Sunday, June 30, 2013

Tron Before & After (analysis)

Whoever made this image, you are my hero

In preparation for writing this article I began what was supposed to be minor research into the available extradiegetic material on 2010's Tron: Legacy (DVD features, actor commentaries, etc.). There was a lot more available than I expected, and as my willingness to dig through the mud to find the gold (of which some certainly exists) waned I realized something: I'm not a Tron universe fanboy, I just really like the Tron movies. While I'm not willing to slog through the (admittedly short) posts at for example, I will endlessly rewatch the movies themselves looking for new details.

So why are we here today? Because I'm hoping that it will be as fun for you to read about all the similarities, differences, references, and homages I caught between these two films as it was for me to catch them.

For the uninitiated, both of the Tron movies operate on the premise of being able to transport humans into and out of a computer, but each one develops a different set of themes. 1982's Tron has at its heart a sort of Hackers (with the camp engine firing on all cylinders) meets Gladiator (with slightly less revenge and more camaraderie) setup and progression. The young, upstart Maximus/Dade analog finds its embodiment in Jeff Bridges playing the character Kevin Flynn who's ostracized by The Man and forced to fight back. The antagonist Commodus/The Plague is split into three characters: the Master Control Program (MCP), who is (duh) the master who controls the program; Ed Dillinger, who serves the MCP in the real world as CEO of Encom; and Sark, who serves the MCP in the computer world.

Flynn is fired from Dillinger's company and the fight for justice beings. In an attempt to expose Dillinger, Flynn infiltrates Encom with former coworkers Alan and Lora and is transported onto the Game Grid by the MCP. Inside the Game Grid, users (like Flynn) and programs (either autonomous or controlled by external users) are forced to participate in gladiator-like matches. Flynn meets a program named Ram as well as Alan's program Tron and Lora's program Yori and together they attempt to take on the MCP.

You better believe this is what the movie looks like.

Tron: Legacy exchanges the campy delivery of Hackers for the sleek design The Matrix and trades the vengeance of Gladiator for the emotional tensions of Miracle. Sam Flynn, as the stand-in for Neo, is given a path toward self discovery reminiscent of Mr. Anderson's but with significantly more daddy issues. Said father—Kevin Flynn, again played by Jeff Bridges—works as an Herb Brooks/Kurt Russell type paternal authority but with pothead Buddhist overtones somewhat in the vein of his role in The Big Lebowski (He's also got a bit of a Jedi thing going for him). The Mr. Smith adversary is named Clu and is (I love this part) created by Kevin Flynn and also played by Jeff Bridges. The enemy comes from within and stuff. 

Anyway, a similar scenario to the original ensues: Sam is transported into the computer world, this time called simply the Grid and this time out of curiosity rather than by force. Sam/Neo meets Quorra, the would-be Trinity in this scenario, who leads him to where his father has been hiding out and like reading Dostoevsky and meditating and stuff. Sam convinces him to actually confront the evil Clu so that Sam can return to the real world and become a proper capitalist (or perhaps an improper capitalist since the film has some anti-corporate, pro-worker tones—I'll get into that later).

The story in Legacy pulls a pretty unique move by aging its universe by the same amount of time that passed between its release and the release of the original Tron in 1982 (this arguably happens between John Carpenter's Escape from New York and Escape from LA but the chronology is less detailed and both movies happen in their respective futures). There's a short sequence early in Legacy that both recaps the plot of the original as well as filling in a bit of what has happen in the time between the two. This interstitial time is also filled in by a short film called Tron: The Next Day included on the Legacy Blu-ray. This strict continuity not only offers fodder for feeding fans but also simply creates a rich world for the audience to experience.

This world of Tron is held up by a foundation of countless details, some of which are nearly insignificant and represent little more than the two films high-fiving, others of which are much more essential. I indiscriminately wrote them all down over my many viewings and have them here, obsessively cataloged and cross-referenced for your (my) enjoyment. I have these divided up into a few sections: first are my personal favorites, then there are themes, scenes, characters, programs, and quotations that are duplicated or referenced. This is basically a massive spoiler dump, so consider yourself warned.

Screening Notes Top 5 References

[Scene Reference] My all-time, number one favorite change from the original to the sequel involves some very silly analysis on my part, so please bear with me and understand that I know I'm an idiotic Freudian. I promise the rest of these details are much more normal. In the original Tron, Flynn, Tron, and Ram escape the light cycle grid through a vertical gap in the grid wall caused by an enemy light cycle crash. In Legacy, this scene is recreated with the slight difference that Quorra illegally enters the grid with her light runner and creates the hole with missiles. In this way, the feminine jouissance (created out of nowhere in the original) which breaks down the mastery of the grid is embodied in Quorra, making her (for me) one of the greatest characters in Legacy. This also makes me very frustrated when she calls herself a "rescue", an overt reference to Sam's dog Marv. Quorra is not a dog. She is a badass female warrior.

[Character Reference] Number two on my list of favorite stuff is related to the character Rinzler, a program who doesn't appear in the original Tron and is Clu's right-hand man in Legacy. Secretly Rinzler is actually Alan Bradley's Tron program, and the second scene where we are given a hint to this fact is just fantastic (The first hint is when Rinzler refuses to kill Sam because he's a user). In flashback, Clu stages a coup against Kevin Flynn and Tron defends him, acquiring a second identity disc from one of the rogue programs (Rinzler was the only character to this point to wield two; also stance comparison). Of course we learn for certain that Rinzler was Tron all along by the end of the movie, but this is more than just another hint towards this conclusion. When Tron acquires the second disc he briefly contemplates the two, which is the most explicit acknowledgement in either film of my next favorite detail, blue light = good, red light = bad.

Left to right: Clu, Tron/Rinzler, Sam Flynn

[Thematic Reference] In the original Tron movie, the good guys wear blue lit suits and the bad guys wear red lit suits and this duality remains in the sequel with some slight exceptions (it turns out Gem and Zuse are pretty evil, but they're both sort of undercover so it makes sense; Clu also has a slightly different hue than the rest of the baddies, but this also makes sense because he sort of needs to stand out and was yellow in the original). There are some cool things missing in the sequel that the original did, like Flynn spying on the enemy by changing the color of his suit to red, but the point is there (blue lights indicate good, red lights indicate evil). Where this gets really interesting is my girlfriend's theory that in Legacy anything with blue lights was created by/aligned with Flynn whereas stuff with red lights was created by/aligned with Clu. This stands up pretty well to close inspection with one significant detail I'll discuss below (the tank).

[Program Reference] So, easily the funniest scene in the original Tron is when Flynn tries and fails to pilot a recognizer with his very little friend Bit. As Flynn struggles with the machine's controls, Bit desperately tries to give him advice, but being limited to only "yes" or "no" leads to some frustration on his part (shouting "No no no no no!" in his monotone as they crash is just great). This sort of comedy would be a bit out of place in the darker Tron: Legacy, and so the character is excluded for the most part. However, when Clu searches Kevin Flynn's apartment Bit does make a minor appearance in the form of two different colored sculptures that Clu finds on Flynn's mantle. Just be glad you made it at all little buddy.

[Program/Line Reference] Picking up the tail end of my favorites is a sort of direct response from Legacy to a line from Kevin Flynn in the original. In 1982's Tron, Flynn speeds past a vast amount of enemy tanks on his light cycle and says, "I shouldn't have written all of those tank programs." Then the first few times I watched Legacy I noticed a curious absence of tanks on the Grid and thought to myself, well that makes sense since he regretting making so many for the original Game Grid. It turns out I was mistaken and there is in fact one tank in Tron: Legacy which appears as Sam is driving the "antique" light cycle into town (pictured below). I don't feel so bad for missing this the first few times though because the tank is red, and if we stick with the logic that red-lit stuff was created by Clu then Flynn still didn't create any tanks for the new Grid. So there.

Makes the grid feel a bit like a police state.

Thematic References

The biggest and most overarching of these just barely missed making my top 5 because in both movies it's somewhat fuzzy, but it basically amounts to big-business bourgeoisie bad, little-guy proletarian worker good. The basic conflict of the original Tron arises because Dillinger, the Encom CEO, stole several of Flynn's original games and Flynn wants to get them back. Programmers Flynn and Alan (by proxy) journey into the Game Grid and destroy the MCP which gives them access to evidence that Dillinger stole Flynn's work. Dillinger is deposed and all is well once more. But instead of restructuring Encom they simply make Flynn CEO, which doesn't cause immediate problems since Flynn is a benevolent dictator or something, but when Flynn creates Clu in Legacy the one-man leader model becomes problematic once again.

Tron: Legacy picks up this theme right away, but the conflict itself occurs elsewhere. Encom is being overrun with greedy capitalists, and what was once freeware is being sold with insignificant updates. Sam Flynn is the rightful heir to the company, but like any troubled, fatherless youth he's not ready to take the reins just yet, and the conflict instead takes place in the Grid against Flynn's creation Clu. This fight against the enemy within takes the theme one step deeper: the problem isn't other, the bad CEO, and the solution is to install a "good" CEO. The problem is that even with a "good" CEO in control problems still arise.

This would be a good place for the movie to end, but for better or worse it keeps going. Sam returns to reality and seems ready to assume his position as CEO of Encom. While this remains true to the original (we have a new benevolent dictator to rule Encom), I don't think it's the best position for the film to take. That said, the movie ends before anything really happens, and when it really comes down to it both movies are essentially sci-fi popcorn nonsense, so their position with regards to economic politics doesn't really matter so long as they're pretty and entertaining. In any case I still love them both.

That's a nice, big, uh... big desk. Yeah.

(The rest of these are going to be much shorter, I promise)

Scene References

Perhaps the most famous shot, the tower of light, is repeated in both movies. In the original, Tron enters it to communicate with his user Alan Bradley. In Legacy, Sam and Quorra enter it to exit the Grid. Both respective bad guys, Sark and Clu, desire to control each tower of light, but for different reasons.

On the opposite end of things, the upload to the Grid/Game Grid is repeated. I don't know if I stand alone on this one, but I actually prefer the original animation to the Legacy redux. Couldn't say why. Speaking of the characters' entrances onto their respective Grids, Kevin Flynn arrives in full costume and Sam has to be stripped down and redressed by four "sirens". Sci-fi ridiculousness at its purest. Thanks, Joe.

In the original, Flynn (temporarily) heals Ram; in Legacy Flynn regenerates Quorra's arm. In a similar vein, the sort of "User powers" seem much more useful in the original: Flynn absorbs a guard to go undercover, redirects the solar sailer program, etc., whereas the only other power he seems to have in Legacy is to absorb Clu in the film's climactic scene. Sam Flynn also doesn't seem to have any special powers. Who knows, maybe he'll get some in Tron 3 (Oh yeah, I forgot to mention there's going to be a Tron 3. Minor speculation continues below).

The floor removal in Sam Flynn's disc battles (where this shot ends up) has a precedent in the original Tron, but interestingly enough not in the disc battles of that film. Pieces of the floor are progressively removed in this game (an apparent variant of jai alai but called simply the Ring Game on the Tron wiki).

In the original Tron, we're treated to a few off-Grid light cycle sequences. While we're denied this in Legacy (for silly reasons: sure, maybe their light cycles can't go off-Grid, but are you telling me he really doesn't have a light jet on him?) we do get Quorra's cool light runner as well as the aerial battles.

Flynn's Arcade makes an appearance in both movies, although it's slightly more populated in the original than when Sam finds it in the sequel. On the topic of the arcade, Flynn plays a haldheld Coleco in the original that finds its way to young Sam's top shelf in the sequel (next to the toy light cycle).

Left: Kevin Flynn & Yori; Right: Quorra & Sam Flynn

Character References

Kevin Flynn, Alan Bradley, Tron, and Clu are all in both and are all played by the same actors (except that when Tron works for Clu as Rinzler he's played by bodacious professional stuntman Anis Cheurfa). I find it somewhat entertaining that while Clu lived for 8 minutes in the original (and was a good guy) he becomes the central antagonist in Legacy. Sark and the MCP from the original are obviously missing in the sequel but are effectively condensed into Clu.

Dillinger—the evil Encom CEO from the original—is missing in Legacy, but is ominously replaced by the uncredited appearance of Cillian Murphy as Dillinger Jr. Tron 3 antagonist, anyone?

In another case of missing but replaced characters there's Lora, Alan's girlfriend and Flynn's ex, and her program Yori who are seemingly replaced by Quorra. She doesn't get much time in the real world, but that's what the sequel's for.

The most complicated character port (and maybe I'm fudging the numbers a little bit here) is moving the character tensions from Ram onto Sam. Sam is a much more developed character obviously, but he seems to fit since Ram looked up to Flynn as a sort of father figure and Flynn felt the desire to protect him. And their names are almost the same.

The final main character from the original Tron, Dr. Walter Gibbs and his program Dumont, only get a nod of the head in the form of Dumont Shipping.

Original light cycles on left, Legacy on right

Program References

Light cycles are featured in both movies (difference pictured above), although they have a larger role in the original partially because the Legacy cycles can't go off-Grid and partially because there are so many more cool looking light vehicles for the Legacy filmmakers to play with. Legacy also gives the audience an "antique" light cycle which looks really cool but isn't put to much use unfortunately.

As mentioned above in my analysis of Bit, the recognizers are given a huge graphical facelift. Here's the side-by-side comparison again in case you missed it.

The solar sailer program is used as an escape vehicle both in the original and in Legacy, although in the sequel it also serves the function of bringing Clu more programs to be repurposed for his invasion army.

In Legacy this army of Clu's is housed in a carrier ship that quite closely resembles a sword. In the original Tron, this ship is Sark's command vessel.

One of the sirens giving Sam his identity disc.

Quotation References

"You will receive an identity disc. Everything you do or learn will be imprinted on this disc. If you lose your disc or fail to follow commands you will be subject to immediate de-resolution." First said by Sark in the original to the new programs (and Flynn), it's repeated by a computer voice in Legacy to Sam with the minor difference that because Sark is addressing a crowd he says "You will each receive an identity disc."

"End of line." This is the MCP's catchphrase which, as the movie progressed, acquired a strong sense of foreboding. In Legacy, Castor/Zuse's bar is named End of Line Club, which is both an awesome callback and a hint that Zuse is more than he appears to be. Clu also tells Zuse "End of line" when he exits the club with Flynn's identity disc. Goodbye Zuse.

"Tron fights for the users." Repeated at various points in the original, this catchphrase of Tron makes it into the sequel once at the very beginning (by young Sam) and once at the very end (by Tron), with a brief hint in between in the form of Rinzler refusing to kill Sam.

"That's a big door." No, I'm not kidding. Flynn says this in the original when he, Alan, and Lora break into Encom, and Sam says it when he breaks in in the sequel.

Garrett Hedlund (Sam Flynn), Steven Lisberger (director of Tron),
Jeff Bridges (Kevin Flynn, Clu), and
Joseph Kosinski (director of Tron: Legacy)

Well, that's about it for me. There are some things I wanted to talk about but didn't know how to fit in, like the unbelievable Tron: Legacy soundtrack from Daft Punk (who also make an appearance in the movie), but for now I'll just leave you with this great original Tron gif.

(Oh also Tron Lightyear by deviantart user IamClu)
(And MCP = Moses from South Park okay I'm done I promise)


  1. This is quite a geek-out article. When I reviewed both movies, I gave Tron a 6 and Tron Legacy a 9. Haven't revisited them in awhile, but I did notice the Christian analogy with Legacy. I recently read the Legacy novelisation though - it's a kids book and I hated it. I might watch Legacy again to understand some of the references you brought up here. Thanks!

    1. Hey Dan thanks for reading! As you can tell I like the Tron movies a little bit too much hehe... The Tron universe is a bit tricky because to some extent they're marketing towards younger kids (which is probably why the novelization wasn't that great), but I think there's something for everyone. The original obviously isn't for everyone although I like it a lot. Legacy improves on multiple viewings I think especially if you've got high quality visuals & sound (I have these really nice headphones that I love to listen to it on). Anyway yeah glad you liked the article!