Tron goes fast-forward into the past

Tron influenced a generation of designers. With its sequel, Disney had the chance to invent the future once again. Unfortunately, says director Johnny Hardstaff, Tron: Legacy looks and feels almost exactly like the original, but channeled through a three year-old Audi commercial

In 1982, amidst a politicised and combative period of bombs and impending apocalypse, Disney offered audiences an escape into a new internalised world in the form of the emotionally autistic film Tron (original trailer below). In so doing, Tron captured the cold hearts and predominately introspective male minds of embryonic designers everywhere, thereby predefining the visual language of technology and modernity for a generation.

Tron’s impact on the visual code for all things ‘digital’ cannot be underestimated. Here was a global blockbusting film about technology that existed because technology had facilitated it. For perhaps the first time technology had blatantly made a film about itself, invoking an aesthetic in retrospect successfully determined as much by its own technological limitations as by the expert styling of the incredible hired talents in Moebius and Syd Mead. Tron light-cycled its way into design and the creative imaginations of millions, and in so doing forever co-opted the vector, the pixel and the grid, indelibly stamping its presence upon almost every visual manifestation of technology since.

Importantly, in a pre-internet age Tron originally captured for the first time the dream of living virtually and in so doing spawned motion graphics’ own totemic aesthetic and sense of modernity (the term as naive and dated as the film itself). The film’s legacy can be identified throughout the slew of dated ‘modern’ visions outputted during the 1990s and 2000s by a generation of early adopters, who had formatively been exposed to the film as children and who – in the creation of digital worlds – could now themselves wield pro-sumer variants of Tron’s own custom designed animation software.

Given access to this previously inconceivably powerful software, what did Tron’s pre-pubescent audience now seek to create as adult designers? Unsurprisingly they sought to recreate Tron. Within the creative output of the last 20 years, adulatory Tron references abound. The legacy, it seems, lives on.

So, when Disney returns to this film nearly 30 years later with its sequel, Tron: Legacy, one wonders just what impact the sequel will have on designers of the future? Techno­logy and the world has changed enormously, so what has happened within Tron’s parallel universe? How now does the future look?

Somewhat dispiritingly, Tron: Legacy looks and feels almost exactly like Tron, but channeled through a three year-old Audi commercial. The great crime here is that nearly 30 years later Disney has invoked almost exactly the same aesthetic. Whilst the sequel could never have ignored its predecessor’s visual legacy, one would have expected Tron: Legacy to have radically reinvented it. Not so.

If modern technology has shown anything, it has shown that it can be warm, human and relevant. Instead we are presented with a charmless bombastic anachronism. Plot was never Tron’s strength, but here we are treated to a suspect and clumsily fascist storyline that together with its visual styling, composition and soundtrack would surely solicit the approval of Leni Riefenstahl and Albert Speer. These fascist allusions are actively amplified by its score. Though marketed as one of Tron: Legacy’s strengths, not for us the original film’s inventive electronic Bach of Wendy Carlos. Instead imagine Triumph of the Will sound-tracked by an industrialised Wagnerian marching band.

Had this ‘visual prog rock’ been made over ten years ago at the birth of the then imminent 80s revival and conceived primarily as a vehicle for a Daft Punk then at the height of their powers, this would have been an infinitely more agreeable and significant experience. Instead Disney has missed the boat and through a blue-screened cinematic equivalent of ‘dad dancing’ cried out in ‘digital oompah’ to a generation too sniffy, too emotionally challenged and too busy wallowing amidst the emotional landfill of their own referential introspection to care about this film.

But it is particularly ironic, given this film’s subject matter, that the greatest missed opportunity within this cinematic experience lies in the film’s inability to harness modern technology. If there is one recent film that is best placed to harness 3D, then it is Tron: Legacy. A stylised virtual world within which anything can happen is simply screaming for deep, rich and immersive 3D. It should be a showcase, a pivotal moment for all that is genuinely fantastic about 3D. Indeed, here is a film begging to be interactive. Instead we are mostly fed shallow seemingly faux 3D and fail to transcend the digital baroque of surface and gimmickry.

Perhaps the fate of film in post-post-modern times is that it must steal back from its past (in this case not least The Matrix), but it strikes me that one of graphic design’s most exciting frontiers is its intersection with production design in film. On paper Tron: Legacy was a truly wonderful opportunity for incredible and original art direction to improve upon and sustain a never- before-seen technological aesthetic. On paper Tron: Legacy was an open goal built solidly upon a foundation of great originality. The problem, I suspect, is that in design terms it never was ‘on paper’, at least not in a contemporary Moebius or Syd Mead’s sketchbook. Where we craved the shock of the new we have instead found Tron’s legacy to be at best ‘conceptual mo-cap’, and at worst a generational vacuum.

Johnny Hardstaff is a director and designer, represented by RSA and Unit9 in the UK. See


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