The future of the Tron franchise looks worry, but Helen O’Horan finds a saving grace in its soundtrack
Joe Kosinski – to quote the famous catchphrase from Tron: just who does he calculate he is? Best-known for his work on perhaps the only memorable video game adverts of the past few years (Gears of War, Halo 3), that Kosinski was chosen to direct the sequel to a cult film massively overshadowed by its arcade game spin-offs seems oddly fitting.
Many forget the 1982 film Tron, which inspired a line of games, despite its distinct place in cinema history. The story follows Kevin Flynn, a programmer determined to reclaim the credit for his work on several successful video games previously stolen by ex-colleague Ed Dillinger. Whilst rifling through his files, Flynn is sucked into a computer system by MCP, the ‘Master Control Program’ intent on taking over the human world. What begins as a matter of personal honour turns into a pre-emptive fight against the swelling dominance of circuit-board minds. The film offers a still-poignant comment on our anxious relationship with technology: “Computers and programs will start thinking,” prophesies one cynical character, “and the people will stop.”
Yet what remains most inspired about Tron is its visual style. Although lauded for its then-impressive computer-generated graphics, the franchise is defined by its starkly contrasting colour scheme used to portray the innards of a binary world. Notably, this was something achieved mostly by analogue methods. Filmed in greyscale on high-contrast reels, the iconic fluorescent strips on characters’ suits were coloured by hand. When combined with the varying age and quality of film used, this led to the flickering disguised as ‘MCP glitches’ throughout the feature. Quirks of this kind, rendered unnecessary in today’s high-tech productions, are what lends Tron its enduring charm.
And so, under the direction of Kosinski, Disney is set to deliver its next incarnation to another generation this December through a direct sequel: Tron: Legacy. The plot of this production reads nigh-on identical to its predecessor; a mere stage for what the franchise has to offer visually. Admirably, Disney have made little attempt to sell Legacy as anything beyond this. The official footage currently on general release is graphically pristine, sharp – a sleek reworking of a vision almost three decades old.
Still, however charming the new cyan-tainted Disney logo may be, the original Tron’s visual production carried with it something unavoidably lost on Legacy. Revivals of such cult classics will trail a degree of self-awareness about their productions’ significance, and to treat this tastefully is a feat attained by a scarce few.
Sadly Legacy does not look set to become one of these. Above Tron’s plot, writing and acting the graphic production remains the film’s key feature – but those graphics were indisputably products of their time. In modern reproduction the unending abysses of solid black, mustered by low-memory computers of the 1980s, appear less spooky than simply affected, with no purpose beyond pandering to what many consider to be the original’s defining trait. Watching Legacy’s trailer, there is something dispiriting about the flawless CGI and honed camerawork, and yet that it offers nothing new to a 21st century audience.
But before dismissing Legacy as a flashy, unwelcome revival of a dated franchise, the production’s soundscape is worth a mention. The film’s score fell into the hands of French electro musicians Daft Punk even before visual production began. Aside from a few live recordings, the soundtrack will be the duo’s first major project since 2005’s Human After All, their most recent studio album, which revealed a darker side to an act best-known for the more upbeat Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger of 2001. At the time, both members cited “fear and paranoia” as the emotions they intended to evoke with their musical direction – a precursor, perhaps, to their work accompanying the ghostly world of Tron. In fact, the duo have cited the franchise as an influence on their act, which is more than apparent in their neon-laced live performances.
The group’s involvement with Legacy actually appears to have gained more interest than the rest of the production, with numerous mash-ups of existing Daft Punk material being flaunted around the internet as “exclusive leaks”. The release’s homepage now offers legitimate samples of the score, and for those less fond of braving sickly, flash-heavy designs typical of such official websites, a neat collection is also available on Soundcloud.
The verdict? An atmospheric blend of dark electronica, Daft Punk’s efforts manage to convey that eerie something-missing feeling achieved by Tron’s sparse visual universe, whilst being held up as a substantial score by orchestral scaffolds. As Kosinski himself described it, it often blurs the border between sound engineering and soundtracking itself, with effects from the film’s action being integrated seamlessly into its accompanying music. It seems that, just as the first film was defined by its unique graphical style, the sequel could be saved from ignominy by a groundbreaking soundtrack.
Arguably Disney has neglected to broadcast this potential, rather focusing on plugging the theatre-bound ‘3D’ and ‘IMAX’ gimmicks that seemingly guarantee box office sales for current releases. Yet Tron: Legacy is a project that has, perhaps unwittingly, acted as a medium for what could be one of this year’s most inspired film scores. And with Daft Punk’s efforts to be released on record in early December, experiencing this thankfully won’t involve having to don a pair of ridiculous glasses.
by Helen O’Horan