by Gabriel Valdez
1. I have a synesthetic reaction to Tron: Legacy. There are scenes that are filmed in an almost black-and-white fashion, except the tones are blue-and-orange. The whole design is built out of LED-influenced grids, neon angles, and laser lights. I have the same reaction to director Joseph Kosinski’s second film, Oblivion, although that is designed as differently as you could imagine. The thing with Kosinski is that he doesn’t just design his films well, he designs them unconventionally. Rather than the more-more-more philosophy of many modern fantasy and science-fiction films, Kosinski is unafraid to let his designers create boldly spare architectures and sets.
2. Rather than overly rely on green-screen, Kosinski has entire sets built. This allows his actors to more fully inhabit their scenes. Good actors know how to use the space around them, how to use the walls and the dirt. You need to act big in front of a green-screen, to shout so the back row of the theater believes you (like Gerard Butler in 300). When there’s a real set involved, you can still communicate quiet moments. Make no mistake, Tron: Legacy absolutely abuses green screens, but for the key moments – the quiet moments – it relies on sets.
3. You know who would’ve made a GREAT Anakin Skywalker? Olivia Wilde. Sure, that’d throw some mythology off, but…gender, whatever. Garret Hedlund makes a fine protagonist in Tron: Legacy and Jeff Bridges is having a lot of fun playing dual mentor and villain roles, but Wilde is the one who steals the show as the older Flynn’s protege. It would be easy to say a film like this lacks good performances, but the truth is it’s not built to have them – it favors big stylistic moments and experienced scenery chewers like Michael Sheen (who plays a nightclub owner drinking from the Tim Curry well). Hedlund doesn’t hold our attention as a protagonist. Wilde pretty immediately overtakes him.
This also brings up another note. Given Wilde’s history and popularity, I can’t help but wonder if she were a man, would she be a leading action star by now? She’s hardly unemployed, but when she’s finding her best roles in direct-to-DVD indies like Better Living Through Chemistry, and she’s awkwardly relegated to “leading girlfriend” in big budget films like Rush, something’s very wrong.
4. Relying on restrictions in CGI makes your visual effects last longer. Tron: Legacy doesn’t aim for graphical fidelity. Instead, it limits the scope of its style. Ridley Scott used to practice a form of this, choosing moments in Alien and Blade Runner to hint – rather than show – the viewer toward worlds full of astonishing sights. (Since then, Scott occasionally jumps the shark on CGI.) Kosinski doesn’t follow quite the same path – times have changed – but in adhering to design philosophies instead of a pursuit of overall visual fidelity, the visual effects in his films take on a similar quality of aging very slowly. The CGI in other 2010 films doesn’t hold up as well as this.
One reason for this is that the visual effects artists for Tron: Legacy are often only making something look real using a few colors, not thousands. This is far easier, and allows the artists to re-prioritize how they spend their time (and your budget).
5. There’s a scene between Hedlund and Bridges, soaring across the sky on a freighter, where they catch up on all the advancements the elder Flynn has missed while stuck inside his computer program. It involves a neon-highlighted walkway, fog, and just a hint of stars. Never forget that, in the middle of your effects-heavy movie, it is the simplest scenes – Luke sharing a last moment with a dying Yoda, for instance – that anchor the emotions that make the crazy setpieces worth a damn.
6. The score. It’s the best thing Daft Punk’s ever done. Kosinski doesn’t sign up classic-styled composers. Instead, he chooses an electronica band whose tone he believes he can fit to the film, and enlists them to compose the score. Daft Punk created film music that uses orchestral components in a hard-edged, electronica manner. It creates a full orchestra out of aggressive violins, walking feedback lines, gentle harps, violent brass highlights, and voobing synth tones. There are moments where they harken to the deeply emotive, early experimental electronic music of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, moments where they push the envelope of modern electronica, and moments when it sounds more like a Hans Zimmer-like triumphal film score. I’ll make no arguments that Tron: Legacy is a great film – it’s not – but this score is one of the best in the last decade. It was my score of the year for 2010, with apologies to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network) and Zimmer himself (Inception).
7. Should the powers that be ever get around to making a movie out of the Deus Ex video game franchise, there would be no better choice than Kosinski, especially now that the franchise’s most recent entry has gone so New Renaissance in its design philosophy. I’d push him for the long-gestating Mass Effect movie, too, since Oblivion showed off how well-versed in multiple eras of science-fiction Kosinski is.
8. Personally, I think Disney’s missing a huge chance to get Kosinski in the director’s seat of a Star Wars movie. I’ve written why I do like J.J. Abrams for the job, and Rian Johnson is an inspired choice to direct a more character-driven Star Wars. Gareth Edwards, however, has yet to prove he’s suitable for the job – Godzilla (read the review) had some moments, but it was a narrative and emotional disaster.
9. Hedlund is fully capable of battling out the action scenes himself, but I keep counts in films that have both a male and female action star. There are hints toward romance between them, and there’s the problem of her being his “reward” for his adventure…I don’t think that’s what the film’s initially trying to say, but it soon follows the beats of that trope and implies it in the ending.
Anyway, I keep counts of how often the man saves the woman and how often the woman saves the man. Wilde saves Hedlund several times. He saves her once. There’s even a later scene where she literally swoops to his defense, and she stands guard in multiple scenes between Hedlund and various villains. That’s usually the male role in science-fiction and fantasy films.
Furthermore, Hedlund isn’t exactly the special one who can save the world here, she is. Tron: Legacy isn’t a great film or a complete film when it comes to women – it doesn’t even pass the second or third rule of the Bechdel Test – but it does do some very nice things that aren’t often seen in big budget films.
10. Tron: Legacy isn’t great but it is fantastic. When I decide to sit and watch a favorite scene, that favorite scene ends up lasting until the end credits. I never feel frustrated or like I wasted my time for having watched more than I intended because I’m always so incredibly engaged with it. Again, this goes back to the synesthesia. I don’t just admire the visuals and music, I feel them. I’m not someone you could describe as a synesthete. I don’t feel that effect often. That’s why I value Tron: Legacy so much – it can trigger a euphoric multisensory response that’s foreign to me, like a visual drug.
Not everyone’s going to feel that watching Tron: Legacy – some people will feel it for other films that I might not. I’ve read about the synesthetic reactions some people have to 300 and, while I enjoy its visuals, I’m hardly experiencing referred sensory responses from them. I recognize Tron: Legacy isn’t a great film, but it does (along with the much better Oblivion) represent something unique and special in my own personal viewing experience, something that I really can’t get from anything else.