Walt Disney Pictures is hoping that Friday’s release of “Tron: Legacy,” a $150-million sci-fi film about a programmer transported into a giant computer, will be the movie event of the year. The campaign has been impressive: years of sneak-preview footage, an animated series in the works, plans for action figures and other merchandise. Even the beloved monorail at Orlando’s Walt Disney World has been wrapped in a giant advertisement for the movie, an unprecedented step in the theme park’s history.
None of which would be surprising, except that “Tron: Legacy” is a sequel to a film that came out nearly 30 years ago. And that movie, 1982’s “Tron,” was a flop.
The original “Tron,” and the reasons for its failure, remain difficult to summarize. It was a technological marvel that felt oddly dated, a perfectly timed concept that somehow missed its mark. And although it was a box-office disappointment, it remains a cultural landmark with a loyal cult following. That puts Disney in the unenviable position of improving on a film that didn’t work, while honoring its original vision.
On paper, the original “Tron” looked like a hit. It spoke to a new tech-savvy generation — arguably the first — raised on video games and personal computers. Those viewers also were driving the continuing sci-fi craze launched by the first “Star Wars” films. What’s more, the makers of “Tron” were thinking ahead, leaving the crowded outer-space genre for a new, inner universe that had yet to be explored.
The script was certainly visionary, offering glimpses of hackers, cyberspace and virtual reality before such terms had even been established. The protagonist was Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a video-game programmer whose ideas were stolen by Ed Dillinger (David Warner), chief executive of the computer firm ENCOM. When Flynn breaks into the company’s Master Control Program (also voiced by Warner), he finds himself laser-beamed into the mainframe itself. Now wearing a glowing bodysuit and helmet, Flynn must compete in various arcade-style games to survive.
To make the film, Disney turned to several youngish and relatively unknown names. First-time director Steven Lisberger had created several animated shorts using computers. French comics artist Moebius contributed to the futuristic sets. The film’s now-iconic “lightcycles” — sleek motor cycles that pivot at right angles — came from designer Syd Mead (“Blade Runner,” released the same year). For the music, Disney chose transgender synthesizer wizard Wendy Carlos (born Walter), best known for scoring Stanley Kubrick’s controversial “A Clockwork Orange.”
To say Disney had high expectations is an understatement. “‘Tron’ is going to be our ‘Star Wars,’” a studio marketing executive bragged in 1981. Disney publicized the film aggressively, shipping “Tron” video games to arcades ahead of the release. But even before “Tron” hit theaters on July 9, 1982, Disney’s stock began plummeting based on poor reviews from financial analysts who’d seen it early. “Tron” earned a disappointing $4.7 million and landed at No. 2 over its opening weekend. The No. 1 film? “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” which had opened the previous week but still raked in $12.8 million.
What went wrong? Defenders of “Tron” would say the film was ahead of its time. The virtual sets, then a new concept, were limited mostly to black backgrounds and simple polygons. Though labor-intensive and advanced for their day, the visuals didn’t impress viewers. Ironically, the special effects were deemed ineligible for an Oscar because they relied too heavily on computers.
Another problem was the script, which critics found short on substance. The dialogue struck an uneasy balance between high-tech jargon and old-school corn: “They haven’t built a circuit that can hold you!” And the characters could be confusing: Was Tron the film’s hero, or Flynn?
Worse, the movie didn’t excite its target audience. The film’s old-fashioned gaming scenes (glowing Frisbees) and lack of sex appeal (Cindy Morgan was the main cast’s only female) didn’t help. And Carlos’ buzzy, tinny music sounded quaint compared to the advanced synth-pop that was dominating the radio waves. More important, the movie’s overall conceit — programs that look and talk like their human creators — might have been too whimsical for literal-minded computer types. “Tron” seemed closer to children’s literature, like “The Wizard of Oz,” than to modern science fiction.
Nevertheless, Disney still thinks many of its ideas were solid. For “Tron: Legacy,” the studio has again assembled a youngish crew, including first-time director Joseph Kosinski, a maker of commercials for video games, and two screenwriters from ABC’s “Lost.” And this time the score comes from the fashionable French DJ duo Daft Punk.
But Disney also has learned some lessons. “Tron: Legacy” looks fuller and more three-dimensional, boasting textured surfaces instead of flat planes. The story no longer relies on now-familiar notions of computers and programs but on themes of virtual reality and the free flow of information. And there’s sex appeal aplenty, with Olivia Wilde as a punkish-haired rebel and Beau Garrett as a curvaceous cyber-supermodel named Gem. Bridges reprises his role (hence the “Legacy”) but leaves the athletics to Garrett Hedlund, the young actor who plays his son, Sam.
Already, trailers for “Tron: Legacy” highlight one small but important change: The new lightcycles can move in fluid arcs, not just at 90-degree angles. But Disney will have to execute more maneuvers than that to make its new film a winner.