CLU’s only interest, other than creating a computer police state, is the bloodsport of “the Games,” vehicular and hand-to-hand battle hosted in grand colosseums. In the film’s conclusion, CLU is shown to be incapable of understanding Flynn’s change in ideology as they finally come face-to-face for the first time in decades at the portal to the real world. While apologizing to CLU, Flynn tells him that the kind of perfection he seeks is unknowable, and that the spontaneity and strangeness of the real can never be truly replicated by a system.

Through CLU’s rage, Kosinski and the writers of Tron: Legacy pile on a lot of hostility toward their own experimentation. At the time, de-aging still represented a possible future in film. Today, its main purpose is to allow filmmakers to dig up the past without completely changing it, as the act of re-casting or retconning is apparently a far greater sin than an eerie digital makeover. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 de-ages Kurt Russell rather than cast someone as his younger self, while Blade Runner 2049 brings back the version of Sean Young from 1982. De-aging also ties into these other revival films, as flashbacks are worked into the film to create issues that the sequel must resolve; Disney’s own Rogue One: A Star Wars Story goes even further, recreating Peter Cushing and a New Hope-era Carrie Fisher as “virtual actors” (Fisher herself was later de-aged AND recreated in The Rise of Skywalker).

In a way, digital de-aging makes sense if we’ve already seen the actor on-screen in their younger days and have a strong attachment to their image. It seems like a simpler solution than something like the use of makeup to bridge the gap between Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis in Looper a task complicated simply because of the little details and nuances that add up to a face with as much character as Willis’. Ang Lee’s 2019 film Gemini Man challenged the conventions set by Tron: Legacy by pitting Will Smith against a younger, entirely CGI version of himself, an effect created through the combination of stand-in actors and motion capture. The difference between now and then is also the technology’s democratization, made clearest by a recent deep fake adjustment of Tron: Legacy’s de-aging work. But, while it looks marginally less spooky, it lacks the intent behind Legacy.

As a more precise visual recreation of Bridges, CLU feels more like a puppet than the angry, incomplete machine of the original (plus, it also somehow emotes even less). The lack of fidelity becomes necessary to the distinction between Flynn and CLU, and solidifies it as one of the most fascinating uses of the tech to date. Tron: Legacy, like Gemini Man, uses VFX to create the fear of being replaced, whether that’s by literal machines or the machinations of corporate or military structures. Despite throwing out makeup in favor of this new system, it feels like Legacy knows that it’s doomed to fail.

Jeff Bridges’ Flynn confronts CLU at the real-world portal in Tron: Legacy Image: Walt Disney Pictures

The fatalism of Tron: Legacy gives meaning to the de-aged Bridges, an inherently robotic facsimile of Kevin Flynn that can’t fully replicate genuine human emotion. In contrast to CLU’s flat and single-minded rage, Jeff Bridges’ undeniable charm sells ludicrous lines with the appropriate cadence of a futurist entrepreneur turned hippie. Flynn is now The Dude, and irreplaceable. His spaced-out delivery is hypnotic, whether it’s philosophizing about “the digital frontier” or earnestly gasping “radical, man” as his son base-jumps from a digital skyscraper. The spooky, not-quite-human face of CLU becomes more conspicuous when the film contrasts him with that older, earthier, and funnier Bridges, whose newfound Zen attitude and ideological difference to CLU is made clear by the large beard and flowing white robes.

Legacy comes down to a conflict between how the two Jeff Bridgeses see the future: the potential and unpredictability of ISOs versus CLU’s systemic perfection, assimilation and micromanagement. Flynn illustrates to CLU that design by algorithm and aversion to risk is a creative method incapable of the uniqueness that comes from spontaneity and the personal. CLU seeks refinement of what works, and Flynn simply hopes to facilitate change in the Grid rather than assert control over it. The film makes it obvious which is the better option, making it an ironic, inadvertent warning at a time when the increasingly monolithic Disney itself appears hellbent on reforging visual arts in its own image. That increasing homogenization of big-budget Hollywood cinema, working in contrast to the great strides of VFX artists, is becoming more explicit with each passing year, especially under the studio’s habit of announcing how its properties will fit together in grand multimedia puzzles — in their eyes, the perfect system.

Tron: Legacy is unique amongst Disney’s last decade of output because it might be the most visually distinct, as none of the company’s films since has been this singularly committed to such an overwhelming (and quite attractive) visual aesthetic or strict color scheme. There’s an undeniable appeal at its core — in its sincere approach to ridiculous concepts, in its resistance toward quipping at its own expense. The Grid is visually distinct from practically anything else produced by Disney, all while serving as a harbinger of things to come. But its continuing relevance comes from how it laid out a blueprint for how the company makes films to this day. Simultaneously, the thematics of its narrative practically scream as a warning against those very things it embodies.

The ending of Tron: Legacy is about escaping the very spectacle and experiments on display. In order to let his son get through the portal back to the real world, Flynn absorbs CLU back into himself, destroying them both since CLU makes it clear there will be no compromise or reconciliation, and that he’s a lost cause. CLU and Flynn disappear, both heralds of would-be digital utopias gone in a flash of light. But, it’s a happy ending because CLU’s plan to make everything work within his system was stopped, and Sam and Quora get to experience the joy of a non-digital world. Ironic then that Tron: Legacy’s legacy is as a template for such a vast swathe of Hollywood both narratively and in technique. It was a film about a fight against homogenization that ended up becoming the beginning of it.

Tron: Legacy is available to stream on Disney Plus.


Correction: This article originally stated that Tron: Legacy took place 20 years after the original Tron. The film takes place in 2010, 28 years after the first movie.