Disney has spent many years trying to make TRON a thing. The 1982 original, starring Jeff Bridges, was a moderate success that was primarily praised for its groundbreaking visual effects, but it didn’t make anywhere near the money the studio was hoping for, particularly given Disney's major financial problems of that decade. The film was not without its die-hard fans (including Pixar’s John Lasseter, who credited TRON with inspiring him to embrace CGI in animation) and developed a cult fan-base that kept hopes of a sequel alive for decades.
That sequel eventually arrived in 2010 in the form of TRON: Legacy, with Bridges reprising his role as Kevin Flynn, and Garrett Hedlund starring as his son, who is transported into the virtual reality world of The Grid where Flynn has been kept since his disappearance. The film was heavily promoted by Disney, who churned out merchandise, theme park attractions and even a dance party to tie into the release, not to mention the major gain of having the score composed by everyone's favourite electro-robot duo, Daft Punk. A midquel animated series, TRON: Uprising, aired on Disney XD for a season afterwards, all in the hope of keeping audiences hooked.
It worked, to a certain extent. The film grossed $400m from a $170m budget, making it a moderate success but nowhere near the cultural juggernaut needed to spin it into a larger franchise. After Disney’s resurgence as a major player in Hollywood thanks to its purchases of Marvel and Star Wars, TRON began to feel like an afterthought, something that had had its time and wouldn’t need to be used again, not with the might of the Lucasfilm franchise on their side. A sequel had been greenlit in March 2015, with Hedlund set to return, but that project was quickly halted in the following May.
Now, Disney is in the early stages of development for a new TRON movie, with plans to turn it into a vehicle for Jared Leto (Suicide Squad). No writers or filmmakers are attached at this stage, and the only detail we have is that Leto could possibly be playing a character called Ares, who appeared in the cancelled TRON 3 script as a key player. It’s still early days, but Disney reviving the series makes sense in an age where all their beloved properties are receiving new life as live-action remakes.
The remake model has worked incredibly well for Disney. It’s an instant money spinner that strengthens their brand and intellectual properties for a new audience, all while cashing in on the nostalgia of those who grew up with the originals. It’s not just conventional remakes the studio’s dabbling in either; alongside the traditional model of films like Cinderella and the upcoming Beauty and the Beast are sympathetic re-imaginings of classic characters like Maleficent and the planned Cruella De Vil prequel starring Emma Stone. It’s a sturdy model that’s reaped sizeable rewards for them, and there’s no reason a TRON reboot couldn’t follow in those steps.
While TRON is a series best remembered for its sumptuous visuals (the effects in TRON: Legacy are particularly beautiful) story remains key, and it’s an element wherein both films were criticized for their shortcomings. At its heart, the central theme is a timeless one - man's battle with technology and the limits within. TRON: Legacy screenwriter Adam Horowitz stated that the film's universal theme was "finding a human connection in a digital world." Nowadays, with humanity having made immense technical advancements in the mere 7 years since the sequel's release, there's a whole new system to explore, from the prevailing influence of social media to the fear of the surveillance state to the insidious power of online espionage.
If this new TRON wants to differentiate itself from the films that came before it, it would do well to at least retain the very essence of what makes a TRON movie. If stripped of its more convoluted elements, TRON is a relatively simple story - a typical person of our world who finds himself embroiled in a strange new world. It's Alice in Wonderland with computers and more logic. For all of its sound and fury, it’s a story that can work anywhere, and be layered with more subtle and intriguing themes. Having a story built on the awe-inspiring nature of technology that’s updated to match the evolving technology of the time has a lot of power.
TRON: Legacy may not be getting the sequel many felt it deserved, but this planned reboot seems to be building from the foundations of that film, particularly in its ending. There, the character of Quorra, played by Olivia Wilde, left The Grid with Sam, hinting that others from the technological world could one day invade Earth. The thurd movie script, titled TRON: Ascension, would have used this as the catalyst for an invasion-style story. Director Joseph Kosinski described it thus to Collider:
"So we hinted at that at the end of Legacy with Quorra coming out, but the idea for Ascension was a movie that was, the first act was in the real world, the second act was in the world of TRON, or multiple worlds of TRON, and the third act was totally in the real world. And I think that really opens up, blows open the concept of TRON in a way that would be thrilling to see on screen. But there’s also a really interesting character study in Quorra and a “Stranger in a Strange Land,” trying to figure out where she belongs having lived in the real world for a few years, and where does she fit in."
This change, wherein the two worlds clash, offers fertile ground for a fascinating story unlike anything TRON has done before. In 1982, when the first film came out, such technology was an exotic rarity that most people didn’t have access to. It was also an unusual phenomenon that inspired unease and fear, particularly amidst the Cold War and increasing international tensions. By 2010, computers were in every home, often in handheld form, and the notion of communicating with someone on the other side of the world a mundane reality. Now, VR headsets are increasingly popular, the internet is a tool we use practically every day, and photo-realistic special effects in films are an expected part of the blockbuster process. Having the world of The Grid invade ours and blur the lines between the two would be a fascinating way to discuss how technology irrevocably changes us.
Telling stories about technology can be tough because they date so quickly, but there’s power to be found in exploring the major shift in human activity and communication made by technology through a fictional scope as it happens. TRON offers Disney a unique opportunity to look back at its past, and the ways it helped revitalize effects-driven storytelling, and apply it to the future for a new audience who are so used to the technical wizardry in their daily lives that it’s stopped being magical.