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Tron’s Triumphant Return to Cyberspace

• Adam Rogers via

You will like Tron: Legacy. That’s not a prediction—it’s a command. Don’t even try to fight it. Come December 17, when the movie comes out, your butt will be in a seat and your head will be plugged into migraine-inducing Urkel goggles like everybody else. The people from Walt Disney have made sure of it.

The studio has put an estimated $170 million into this choo-choo train, and it is chugging down the track. The producers started leaking images and designs three years ago. They showed a trailer at Comic-Con before they even had a green light to make the movie. The number of dollars invested in the franchise will likely enter the mathematical regime created by reclusive Russian geniuses for defense budgets and bank bailouts. Los Angeles visual f/x house Digital Domain deployed the latest 3-D cameras and motion-capture technology to render a younger Jeff Bridges as the villain. French electronic duo Daft Punk crafted the soundtrack. Two videogames and a cartoon were given the go-ahead long ago. The writers and director collaborated on the script to ensure the production design meshed with the story, and vice versa—they even ran an early cut past the story gods at Pixar, all just to make sure the movie would actually, you know, “work.” They spent years figuring out how to make Tron: Legacy connect to its antecedent. Tron: Legacy is a sequel—everybody already knows that—and the people making it knew from the start that to be a success their movie had to evoke the look and feel of the original Tron.

Yes, Tron. The motive force behind this winter’s biggest cinematic event is a weird little sci-fi flop from 1982 that no one really remembers. Seriously: Try. You’ll get bits. Images, mostly. Jeff Bridges in chalk-white armor that ripples blue. Glowing Frisbee fights. Bubble-shaped motorcycles trailing walls of light. But the story? Something about a hacker, maybe? He gets beamed into a computer and fights a giant. Bruce Boxleitner is there. And… the villain is a computer program with a British accent.

Don’t feel bad. Even Legacy director Joseph Kosinski admits to having initially been fuzzy on his source material. He didn’t see Tron until he was a teenager in the mid-1980s, on VHS. He was more of a Raiders of the Lost Ark kind of guy.

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So why all this fuss? With almost a century of back catalog to draw from, why should Disney go all in on a sequel to a movie that’s generally regarded as not very good? Because Tron succeeded at what science fiction rarely attempts and almost never pulls off: It predicted the future. That little movie distilled and made visible a powerful idea—that inside a computer is a world, a place you (or some part of you) can go and live. This idea didn’t make much sense at the time, of course. It was utterly new and poorly expressed, and the technology to pull it off didn’t really exist. A movie about the magic and power of computing also happened to be the first movie made by computers… which, sadly, were then neither magical nor powerful. No wonder it fizzled at the box office. The metaphor, however, lived on.

The film would never come close to an Oscar, but that doesn’t make it unimportant. Nobody talks about cyberspace anymore—sci-fi writer William Gibson had just coined the term when Tron came out. But that’s what the movie gave shape to—a “consensual hallucination,” as Gibson wrote, “bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void.” Though Gibson says he had an entirely different look in mind. “An issue of Omni magazine that contained one of my earliest cyberspace stories also contained a preview of Tron,” he says. “If Disney was into that stuff, I thought, I wasn’t even remotely ahead of the curve.”

Gibson’s stories were way out in front, of course, but Tron was the first mainstream pop-culture artifact to have similar insights about what cyberspace was and what it was going to become. The world it envisioned and the metaphor it helped create have become more resonant over the decades, as the movie essentially came true. Everything that looked weird in 1982 now looks naive, perhaps, but also profound. Insightful even.

For Tron: Legacy to succeed where Tron failed, it has to simultaneously sustain the integrity of and improve upon the first film. Lucky for Disney, the tools finally exist to make the movie that the original team was groping for but never quite found.

Image: Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Tron: Legacy translates the original's bubble-shaped light cycles and planar grid (see next page) into the polished, 3-D visual language of the 21st century.
Image: Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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