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‘Tron: Legacy’ Has a Cult Following for a Reason

The infamous 2010 sequel can be watched (and enjoyed) both ironically and unironically

Disney/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tron: Legacy—the long-awaited sequel to Tron (1982) that flopped when it was released in 2010—is both ironically and unironically great, as are all movies that eventually build cult followings. Come for the special effects and stay for a meditation on the relationships between fathers and sons, God and man, and movies and sequels.

Part of the movie’s genius is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Jeff Bridges reprises and reinvents his character, turning Kevin Flynn from a headstrong and ambitious hacker into a wise old sage who “knocks on the sky and listens to the sound” and warns his son about “messing with my Zen thing.” He’s part Steve Jobs, part The Dude from The Big Lebowski. Michael Sheen leans into the bit even further in a scenery-chewing role as a shadowy nightclub owner who channels David Bowie. Daft Punk, which penned the soundtrack, has a cameo as the house DJs. Because why not?

The Tron Cinematic Universe isn’t really supposed to make sense. The premise is that computer programs are sentient beings and microchips are cities. Their virtual world (known as the Grid) is connected to our world by a laser that digitizes people and a portal that converts them back. Don’t ask too many questions about how it all works. It’s just a vehicle to stick characters into video games à la Jumanji and show off the latest and greatest in computer technology.

The Tron movies are best remembered for their effects. Tron looks dated now, but it was a pioneer in its time. John Lasseter, the cofounder of Pixar, has said that Toy Story wouldn’t exist without it. Not everything in Tron: Legacy holds up a decade later, either, particularly a CGI version of a young Bridges that looks like someone took acid en route to the uncanny valley. But some of the set pieces (electronic gladiators flinging laser discs at each other in a virtual coliseum and racing holographic motorcycles on ribbons of light) are still jaw-dropping spectacles.

Both movies have the same basic plot structure. The main character is trapped inside the Grid by a renegade program on a power trip of cosmic proportions. But this isn’t The Force Awakens. The sequel isn’t just using new technology to tell the same story all over again. It reexamines the basic assumptions of the original and changes how you look at it. A streak of Christian theology runs through Tron. Programs are created in the image of their users, but a seemingly impenetrable barrier exists between them. The programs aren’t even sure if the users are real. When an evil program takes control of the Grid, it purges the “religious fanatics” who believe in them. Then one day a user (Flynn) becomes a program, lives among them, and ultimately sacrifices himself to restore the relationship between the two.

But the similarities go only so far. Flynn isn’t computer Jesus. He doesn’t care about the programs, or their world. He’s a programmer who was fired after a rival stole his code, took credit for games he created, then used their success to take control of the company. The only reason that Flynn finds out about the Grid is that he’s looking for proof of what transpired. He doesn’t learn any lesson at the end of Tron. He just gets the money that was coming to him.

So what would happen if Flynn created his own version of the Grid? Or, in other words, what happens when man tries to become God? That’s the question Tron: Legacy tries to answer.

We learn through a flashback that Flynn created a digital version of himself called Clu in the time between the two movies. He tells the clone they will build the perfect system, a digital frontier to reshape the human condition. But Clu is a mirror image of Flynn’s narcissism, hubris, and pride. He eventually turns on his creator in a coup that blocks Flynn’s access to the portal and keeps him stuck on the Grid for more than 15 years.

Flynn’s son Sam is caught in the middle. He’s 12 years old when his dad disappears off the face of the Earth. The last time we see young Sam he’s biking away from his grandparents’ house in tears. In the next scene, he’s a 27-year-old (played by Garrett Hedlund) swerving through traffic on a motorcycle, a college dropout burning through his trust fund. He inherited control of his father’s multi-billion dollar software company, but has never gotten over his father’s unexplained absence. Then he gets a message that leads him to the Grid—and his dad.

Sam needs his dad’s help to get back to the real world, but there’s a deeper emotional truth at work. He cannot move on with his life until he reconciles with his father. Tron: Legacy’s plot is essentially a vessel for Sam to make that realization.

A lot of the criticism of the movie stems from Hedlund’s performance. He doesn’t have much chemistry with his love interest, an isometric algorithm (don’t ask) named Quorra with quasi-mystical origins played by Olivia Wilde, and struggles to hold his own in scenes with actors like Bridges and Sheen, who can stay in character while winking at the audience. But his arc still rings true—at least to me. I lost my dad around the same age as Sam does in the movie. He had Parkinson’s disease for most of my life. By the time I was 12, it had taken over his body and most of his mind. He spent the next decade in and out of hospitals, only vaguely aware of the world around him. It wasn’t my dad’s fault that he couldn’t be in my life, just like it wasn’t Flynn’s fault that he couldn’t be in Sam’s. But the bottom-line effect is the same.

A father’s absence makes you question your value as a human being. You think you don’t matter. The result is a lot of self-destructive behavior, and looking for a father figure to rescue you while also pushing those same people away because you are afraid they will abandon you. The movie opens with Sam stealing software from his dad’s company and releasing it for free on the internet, part of an annual tradition in which he pranks the company that he owns. As Flynn’s old business partner tells him, “you have an interesting way of showing your disinterest.”

Sam overcomes what Christians call his “father wound” during the movie. He learns that his father loves him and didn’t abandon him. When Sam makes a mistake by rushing into a trap set by Clu, Flynn risks everything to save him. Sam then proves his worth to his father by helping him get to the portal. But things change once they get there, with Flynn sacrificing himself to give Sam enough time to escape. Sam wants to go back for his dad before realizing it’s too late.

The point is that Sam needs to let go of his past rather than carrying the burden with him. He returns to the real world a changed man, ready to handle the responsibility of adulthood. It’s as if he crammed a lifetime’s worth of therapy into a two-hour movie.

He’s not the only one who is changed. Flynn sees the folly of putting work over family. As he tells Clu in the climax, he never needed to chase perfection online. It was right in front of him the whole time. When Flynn created Clu a lifetime ago, he created a personification of Flynn’s worst character flaws.

Rewatching Tron plays differently in light of what happens in Tron: Legacy. Sam doesn’t appear in the original movie, even though he would have been a small child by that point in the timeline. When the movie begins, Flynn is living in the apartment above his arcade and spending his time impressing his teenage customers by racking up high scores. He doesn’t seem to be interested in anyone besides himself. Of course, this is because the character of Sam didn’t exist when Tron was written. Retconning him into it adds a new layer to Flynn’s character.

You can read the relationship between Flynn and Sam as a commentary on the one between Tron and its sequel. Like Sam, Tron: Legacy had to make its own name in the shadow of a legend. The fans of the original didn’t want the same movie again, but they didn’t want it to change too much, either. It’s an impossible standard that few sequels can live up to, for the same reason most sons of successful fathers struggle to create their own identity.

Disney wanted Tron: Legacy to reboot the franchise and produce sequels of its own. But that was probably never in the cards. Tron was a modestly successful piece of 30-year-old intellectual property. Expecting its sequel to make a billion dollars was setting it up for failure. The creators of Tron: Legacy just focused on making an interesting movie that honored its predecessor without worrying about expectations. Maybe that’s why some of us are still talking about it a decade later.