Director Joseph Kosinski’s 2010 science fiction film Tron: Legacy has become a cult favorite in the years since its release, much like the original Tron from 1982. Both films underperformed at the box office upon release, squashing hopes for a sequel, but steadily grew dedicated followings thanks to the worlds imagined on screen. Thanks to their state-of-the-art technology and commitment to bringing something new and unique to life, they have captured the imaginations of millions who chose to venture into their dangerous digital worlds.
Like the original Tron, Tron: Legacy follows the story of a man trapped inside a digital world known as The Grid where the forces of order and rebellion clash. Here in Tron: Legacy, its Sam Flynn, who is sucked into the world of The Grid in his search for his long missing father, Kevin, who once traveled to The Grid in the original film. Once in this digital world, Sam is quickly forced to fight for his life in gladiatorial combat and against the digital overlords who have come to oppress all others. It’s a simple story, but, much like the first film, is meant as more of a simple skeleton upon which is built a vibrant and unforgettable world.
In its opening minutes, Tron: Legacy dwells in the real world seen through the lens of a nighttime city skyline. The clean and vibrant lines of The Grid that will soon be seen everywhere reflect in the stark Encom tower and surrounding buildings. Once Sam and the audience enters The Grid, visualized in a sudden influx of neon grid patterns, these imposing forms overtake the environment and stretch as far as the eye can see. With dangerous Recognizers sweeping the skies and ferocious minions prowling the streets, the world of The Grid feels alive and filled with history.
Form and content are two distinct but inseparable aspects of all art, with form (including the techniques and style being used), ultimately conveying the content, or meaning, of what has been depicted. In Tron Legacy, we see what is perhaps the greatest argument for form AS content. Audiences need not read greater meaning into the sights and sounds experienced, as these visual and auditory creations ARE the ultimate meaning of the film.
While that may seem shallow, Tron Legacy is divised as an experience. Something pure and simple, but pulsating with a living, breathing imagination that keeps the fictional world living far after the story’s end. When you hear someone mention what they love about Legacy, it’s typically not its story, but something far more sensory.
There are countless films who layer greater meaning into their stories through the coalescence or juxtaposition of form and content. Here, Tron: Legacy’s world is meant to be inhabited. This is far more an experience than a story. From its massive establishing shots that expose the scope of this neon world to its intimate moments that dwell upon the sterile yet vibrant corners of The Grid, each moment of Tron Legacy is divised to further establish this technologically alien environment. With a background in CGI video game commercials, it’s clear that Kosinski has an eye and passion for visual storytelling, which was put to full use in bringing back the world of Tron.
Arenas, homes, clubs, wastelands, they all make up the larger whole of The Grid. In turn, they expose the cohesiveness of this singular technological vision as well as its many contrasting elements. Set in a constantly nighttime world, The Grid is self-lit, with structures, vehicles, and the people themselves bringing harsh, multi-tinted light to this forboding vista. The Grid is a supremely dangerous place to be, but it’s so fully realized that you can’t help but want to be there.
When first glimpsed in 1982’s Tron, The Grid was a starkly unique yet unfinished vision. Put simply, the limitations of the time prevented a true immersion into the world, even if the monolithic neon nature of the environment would form the bare basics of the sequel’s aesthetics. Modern technological advantages mean that the world of The Grid can be fleshed out and turned into an underlit, stormy, mood-filled reinterpretation of the Spartan-like original’s designs, and it’s all the better for it.
These advancements mean that The Grid can also be a reflection of modern technology. The bare bones visuals of the original play well against an era where Donkey Kong Jr. and Joust had just arrived. To strictly reinterpret them would make Tron: Legacy’s world a place stuck in the past, instead of the ever-evolving environment that gave life to the ISOs Kevin Flynn seeks to protect. Will Tron: Legacy’s visualize eventually feel as dated as the original’s? Perhaps, given that Clu’s computerized visage has already shown the effects of technology’s continual advancement. But the breathtaking vistas and immersive atmosphere will likely never go out of style.
What may be most marvelous about The Grid is the way in which it modernizes yet preserves its 1980s essence. Like the retrowave musical subgenre that has sprung up in recent years, The Grid is a distillation of the ideas of the ‘80s but with more cohesion and vibrant life than what was possible decades ago. Surrounded by foreboding mountains and covered in rain, The Grid feels more alive than ever, especially when given pulsating auditory life through Daft Punk’s score.
What can really be said about Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack that can’t be said for itself by just listening to it? Daft Punk has cited composer Wendy Carlos’ score for the original Tron as a major influence on their musical aspirations and style. While Daft Punk didn’t cover the original’s score for the sequel, Carlos’ synthy influence can be seen many generations removed in their propulsive and glitched out soundtrack.
Teamed with composer Joseph Trapanese, the score to Tron: Legacy blends a sweeping orchestral sound with their techno grooves, reflecting the film’s themes of the line between the organic and technological beginning to blur. It’s a pulsating and sweeping score that alternates between dance grooves and emotional swells. Because Daft Punk was hired on as composers so early into the film’s production, they actually created multiple pieces of score before filming began, allowing Kosinski to play their music while they shot scenes in order to further marry image to music.
Scenes like Sam’s lightcycle battle pair perfectly with the accompanying piece, “The Game Has Changed,” and the nightclub brawl fits just right with “Derezzed.” While that dance floor scene is the only moment of Daft Punk’s score becoming diagetic music within the film, The Grid almost seems like the type of environment to organically create such music from its very foundation. And much like the visual aesthetics of the film, the Tron: Legacy score feels like an extrapolation of an ‘80s view of what the future could be.
There is no juxtaposition of score versus image in Tron Legacy, only perfect marriage of the two. Along with the clean purr and hum of many of the weapons and vehicles found on The Grid, these elements create a perfectly interlocked experiential whole that is devised to swallow the audience within its existence.
The massive world of The Grid may be largely devised by computer animation, but the visual aesthetics of the digital realm seamlessly extend to all aspects of production design. Like the original, residents of The Grid do battle with their identity discs. However, the glorified Frisbees of old have now become gleaming, sleek bladed rings. These are just one element of Legacy that is a visual step forward from the original and a further extension of The Grid’s interconnected whole.
Unlike many films who make the profound mistake of completely creating their far-flung worlds from green screen, Tron Legacy used plenty of sets. These neon-lit environments mean that the harsh yet hypnotic lighting that is so essential to the look of The Grid is brought to real life, bouncing off the actors just as much as their sleek body suits light up the world around them. Filmed in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, The Grid feels incredibly expansive as the cinematography choices create a visual experience that wraps around the viewer and fill his or her range of vision.
That presentation choice is further enhanced through the decision to film 40 minutes of the movie in Imax, expanding the picture vertically to an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 for even greater immersion into the realm.
This world of clean, harsh lines is also given literal life in the steams of hard light that spill from the lightcycles in combat, making The Grid a world that both lives and dies by light. And those deaths are spectacular in and of themselves, too. Derezzed oponents shatter into millions of scattering cubes, littering the ground with broken coding and further enforcing the realm’s distant yet frightening reflection of the human world.
Creating an immersive realm in any work of fiction is a matter of artistic cohesion. By crafting a world whose rules and aesthetics never break, The Grid of Tron: Legacy sweeps away both viewer and hero. The effect is truly remarkable and among the best examples of world building in film.
Although plans for a third Tron film seem to be in flux following Part 3’s sudden cancellation by Disney in 2015 only a few months prior to start of production, great experiences like Tron: Legacy deserve to be felt again and again. And for both lifelong fans and newcomers alike, The Grid will be always be ready and waiting for your return.