For me, “TRON Night” took place at 11:00 in the morning in Burbank, on the Walt Disney lot.
Employees and journalists alike crowded into the theater across from the old Animation Building, and we were just one of many screenings in a row taking place in that same space today. What we saw was the same presentation that will be screening in theaters across the country and in 48 countries around the world thanks to Disney’s partnership with IMAX. This is the last big gun in the belt of Disney as they prepare to release one of their biggest corporate gambles of the year, and my honest opinion as I walked out of the theater is that they have aimed high, bet big, and that it’s anything but a sure thing.
That’s good, though. I think if they had made the safe, simple, continuity-free reboot of “Tron” that was certainly possible, it might be more of a safe bet, but it would also be a lot less interesting to watch slowly come into focus these last few years. Since that first legendary moment at Comic-Con, when they showed Joseph Kosinski’s proof-of-concept footage and the crowd went insane, “TRON: Legacy” has been a film that has felt unlikely in every way.
Even this morning, sitting in that theater on the Disney lot, I have a hard time believing that the film exists in this particular form. Joseph Kosinski alone is such an unlikely guy, this brilliant guy with a hard-science education and a meticulous, almost alien eye, that I can’t imagine anyone else having the sensibility required to do something that feels so eerily tied to the original, but so resolutely cutting-edge as well. When “Tron” came out in 1982, I remember the hype about the film, and I remember all the talk about the way the computer revolution was about to begin. I remember photos in Time magazine of the Cray Supercomputer that was used to render the film’s groundbreaking computer-generated imagery.
I also remember the resounding cultural thud the film made when it was finally released. For kids, it was a big deal, and there was something about the fantasy of stepping into a video game that spoke directly to us, the first generation of video game kids. Our parents couldn’t really relate, it seemed, because the film got lost amidst some of the genuine hits of that summer, including “E.T. The Extraterrestrial,” which eclipsed pretty much everything else in terms of success.
“Tron” sunk deep roots, though, and the style of the film and the language it created have trickled into pop culture in any number of ways in the 28 years since the first one was released. The real measure of a film isn’t the opening weekend, which I’ve always argued. The real measure is how a film sinks in, how a film bleeds into other films, how much you hear that film and see that film reflected back. For a film to really be worthwhile, I think it’s got to have legs on it. I think it’s got to be a film that still has an active, engaged conversation about it going on twenty or thirty years later.
In 1982, computer culture was certainly emerging, but it was not the common language of everyone in the world. Right now, it feels like the revolution that “Tron” suggested has happened, and the world may well have caught up. There is a strong chance that when this film is released, it will be a perfect storm of marketing, nostalgia, visual firepower, and pure unfiltered love of Jeff Bridges, and if that happens, “TRON: Legacy” could turn into one of those lightning-strike moments for the studio, everything they hope and dream it could be.
Based on what I saw today, there’s also a distinct possibility they’ll be 28 years ahead of the curve again. Could easily happen, because it appears to me that Joseph Kosinski is an artificial intelligence from the future that happens to have a thing for cameras. There are things we’ve seen now in this “T:L” footage that feels like the bar has just been raised again. One thing that makes Kosinski’s job easier, in terms of selling the illusion of this world, than the job that Cameron had in building Pandora is that everything inside the world of The Grid is digital, artificial, created, and that’s the point. When dealing with the inorganic, I think you gain a lot of leeway on how you render it digitally. Kosinski, shooting in digital 3D, has created a world that I can genuinely say is unlike anything else I’ve seen before on a movie screen. It kind of feels like a dream that someone had after watching Cunningham’s “All is Full Of Love” video and the original “Tron,” a polished, gleaming, overwhelming landscape. There’s a sense of humor to the film, but it’s a wry, reserved, almost sarcastic sense of humor, and it’s subtle There’s a reserve to it, just as there is to everything about what we saw today, and that reserve is uncommon from the films that aspire to be blockbusters. Look at the “Pirates Of The Caribbean” films, for example, all of them eager as hyperactive puppies to please. That’s not what this feels like. This is a film that’s playing its own game, and it practically dares you to tune in to what it’s doing.
The presentation began with a message from Joseph Kosinski, presented as green text on a black screen, beginning with “Greetings Programs” and finishing with “End Of Line.” Kosinski said that the scenes we would see would be from the first half of the film, and about 20 minutes altogether. I was a little worried that seeing this much out of context would make it hard to sit through the stuff in context when I see the film in (presumably) about a month now. Instead, what we saw tonight suggested to me that we’re getting something singular when the film arrives.
The footage began in the “real” world, where Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) arrives at his strikingly designed garage apartment to find Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) waiting for him. Alan has obviously been a big part of Sam’s life since the disappearance of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) sometime after the end of the first film. He brings news for Sam of a mysterious page from inside Flynn’s Arcade, which has been closed for 20 years. Sam goes to see what, if anything, there is to find at the arcade, and here’s where nostalgia becomes more than a marketing tool… it’s the subtext of the film. What is nostalgia, after all, if not a longing for something lost, something nearly impossible to recapture? We long to be taken back to a specific time and place in our lives, in our culture, and there are things that can make us feel like we’ve been transported back. As the sounds of Journey and the familiar bleeps and bloops of early ’80s video game play from all around me in the theater, I can’t help but remember my own experiences in those arcades, including my time spent playing the “Tron” game. That’s the centerpiece at Flynn’s Arcade, and behind it, Sam finds a secret door that leads him down to a workshop, and in that workshop, there’s a very familiar laser pointing at a desk. Sam sits down at that desk, types a few phrases, and then just like that…
You know how when you were a kid and you saw “The Wizard Of Oz” for the first time, that moment where Dorothy stepped from black-and-white to color was sort of a mindblower? Well, this movie’s jump from the 2D real world to the 3D world of the Grid is a visceral shock, a sort of rewiring, and terribly impressive. This is where you benefit from hiring a technical sorcerer like Kosinski. The first scenes inside the Grid, where Sam comes face-to-struts with a Recognizer, one of the most iconic designs in the first film, are just plain hallucinatory. And that’s appropriate, since that’s how Sam is reacting the entire time, freaking out, unable to believe his own sensory input. Kosinski makes these sequences very subjective, and in doing so, he manages to make this feel more like something you’re experiencing than something you’re watching. When Sam gets checked in and dressed and set up for his sentence to the Games, Kosinski really focuses on the details of how Sam is transformed into a Games warrior, and how strange it all feels with these four women who emerge from the walls to dress him.
The actual Disc Wars scene that we saw was pure overload. You know what a tournament bracket looks like, sets of two, gradually narrowing down towards one final head-to-head? Well, that’s basically what the Disc Wars arena looks like, a big beautiful crazy stadium that is a constantly shifting set of brackets, one player at a time derezzing until they finally get to the match between the best two out of however many dozen there are at the start. Watching Sam figure out the game and master it over the course of the first match, I was struck by the way Kosinski shoots action. He’s got a real knack for knowing how to punctuate things, how to underline an idea or accent a thrill, and I’m confident that if nothing else, “TRON: Legacy” will have some astounding visual effects and action sequences.
The next footage we saw was from the tail end of a lightcycle sequence, when Quorra (Olivia Wilde) breaks Sam off of the Grid and takes him out into the wilderness. It’s a great long sequence, unafraid to use quiet to build tension, that finally brings Sam face to face with his long-absent father. The introduction of Bridges as Flynn is striking, and considering how often images that are meant to evoke awe and wonder miss the target, there’s a powerful Buddha quality to the way Flynn first appears. Bridges is exactly as good as you’d hope, at least in the moments we saw, but what impressed me is how much of a charge Olivia Wilde adds to the film the moment she arrives. Here’s a truncated version of the clip we saw:
And even in that, you get a sense of how alive she is, and how well she plays Quorra’s interest in these Users, these alien beings in her world. I’m not sure what larger role she plays in the film, but Flynn refers to her as his apprentice, and at least in these scenes, she is helping both of the Flynns.
The rest of the footage we saw was quick, just a few cuts from various scenes, and the last line of the footage is the one that got me the most: “Here come the lightjets!” They’ve been teasing us with the idea of lightjets since Comic-Con, and sure enough, there were some amazing quick images that suggest how you would take a lightcycle battle to the air, but just a hint.
Overall, I thought the footage was impressive, although it’s hard to judge how well it will all actually work as a film. The Daft Punk soundtrack is like a physical thing when you’re sitting in the theater, big and powerful and ominous. The film’s got such a particular, memorable palette that it took my eyes a few minutes to adjust again outside.
To be fair, I was surrounded by Disney employees as I waited in line to get my shoulder bag back with the laptop inside. Two women in front of me were discussing what they’d just seen.
“Oh, it’s not really for me.”
“No. I didn’t get it.”
“I’m going to let Bill take the boys when it comes out. They can go enjoy that. I’ll enjoy having the morning to myself.”
I heard similar comments from a few other employees around me. One guy said, “Yeah, that didn’t do much for me, but I’ll bet there’s gonna be people who flip out for it.” And if I have any concern about what I saw today, it’s that. Disney has pushed a whole lotta chips to the center of the table, and now it’s time to turn the cards over and see if what they’ve done resonates with the public any more now than it did in 1982.
We’ll know soon. We’ll have more on the film, including today’s talk with screenwriters Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, as we get closer to release.
“TRON: Legacy” will be in theaters December 17th.